"I just love bossy women," says Amy Poehler. "I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody's passionate, engaged, and ambitious, and doesn't mind leading." I hunted around for this quote after several friends asked me what I thought of Sheryl Sandberg's latest attempt to reduce a complex cultural dynamic into a hashtag friendly slogan. I told one friend, my scalp is literally itching with irritation over this decree to "ban bossy," and I was beginning to think that I was missing something from this discussion when I remembered seeing this Poehler quote ages ago. I felt a sense of relief, the same kind of relief that comes from knowing everyone hates your sister's boyfriend, it's not just your hang-up.
My annoyance surprised me as well as the people who know me: I'm a proud feminist, a word-nerd and passionate defender of language, and a women's advocate. In most cases, I rally gamely behind any initiative that puts women's interests in the fore. But the call to ban bossy made me sour. This feels like the lazy, privileged person's salvo for the bigger, more sophisticated challenges women face in their capacity to impact as effective leaders.
Sandberg and others who have clamored onto this bandwagon agree that "bossy" sends the wrong message to girls. The attempt to ban the word sends the equally wrong message that all it takes is a little creative editing to fix life's problems.
The issue is not a word, but the social and institutional cultures that contribute to the factors we recognize as hindering women's success, advancement, or equality. We need to change these climates, to challenge attitudes, and to create policy and education that supports women's personal and professional development rather than wasting time and money attempting to excise a word from popular usage. Spoiler alert: Bossy, unlike fetch, will always be a thing, the difference will be how girls and women internalize this term, if they give it any weight at all.
Words do not have power over us. If they did, we'd all be rich, tan, and the rulers of our own tropical islands. Rather, it is within our grasp to shape language and its connotations. Want to change bossy? Change what it means to be bossy. If more women and girls took a page out of Amy Poehler's bossy book there would be fewer PSA's about this issue, fewer kicky tee-shirts and bumper stickers, and more actual, meaningful change, the kind that bossy women have been driving for centuries.