Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What's in a name?

As a writer, I always get a little nervous when people talk about banning words.

Yes, in a perfect -- or just civil -- world, there would be no bad or pejorative words, words used to show contempt or to belittle or disrespect another person. But more often than not, the real culprit, or evil-doer, is not the word but the person speaking or using it.

Words, while they can be cruel, or cruelly used, only have the power to hurt or to harm if you allow them to (except in the case of libel or slander).

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not endorsing the use of hateful or hurtful words. But I don't think the solution is to ban them.

Which brings me to the Ban Bossy movement. Brought to you by Sheryl Sandberg's nonprofit LeanIn.org organization and Girl Scouts of USA, Ban Bossy is an effort to help instill confidence in young girls -- to encourage their leadership skills and initiative instead of disparaging or belittling their attempts to lead or take charge by labeling them as "bossy." Or as Ban Bossy puts it:
When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.
As someone who was called bossy more times than she can remember (and is still called bossy), I get it. Though it never held me back. (Hey, someone's got to take charge. Might as well be me.)

But instead of banning the word bossy, why not teach girls to ignore it -- or to embrace their bossiness?

Indeed, why not start a movement to turn the word from being something pejorative into something positive? After all, you can't spell bossy without B-O-S-S. And doesn't everyone want to be the boss, or head, or supervisor, of something, or someone? Isn't that what Sheryl Sandberg has been preaching when she talks about "leaning in," to get women to take charge of their lives, to embrace their inner boss and go for it?

Once upon a time, not that long ago, bitch was a pejorative term to describe a certain kind of woman (cruel, immoral). And in some cases, it still is. But today when we call someone a bitch goddess, it means she is wildly successful.

Not that I'm encouraging people to call little girls bitch goddesses.... 

But being called a bitch never bugged me either. Instead of taking the term as an insult, I took it as a mark of the speaker's lack of vocabulary or intelligence -- or dislike of women (or women who speak their minds).

In fact, when one charming boss (hi Jonathan!), who had a reputation for making his female reports cry (and for banging his shoe on a desk), called me a bitch, I smiled and looked him in the eye and said, "You know the difference between a slut and a bitch? A slut will sleep with anyone. A bitch will sleep with anyone... except you." He never called me a bitch again.

So instead of banning words like bossy, let's embrace our inner bitch goddesses, ladies, and show the world who's boss.


Dave S. said...

Banning words always strikes at the symptom, not the cause, and is therefore ineffective and even counterproductive. There are these things called synonyms.

I'm late to the 80s party but this and this seem relevant.

Anonymous said...

The ban bossy movement is ridiculous, and ultimately ineffective. There are plenty of words that don’t even seem disparaging that are used in a very disparaging and sexist way when said to women. An arbitrator once said to my wife, “so, are you one of those hard-charging women lawyers,” which essentially meant “so, are you a bitchy, hysterical, man-hating lesbian?” There’s no way to ban all the terms that can be used to express sexist contempt.

Plus, shouldn’t the Lean-in woman try to ban the “c” word first? That’s a lot worse than bossy.

Another David S. said...

I hate this, I hate this, I hate this--not the least because I never once considered the word to be gender specific. There are plenty of bossy guys. But I do like your take on it, and I like your "bitch" response even better. Sweet!