Girls weigh in on “bossy”

The Sheryl Sandberg-driven movement that is #banbossy has its fans and its detractors — and rightly so. There are those who agree that yes, language like “bossy” is often applied to girls in response to behavior that would otherwise be seen as strong and assertive, discouraging them from taking on leadership positions and ambitious roles. Then there are those who point out that “bossy” can also be applied to overbearing, inflexible, rude behaviors that aren’t conducive to leadership and can themselves discourage others from being assertive. Then the first people point out that “bossy” in either case is far more often applied to girls than boys, and then the other people point out that banning a word is kind of silly, and it’s very confusing because everyone is kind of right.

Julie Ross Godar’s complaint with #banbossy is that “bossy” is so vague a term as to be basically useless. It means different things to different people, and it applies a gendered slant to behavior that isn’t discouraged (or is addressed differently) in boys. Godar offers a starter list of ten far more satisfying words for positive behaviors that are derided in girls as “bossy,” a well as a few options for addressing those negative behaviors that also fall under the “bossy” umbrella.

In the end, though, if you really want to know how “bossy” affects girls, do what SheKnows did and just ask them.

[Sounds: Chipper background music, and the shrieking of the damned generally associated with sleepover parties]

What does bossy mean to you?

Glittery shirt. Bossy is…
Striped shirt. Bossy is…
Gabrielle. Bossy is…
Ester. Bossy is like…
SS. Are you listening?!
Elmo shirt. You’re not the boss of me!
Red shirt. Sometimes people take “bossy” the wrong way a lot. Sometimes when you’re leading something, people think that you’re bossy, but you’re actually just trying to lead it, which can end up being bossy.
Gabrielle. If you want everything to yourself and you’re in your own world.
Ester. Taking over for someone.
RS. My gym teacher has to be bossy so we — we get to the fun part.
“Girls Are Rad” t-shirt. You can make people get you ice cream or buy you coffee. Well, when you’re older you want coffee.
GS. It makes a person feel kind of bad. But sometimes it’s just ’cause they have to or else something won’t go how it’s supposed to.

What if someone called you bossy?

GAR. I am the awesomest. I’m not bossy, but I am the boss.
Ester. I would say I’m sorry I’m bossy, but I’m just trying to show people something.
Flowered t-shirt. I would say, “Well, that’s what you think. That’s not exactly what other people think, or I think.”

How is being a leader different from being bossy?

SS. Leaders are the people in charge, and you have to listen to them, but bossy people aren’t necessarily in charge.
Gabrielle. When you’re a leader, you help people, and you get appointed by being a leader because you’re working great with other people, you don’t always want to be the best.
RS. Like, if you had a marching band, there would be a leader. They’re just, like, walking around.
Ester. I look up to Michelle Obama.
GS. She’s pretty important.
Gabrielle. Beyonce I don’t think is bossy, but most time, superstars are sort of bossy.
Beige top. She, like, believes in herself, and she, like, knows who she is and stuff.

Can both girls and boys be bossy?

GAR. Being bossy has nothing to do with being a boy or a girl.
FS. A girl knows that someone is being bossy.
Gabrielle. And boys are always just, like, playing around.
GS. Some people think that boys are more powerful, but I don’t think that.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Bailey. I want to be a doctor or a singer.
FS. I want to be a marine biologist, so I want to have, like, a company of people.
Ester. An artist or a designer.
Bailey. Bossy is…
Gabrielle. Selfish.
GAR. Annoying.
SS. I told you what to do. Now do it.
GS. Bossy.

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32 comments for “Girls weigh in on “bossy”

  1. March 31, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Those girls are so adorable, and smart.

    I have mixed feelings about the campaign. I am totally behind what their intentions are. I’m not sure about the way they are thinking of how to go about handling it.

    I think we also have to question case by case, who is calling these women bossy and why. Are these women really being bossy as in bad leaders or are they just being attacked by an intimidated individual? Let’s put these name callers in the hot seat for a minute.

  2. Karak
    March 31, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Being called “bossy” squelched my enthusiasm to be seen for years.

    I thought I was fun and gung-ho, enthusiastic and filled with energy. It was made very clear to me by teachers and peers, feeding into each other, that even if I was right, or I knew what I was doing, it was more important that I absolutely conform, go unnoticed, and never, ever lead.

    I remember boys, who were worse at the task, being encouraged to lead and speak up while I was shushed, and the unfairness of it all. I remember “better” girls who were allowed to take charge because they faked being incompetent or timid (and yes, they were faking.)

    Fuck bossy. If you don’t like me either avoid me or fight me, but don’t try to make me afraid to speak.

  3. MH
    April 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    1. I am totally on board with the idea of empowering more girls to develop leadership skills, aspire to be powerful leaders as adults, and not to be embarrassed by their leadership skills.

    2. I think that language is messy and, while some words should be used in very limited ways or not at all (i.e. racial slurs), I’m not sure bossy falls into that category. The elimination of a single word (or even group of words) from our vocabulary seems reductive and only worth doing in extreme circumstances – in my mind, those are circumstances where there is really never any justification for using the word. There is a point at which assertiveness becomes antagonistic and overly aggressive – and undesirable. Yes, you can call the behavior by those terms. But like you can also call your dog your pooch, puppy, furry four legged friend, or canine, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with synonyms. Also, I think if we used those terms instead, we would still find that girls got told to stop being so aggressive way more frequently than boys. Language and behavior are both very nuanced – sometimes the behaviors someone is calling bossy are undesirable in a person of any gender, sometimes not. I think what’s more important is that we grow to be a society that does not try to pigeonhole our children (or adults) into certain roles and behaviors based on their anatomy.

    As an aside, I was definitely a “bossy” child. I’m pretty sure that term (or a certain other b-word) still gets used to describe me from time to time as an adult. Even though my mom did sometimes call me bossy, she was a great role model and always told me I could do anything I wanted (maybe not flap my arms and fly, but otherwise…). I’ve learned to do what I think is right and let the whispered names fall where they may. I think that’s the sort of message we want to teach all of our children.

    • April 3, 2014 at 4:55 am

      “Also, I think if we used those terms instead, we would still find that girls got told to stop being so aggressive way more frequently than boys.”

      I think this is a very strong argument and I would be interested to hear a response to it from those who think that not using ‘bossy’ would be an improvement.

  4. Anan
    April 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Can’t we just agree not to call people, including children, bossy unless they are? ‘Bossy’ is a perfectly legitimate word. Some people are bossy. Some people are merely assertive and outgoing. We should call the former ‘bossy’ and not call the latter such.

    • rain
      April 4, 2014 at 10:04 am

      ‘Bossy’ is a perfectly legitimate word.

      . . . to describe your perception of someone’s behavior. And that perception is influenced by the person’s gender. See implicit bias. It’s the whole point of what we’re talking about here. There is no objective distinction between “bossy” and “merely assertive and outgoing”. As long as people are sexist and see the same behavior as bossy when it’s done by a woman and assertive when it’s done by a man, then, no, we can’t just agree not to call people bossy unless they are.

  5. Disorder
    April 4, 2014 at 12:10 am

    So sorry, but I couldn’t resist

    • Safiya Outlines
      April 5, 2014 at 8:17 pm

      Nice one!

      The campaign brings this song to my mind too.

  6. snorkellingfish
    April 4, 2014 at 12:23 am

    I feel like the issue with the argument that “some girls are just bossy in the bad way and we need to be able to call that out” is that we judge behaviour differently in girls and boys. A boy might be seen as being assertive while a girl might be seen as domineering. As a result, girls are discouraged from showing leadership in situations where boys aren’t.

    I know that telling people not to use the word bossy doesn’t fix any of that – people will always find other words. However, I think that the campaign still starts a useful conversation? If at least we consider that there’s a connection between sexism and the word bossy, we might take a moment before chastising a girl for being “bossy” whether we’d do the same to a boy in the same position.

  7. Gemmy
    April 9, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    I’ve had mixed feelings about the campaign (and Sandberg) from the start. I agree that attaching negative connotations to behavior in one sex over another is wrong, but I just don’t find the word “bossy” to be sufficiently stifling to warrant so much excitement.

    I would much rather see all this effort put into discouraging use of the word “bitch.” In fact, when I first heard of the campaign, I assumed it was brilliantly crafted to subtly address that issue. But, alas, I was wrong.

    Then seeing Beyonce appear in the video with that ridiculous line infuriates me in particular since her husband is one of the biggest transgressors when it comes to disrespectful, degrading references to women. And I really don’t see how calling yourself “the boss” necessarily makes you any less bossy. It’s trite and empty and just waters down a much bigger issue. But, I guess that seems to be perfectly in line with Sandberg’s brand of feminism.

  8. Julia
    April 11, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Do none of you see any problem with the fact that some people wish to ban a word? That’s straight-up 1984!

  9. B
    April 12, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I think this is all a lot to do about nothing. Words all have shades of meaning and we should be careful how we use them.

    I am tenacious. Some may call me stubborn. But the way I refuse to give up has helped me a lot and I admire it about myself, so I say “tenacious.” People who wish I’d just stop already or still disagree with me, they will go with “stubborn.” It’s all a matter of perspective. The word bossy could be used to describe assertiveness. Which word a person chooses to use reflects THEIR perspective. It really doesn’t change the person at all.

    It is a matter of maturity and confidence when one finally discovers what others think (and how they describe you) should not effect your behavior.

    • PrettyAmiable
      April 12, 2014 at 11:16 am

      You think there’s absolutely nothing worth considering about the fact that women are more likely to be called bossy than men for the exact same behavior?

      • B
        April 14, 2014 at 1:20 pm

        I’ve had plenty of male bosses that were called tyrannical. Is tyrannical used more often with males?

      • PrettyAmiable
        April 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm

        For the exact same behavior as a woman in the same role?

    • April 12, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      It is a matter of maturity and confidence when one finally discovers what others think (and how they describe you) should not effect your behavior.

      *yawn* More bootstraps nonsense.

      • B
        April 14, 2014 at 1:25 pm

        Could you explain? “Bootstraps” generally suggests self helped. Self help isn’t good? It isn’t “fair” to suggest the problem may be perception instead on bias? Never suggest you can address the problem individually?

      • EG
        April 14, 2014 at 3:03 pm

        The problem is that only sociopaths are unaffected by what others around them think. Human beings are social creatures and we understand our reality via social interactions and relationships. The fantasy that one’s own approval is all that matters and that such approval can be achieved independently of any external reinforcement is damaging insofar as when normal human beings can’t achieve such a level of detachment, such a philosophy blames them for feeling bad.

      • April 14, 2014 at 4:04 pm

        The whole “bootstraps” thing was originally used ironically, because actually pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is physically impossible. I think it’s kind of the same way for changing the way one responds to other people’s judgment. I can stare at myself in the mirror and tell my reflection, “You’re awesome, and they’re wrong, and as long as you know that nothing else matters,” but is that going to actually make me believe myself? Probably not. People need support to develop a strong sense of self, and the earlier that starts, the less time we spend being miserable.

        There’s also the fact that without looking to other people for context, a “strong sense of self” can be a bad thing. I dated a guy who once told me “[I] made [him] feel like a bad person.” Why? Because he’d been bullied as a kid, and his parents had fed him the whole “you’re great, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks” line. So he spent his entire young life thinking he was universally great and that nobody else’s thoughts or feelings ever mattered. I “made [him] feel bad” because I influenced him to take other people’s feelings into consideration, and he realized he was kind of an asshole.

      • PrettyAmiable
        April 14, 2014 at 4:32 pm

        There’s also the fact that without looking to other people for context, a “strong sense of self” can be a bad thing. I dated a guy who once told me “[I] made [him] feel like a bad person.” Why? Because he’d been bullied as a kid, and his parents had fed him the whole “you’re great, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks” line. So he spent his entire young life thinking he was universally great and that nobody else’s thoughts or feelings ever mattered. I “made [him] feel bad” because I influenced him to take other people’s feelings into consideration, and he realized he was kind of an asshole.

        This is OT, but holy eff, dealing with this exact thing with my best friend right now. Sucks, doesn’t it? At least I feel less overbearing now. Thanks, Caperton.

      • April 15, 2014 at 12:07 am

        The bootstraps mentality refers to the tendency to view problems in one’s life as obstacles that can be overcome solely through willpower. So, for instance, if someone insults me by calling me a “tr*nny”, people with a bootstraps mentality would accuse me of overvaluing what others think of me. The pain I feel from being called that slur is nothing more than a consequence of me being too sensitive, and so I just have to ignore them and tell myself that what they think doesn’t matter.

        The mentality rests on unreasonable expectations of human psychological coping, victim-blaming, and, I’d argue, ableism. The truth is that nearly everyone is affected by what others think of them – some people are exceptional in that they can ignore what others think, but they are the minority. No matter how many times smug folks tell me that “words don’t matter”, I find the t-word highly offensive and it hurts my feelings.

      • April 15, 2014 at 12:08 am

        EG explained it much more eloquently, though. :)

      • EG
        April 15, 2014 at 7:23 am

        Nah! I actually wasn’t happy with what I wrote–too convoluted–and I like your clear example much better!

    • April 14, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      While a lot of the women involved in #BanBossy are adults, the campaign is really focused on girls, who generally haven’t developed an established sense of self yet. For me, as I am now, I don’t particularly give a rat’s ass if you want to call me “bossy” or “overbearing” or “bitchy” or anything else because I know I’m awesome and I know why you’re calling me those things.

      But when I was little? Being called “bossy” by someone in a position of influence or authority could have discouraged me from ever becoming the kind of person who could shrug it off. I didn’t have maturity or confidence and might not have ever developed it under that kind of harmful influence.

  10. B
    April 15, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Thanks for you responses. I understand better now what the objections are about. And I did drift into thinking of young adults who needs to learn to stand up for themselves and not younger girls in elementary school not really ready to stand alone and looking to authority figures for approval. My apologies for bootstrapping.

    That said, I still want to leave ‘bossy’ in the permitted comments section. Someone else mentioned before me that it is a descriptive term that applies to a certain behavior. I don’t see it as gender specific. I suspect boys get called bossy as well as girls. Since no one has data on that, we’ll just need to disagree on that. In addition, I don’t see ‘bossy’ being an alternate word for assertive. Many people lead and/or are assertive without being what I would call bossy. Bossy is a style of leadership and not a particularly good style.

    • PrettyAmiable
      April 15, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Since no one has data on that, we’ll just need to disagree on that.

      Deborah Tannen is the foremost authority on gender and linguistics. Happy to disagree, but the issue is that *you* don’t have data on it and aren’t researching the matter.

      • B
        April 15, 2014 at 4:28 pm

        Cite me some research data and be sure to give the methodology used. I have just read Deborah Tannen’s article and she cited no research results. Additionally, I have read an article by Kathy Young, who does have the research creds ( and is skeptical as I am about the data. She goes into the source of this data and it doesn’t look solid.

      • PrettyAmiable
        April 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm

        What article? Deborah Tannen is published multiple times over. I was referencing “Talking from 9 to 5” by Tannen. Cathy Young’s only refutation that bossy is gendered is based on google searches that I can’t replicate (I’m getting 2.6x the google hits for “She is bossy” as I do for “He is bossy,” which is the example she cites as giving reversed gender results). And what are her credentials? Young is a journalist that espouses MRA-like values, not a disgustingly-highly educated and well-published linguist with a historical focus on gendered communication (Tannen).

  11. B
    April 16, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Back to the topic…
    I concede without argument that the Google data shows the word bossy is heavily weighted towards females. There are many words, handsome and pretty jump to mind, that are gender specific. But I think critical thinking requires we examine the conclusions drawn from the data. The Google data does not shows that young girls have been consistently or significantly harmed by authority figures in their lives calling them bossy.

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