Thursday, 13 March 2014

I'm on the #BanBossy bandwagon

For those who don't know what this whole "Ban Bossy" thing is, in a nutshell:

Ban Bossy is a campaign.  Its aim, according to its website, is to encourage girls to lead - without calling them "bossy."  It was launched by, a nonprofit founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to "empower all women to achieve their ambitions."  Sandberg is building on her book's message with partners like the Girl Scouts and Beyoncé to, well, #BanBossy.

"I'm not bossy.  I'm the boss."


Now that we're all caught up, I want to be clear:  I LIKE this campaign.

True, no campaign is perfect.  No campaign reaches all the right people in all the right ways.  True, there are things to be said about the appropriateness of any role model/spokesperson (including Beyoncé, whose recent Grammy performance was incredibly impressive but also very sexual).

However, this is a message that makes sense.  It's a message about empowering women and girls, about strengthening our confidence and our leadership skills, and about making it ok for us to be assertive and successful.  At its core, this is a good message, and I'm on board.

Unfortunately, (and this is where I jump up on the #BanBossy bandwagon like a squirrel on peanut butter; or like me on peanut butter), there are those making arguments against this campaign that in my opinion are fundamentally flawed.

Primarily, there's an editorial by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail entitled "Ban 'bossy'? Suck it up, girls".  I've also had some thoughtful exchanges with friends and other twitterers on the subject.  None of these opinions are wrong - I just have a sincere and significant opposition to them.

Critique #1: The word "bossy" isn't a problem.

Wente writes that the word bossy destroys a girl's "fragile self-esteem."  Only, she writes it sarcastically, as if it is the stupidest thing she's ever heard.  Well newsflash Margaret: any term that insults a child's personality shouldn't be uttered in his or her direction.  And yes, SELF-ESTEEM IS FRAGILE.

Yes, Margaret, we could also ban the term tattletale.  Perhaps also B*tch, Sl*t, Wh*re, N*igger, Pr*ck, R*tard, Fagg*t, and P*ssy while we're at it.  Those other words, though, are known "curse" words and have their own debate raging about context and reclamation (see below).

Words like bossy (or even tattletale, although it's fair to say that is not a uniquely male or female word) slip into the vernacular and contribute to a broader socialization of our children. Even if more girls are entering law and medical schools, as Wente points out, does that excuse discouraging girls from the get-go?  I should hope not.

These are not just words, they mean something.  A campaign that raises awareness, encourages critical thinking, and challenges the social construction is not the wrong approach.

Critique #2: Teach girls to live with the word and "overcome adversity"

Wente writes that being called bossy didn't get in Beyoncé's way, so isn't that what we should be teaching our girls? To soldier on, "overcome adversity and suck it up."

I tell you what, Margaret.  When your peers are hurling insults at you, you can suck it up.  You can overcome adversity and be better... 20 years later.  I, on the other hand, when insulted as a child would have judged myself and tried to be more likable.  Even as an adult I'm among those who work damn hard not to judge themselves but often take it personally when other people do.

For my daughter, I will under no circumstances tell her to suck it up.  I will tell her lots of things, but to ignore her feelings or dismiss the power of words? I don't intend to do that. Likewise, as Margaret seems to argue, I won't ban bossy as an idea. Fraggle will be strong and assertive, I've no doubt.  But the term as an insult?  Banned.  It's a good place to start.

There is no harm in being aware of the words we use and the social idea beyond their dictionary definition.  Words are symbols - like the American Flag or the middle finger - each having an implied/emotional meaning in the background.

Critique #3: Reclaim the word

This argument is an interesting one, made by a friend this morning.  I adore this friend and her perspective, but...

A couple months ago I said something stupid like "I'm a candy sl*t."  I didn't mean anything by it, except to be funny.  I do eat whatever candy crosses my path, I don't discriminate, and it can't be good for me... but what about the word?  My initial reaction was "It's all context!" or "I don't mean it like that!" And then I called bullshit on myself.

If years ago I banned the C word from my vocabulary, and then banned "that's gay!" followed by "how retarded!", why should sl*t be any different? No. These words have a meaning and I have no place invoking it.

This morning my dear friend made a fair point: she may not use a word but she wants to give others the space to reclaim it if they so choose.  Ok, good.  Except I have yet to think of a word that has been "reclaimed."  Even people who ironically or critically use words have not managed to undo the damage caused under other circumstances.

Further, I have no idea where the line is drawn regarding who can use a word and who can't.  Your grandfather is black so you could use the N word. Her Aunt has Down's Syndrome, so she can use the R word.  I am Depressed and Anxious so I can say "Crazy."

Sure, I'm all about context.  When I call myself Crazy I do it in an ironic and self-deprecating (hopefully humourous) way, essentially aiming to bring mental illness into the socially-acceptable forefront.  But it's still self-deprecating.  If I constantly called myself fat (in front of my daughter?) an impact is undeniable.

It comes down to using one's judgement and tact, walking an informed and critical line.  So yeah, I'll give others space to "reclaim" their words, but I have no idea if they're reclaiming them right.

Critique #4: She's going to hear it anyway

"People aren't going to read the article, and they don't have the internet, and they won't stop saying it."

Oy vey.  That's the point of an awareness campaign, no? Can we remember my first point? I LIKE this campaign, for the exact reasons you're noting.  #BanBossy is just a slogan.  The root of the word's use and its potential impact is now entering the discourse BECAUSE of that slogan.

True.  My daughter will hear it anyway.  And very true, she'll hear and see lots of things that I will discuss with her (The Little Mermaid included) - but raising awareness about the potential harm behind bossy as an insult is not a fruitless effort.  

In the end, let's get personal...

As a kid, I directed the neighbourhood plays, I edited the yearbook, I went to leadership camp.  I grew up successful and relatively well-adjusted, despite (or perhaps in spite of) the fact that I was called bossy.  My confidence (or lack thereof) and Type-Aer style evolved from a world of influence, not one word or one personality trait.  I still ended up Depressed and Anxious (aka Crazy) due at least in part to that leader-ness and to my drive to "overcome adversity."

None of that changes the fact that when I was called "bossy" as a young girl, it fucking hurt.  It was an insult, a sting.  It was something I didn't want to be.

We have lots of things to teach our girls, but to "suck it up" is NOT one of them. Neither is to skip an attempt to make a change because it probably won't have an impact so who cares.  We need to foster leadership in those who are socially and systemically deterred from it, minus the judgement.  A campaign that jolts the conversation is a perfect place to start.