From Bossy to Badass

By Jessica Burtch

March 14, 2014 5 min read

In 1885, when Mark Twain learned that the Concord Public Library had banned "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," he said to his editor, "Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums.' This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

Cha-ching! Banning books tends to have the effect of magnifying their popularity. So what does that mean for "bossy"?

"Ban Bossy" is a media campaign organized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in partnership with Beyonce, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts of America CEO Anna Maria Chavez. Their goal is a good one: to empower young girls to express themselves, to own their opinions, to ask questions, to take the lead. Their slogan, not so much.

The main problem with "Ban Bossy" is that it's negative — and bossy. Unlike "Just Do It" or "Yes We Can," which play to the American spirit and inspire, "Ban Bossy" is restrictive. Other memorable bans: same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, blacks from public spaces, Jews from social clubs, women from voting, alcohol from everyone. We Americans don't like people telling us what to do, policing our thoughts, censoring our speech. We're all a little James Dean. And it's a serious affront that a campaign to ban "bossy" has an air of bossiness to it. Was it the alliteration, Sheryl?

What's that much more perplexing is that when we go to the site — banbossy.com — and pop the hood, what we find underneath the brand, the sloganeering, the unfortunate buzz that is #banbossy is actually quite wonderful, relatable and relevant. The substance of the site is empowering — unlike the two words chosen to represent it.

The multiple pages devoted to "leadership tips" for young girls such as "speak up in class," "stop apologizing before you speak," "ask for help," "challenge yourself" and "trust your inner voice" address simple real-life skills that can turn little people into great leaders. The site underscores the need to practice these skills, emphasizing that "nobody wakes up magically knowing how to lead. Whether it's learning how to communicate assertively, self-promote or take risks, it's important to remember that these skills take practice. Skills are like muscles: use them or lose them."

It's all so wonderful — it has me wondering what the heck "ban bossy" has to do with any of it.

Sandberg believes calling little girls bossy results in their statistical loss of interest in leadership roles as compared with boys. Yet she told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview, "From a very young age, I liked to organize — the toys in my room, neighborhood play sessions, clubs at school. When I was in junior high and running for class vice president, one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example: 'Nobody likes a bossy girl.'"

Once bossy, now badass. Maybe Sandberg should've gone with that for a slogan: Bossy to Badass. Booyah. I'd wear that shirt.

Love it or hate it, the word "bossy" is here to stay, and we are free to use it. The real danger is in elevating the word to the status of "leader." David Foster Wallace captures and conveys the essence of leadership beautifully: "A leader's real 'authority' is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn't ever get to on your own."

Nothing bossy about that.

Rather than banning the word, Sandberg's considerable talents would be better exercised in evolving the behavior. Bridging the gap between being bossy and becoming a leader is where the campaign, the site and its promoters have the most potential to effect positive change. Banning "bossy" is just going to get us a lot more bossy.

Follow Jessica on Twitter @sicaleigh. To find out more about Jessica Leigh, and to read features by other Creators writers and comics, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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