You’re Not the Boss of Me: Don’t Ban Bossy

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently I’ve been seeing a new identity politics argument circulating around the internet that grinds my gears: Ban Bossy. This is not to say that I don’t agree with the movement’s aims–I think it would be wonderful if women had more self-confidence. My problem is that the arguments for banning bossy are spectacularly unconvincing. Here’s why.

There are two big problems with the effort to ban bossy:

  1. “Bossy” does not mean what these people think it means.
  2. Even if “bossy” did mean what these people think it means and we could eliminate it from the vocabulary with a snap of our fingers, this would accomplish absolutely nothing.

Let’s take each case in turn.

“Bossy” is an Emancipatory Term

The anti-bossy crowd seems to have a very particular notion of what the word “bossy” means and how it is used. As far as I can tell, they believe it to be a stand-in for “bitchy”. They think it means “uppity woman who doesn’t know her place”. I think this understanding of the term “bossy” completely misses the point of the word.

A bossy person is someone who acts like a boss without holding the title. When you call me “bossy”, you’re saying that I am acting as if I were your boss, that our relationship is not what I seem to think it is, and that I should back off and quit ordering you around as if I were in charge of you. In this context, “bossy” is emancipatory, it is a way to tell someone with pretensions to authority that you see through those pretensions and do not recognize them as legitimate.

Perhaps you remember the American sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. Specifically, do you remember the song that plays in the intro?

 

The line that sticks with me is:

You’re not the boss of me now, and you’re not so big.

In the family sit-com, the children are challenging the legitimacy of the authority of their parents, they are objecting that the relationship their parents believe they have with them is not the relationship their parents should have with them or will have with them going forward. The claim implied in the intro is that their parents act as if they were bosses when they are not bosses. This is not to say that Malcolm, Reese, Dewey, and company are necessarily right, but it is to say that the idea they are expressing is a valuable one–we should be able to call people out when we believe that they are attempting to dominate us in unacceptable ways, and demand that they offer justification, that they defend the legitimacy of their attempt to rule us. Perhaps the parents in Malcolm in the Middle can legitimize their decisions, but the point is that they should be made to do so, that the children are entitled to understand why they are the subjects of that authority.

The preceding paragraph is long-winded, isn’t it? We shouldn’t have to explain every time we don’t like the way someone is ordering us about that we believe it is an illegitimate domination, particularly given that this phrase is outside the vocabularies of many of the people most in need of it. We should be able to simply call it “bossy”–the word gets the meaning across straightaway.

We have all known bossy people. Some of us (and I would count myself among that number despite my masculinity) have even been bossy people. Being bossy is not cool. Nobody likes to be treated like an underling by someone else without good cause. That’s true whether you’re male, female, or somewhere in between.

Banning Words Doesn’t Work

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you don’t buy any of that. Let’s say that we think that the entire preceding argument is just a big cover up for what is ultimately a sanitized version of “bitchy”. Let’s presume that “bossy” is like “bitchy”. If you like, let’s even presume it’s like “nigger” but for women. Even if you think that, banning bossy is still a bad idea.

Why? Well to start, why has “bossy” acquired any of the connotations we associate with “bitchy”? Because it’s not okay to use the word “bitchy” in polite company, so some people use “bossy” as a euphemism, as a soft version of the same thing.

But what is the goal of the “ban bossy” movement? To make it not okay to use the word “bossy” in polite company. See the problem here? Getting rid of words does not get rid of ideas. Ideas are like the mythical hydra–if you lop off a head, two more grow back in its place. All word elimination serves to do is to get racists and sexists and other bad-ists to use more insidious language that masks racism, sexism, and other bad-isms in friendlier guise.

They’re not “black teens”, they’re “urban youth”. They’re not “morons”, they’re “retards”. They’re not “retards”, they’re “special”. They’re not “special”, they’re “differently able”. No matter how many times you change the word, the idea does not die, it takes whatever new word you introduce and it bends that word to its purpose. And in the meantime, once we relegate a word to the rubbish pile, it acquires a bizarre Lord Voldemort, “he-who-must-not-be-named” power.

Harry Potter refused to call Voldemort “he-who-must-not-be-named”, because he recognized that this only served to minister to Voldemort’s mystique. Instead, Harry frequently calls him by his given name, “Tom Riddle”. By calling him exactly what he is, Harry diminishes Voldemort and the perception of his invincibility and power. Every time a black rapper claims the word “nigger” as his own and uses it for a purpose that isn’t the one white people came up with, he diminishes the power of that word to hurt people. Every time someone like Kanye West or Jay-Z uses the word “nigger” to just mean “dude” or “buddy”, with no negative connotation, they take the racist legacy that term has head-on and diminish it.

We can make it unacceptable to say “bossy” the same way we made it unacceptable to say “bitchy”, but at the end of the day, we’re just playing the word game. We have to confront ideas, not words, and we do that not by saying “that’s bad, don’t say that” but by instead making our own voices heard and by acting in accordance with our beliefs. If you want to break down the gender norms that push boys and girls into performing gender roles rather than being themselves, don’t pat yourself on the back for trying to ban a word. Hire a qualified woman. Try to raise your sons and daughters without imposing your conception of what a son or a daughter should be onto them. Encourage the boys and girls you meet to think for themselves.

There’s no evidence, no reason to believe that by not using the word bossy we would help women to be more confident or to enjoy more life opportunities. The claim that we should ban the word bossy nonetheless is an attempt by a minority to impose unsubstantiated beliefs about how language works on the rest of us. It is an attempt at illegitimately exercise domination where no such domination is called for, an attempt to boss us around. And to those seeking to boss the rest of us around with no good cause for doing so, I say this:

You’re not the boss of me now, and you’re not so big.