“Bossy” Is for Girls, “Hero” Is for Boys: Why Gendered Language Matters

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“I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.” Maybe it’s because those words came out of Beyoncé’s mouth (and Jane Lynch’s, and Diane von Furstenberg’s), but Lean In’s minute-long “Ban Bossy” video grabbed my interest, whereas the organization’s previous efforts just raised my eyebrows. The campaign, co-sponsored with the Girl Scouts, is far from perfect, and it’s already attracted its fair share of flak. But it calls attention to an issue that’s gotten far less air time in high-profile feminist rhetoric than the gender breakdown of the Fortune 500: the way words can subtly shape our conceptions of what is and isn’t appropriate for girls.

When columnist Ann Friedman wrote for The Cut that “Bossy has never made me flinch the way overt slurs like c*** and bitch do,” she means that “bossy” isn’t exactly a threat to girls’ safety and security the way those other words are. Instead, she suggests, it’s a term more ripe for appropriation, á la Kelis or Tina Fey, than an all-out attack. But while robbing “bossy” of its bulldozing-bitch connotations is a great long-term strategy, in the short term, people outside of feminist circles like Friedman’s often aren’t fully aware of those connotations in the first place. When I had “bossy” lobbed at me during a grade-school group project, I certainly wasn’t thinking of its impact on how comfortable I’d feel with asserting myself in the future. Neither are most kids (and adults) who drop the term casually to describe their peers.

So while Friedman and other commentators have a point that banning a word is a tactic better suited to hyper-conservative Moral Majority types than forward-thinking feminists, I’d argue the takeaway from the Lean In campaign is more subtle. Though it’s understandable that Sandberg went with “Ban Bossy” over “Think About What You Mean When You Call Girls Bossy, and Girls, Think About the Way the Fear of Being Called Bossy Might Prevent You From Feeling Confident Assuming Authority in the Same Way Boys Do.” It’s a bit catchier.

Coincidentally, the release of the “Ban Bossy” video comes right alongside a perfect example of the way gendered terms that exclude girls can be just as harmful as terms that apply only to girls. This week, an online petition targeted at the MTV Movie Awards asks for the addition of The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen to the list of nominees for “Best Hero.” The other contenders are — you guessed it — all (fictional) dudes, ranging from Superman to Bilbo Baggins. The petition’s racked up an impressive 17,000 signatures thus far, with almost a month to go before the Awards.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Katniss snub isn’t the result of an individual’s error of judgement. It’s a collective failure by the group of industry voters who decide on the nominations. Just like the association of “bossy” with a woman overstepping her bounds is widespread and unquestioned, so is the association of “hero” with a masculine ideal that leaves women and girls out by default. Which means the universalized image of who everyone, boys and girls alike, is supposed to root for and identify with becomes automatically male. And as the petition’s author, Sophie Azran, told THR, that exclusion shapes the way movie-going girls perceive themselves: “I love movies with strong female leads. I think it’s important for girls to see that, because sometimes it can be hard to see all of these guys always being the hero.”

It’s no one person’s fault that the word “hero” automatically conjures up visions of brawny bros wearing skintight Spandex. Ditto to the equation of “bossy” with some Sandra-Bullock-at-the-begging-of-The-Proposal type used to cow girls into submission for fear of being like that. The nature of cultural problems, however, is that as long as they go unquestioned, they keep manifesting themselves as stereotypes of man-as-protagonist and girl-as-subordinate.

That’s why awareness campaigns like “Ban Bossy” are well suited to the task of taking on gendered language. Lean In’s last major initiative suffered from a mismatch between the task it set out for itself (achieving gender parity in the workplace) and the means it set up to get there (collecting pictures of gender parity in action, mostly of white, thin, able-bodied women). Since most people who don’t make an occupation of doing so spend time thinking about why “bossy” might be much more than an adjective, though, a one-minute clip from a campaign with a massive public platform gets the consciousness-raising job done. Ditto for a petition.

The fact that girls get called “bossy” is hardly the most pressing item on the feminist agenda. Neither is making sure a YA character — who is not, after all, an actual person — is called a “hero.” But calling attention to the way language teaches kids that girls taking control get their own special (and stigmatized) designation is an important task, if a small one. So is celebrating one of the few female action leads today’s moviegoers, including girls, have seen by using the superlative she deserves.

Sophie Azran is hardly the next great feminist activist; Sheryl Sandberg certainly isn’t, whatever Lean In’s claims to the contrary. (The Girl Scouts, on the other hand, deserve a shoutout for the consistently great work they do. As a former Girl Scout myself, I’m not at all biased.) Still, let’s give credit where it’s due.