Taking charge: while boys are called leaders strong girls are 'bossy'

Suzanne Harrington asks should we really ban terms like ‘bossy’ and ‘domineering’?

Taking charge: while boys are called leaders strong girls are 'bossy'

BOSSY — it’s not a compliment. The dictionary says it means “overbearing”, “domineering”, and “given to ordering people around”. These words are rarely applied to men and boys.

‘Overbearing’ and ‘domineering’ seem to be reserved for adult women, while bossy is for girls. When a boy takes charge, he is praised for his leadership skills, but when a girl takes charge, she is called bossy. Sounds familiar? Of course it is. It is so ingrained we hardly notice it.

But some people have been noticing this double standard. Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg and the Girls Scouts of America recently launched a campaign, ‘Ban Bossy,’ which they say is “a public service campaign to encourage leadership and achievement in girls”. Famously fabulous women such as Beyonce (“I’m not bossy — I’m the boss”) supported it, and it got people talking about bossy as a pejorative term aimed at keeping girls down.

Inevitably, the backlash against bossy is undergoing a backlash. Scathing responses include attacks on the ‘word police’. The ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign was interpreted as a literal exercise to remove the word ‘bossy’ from the lexicon.

Other critics questioned (correctly) the validity of the campaign’s research, which suggested that the majority of girls had low self-esteem resulting in low leadership skills. (This is not the case — in research in US schools, boys and girls reported feeling more or less equal).

While rounding on the word ‘bossy’ highlights Sandberg’s idea, it is only the tip of the iceberg of the social and cultural messages fed to girls from birth.

While we may have sussed that presenting our little girls with helpless-female fairytales (‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Red Riding Hood’, etc) reinforced every jaded gender stereotype (all these female characters are helpless, passive, unassertive, uniformly pretty — and nauseatingly, unrealistically ‘good’), we may not be quite so aware of the more subtle, but corrosive, impact of movies.

In mainstream film, female characters are under-represented and stereotyped. They are visual filler. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, female characters are outnumbered three to one in family films, which is a ratio unchanged since the end of World War II.

The function of female characters is to fill a visual space — they tend not to have jobs, or conversations with each other about anything other than the male characters.

Things are not much better for movie-viewing boys, either — in a Ted talk by cultural commentator, Colin Stokes, ‘How Movies Teach Manhood’, Stokes shows how mainstream film teaches boys “that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward”. Great. Thanks for that, Star Wars.

Next time you watch a film with your children, get them to take the Bechdel Test, an idea from 1985 by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel about gender balance in film. Movies that pass the Bechdel test depict: (1) at least two named women; (2) who talk to each other; (3) about something besides a man. Sounds exceedingly simple, yet only one third of the top 50 movies released in 2013 passed the Bechdel Test.

Have a look at Bechdeltest.com — it’s an eye-opener. The Bechdel Test echoes Virginia Woolf’s criticisms in her 1929 essay, ‘A Room Of One’s Own’, in which she observes how so many women in literature are props for male characters.

This imbalance is reflected in the film industry. In the top 100 US movies of 2011, women accounted for 11% of the protagonists. Behind the camera, 7% of women are directors, 13% are writers, and 20% are producers.

Just like politics — except movies are one of the most powerful and immediate reference points for children. Film is one of the primary places children learn what is a girl, what is a boy, what is a man, what is a woman. And the message they are getting is skewed. (There is, however, a ‘Ban Bossy’ curated list of movies that feature strong female characters.) Not that it stops with film. Even supposedly gender-neutral toys, such as Lego — you’d think plastic blocks would be the most non-gendered — are problematic, as highlighted in a recent letter from a girl to Lego, her favourite toy company.

In January, seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin wrote: “I want you to make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures,” adding how she “loves Lego” but that “there are more Lego boy people and barely any Lego girls”. The letter was posted on Twitter by her mum, and went viral.

The message to girls from all sides — movies, toys, adverts — is that you must look pretty, be relatively quiet, and not act bossy. And it doesn’t stop in childhood. Just look at this Ask Men article, ‘How To Deal With A Bossy Girlfriend’: “She’s one of them. She’s worse than your supervisor at work, she’s worse than the grumpy old lady who lives next door.

“She is the bossy girlfriend and you’re stuck with her. If you find yourself in this situation, you have only two options: change your name or quit the job and run to the hills.”

In a Wikihow page on ‘How to Deal With Bossy and Overbearing Women’, male readers are asked: “Are you feeling out of sorts because these women are in a senior position to you? Or are you feeling angry with women generally?”

Even Supernanny is at it. While the website ultimately acknowledges that bossiness in early childhood is often a prelude to good leadership skills, its “tips to tone down bossiness” are all addressed to the female child. It’s all ‘her’ and ‘she’. “Supervise playdates,” it suggests. “If she is being bossy, take her aside to tell her… Alternatively, work out a signal, such as tapping her on the shoulder.”

Really? Hover over your female child, prodding finger at the ready, as she organises a teddy bear’s tea party with her friends? How about just leaving the children to get on with it?

Because, like racism, sexism, homophobia, and all those other social toxins, the concept of ‘bossy’ is learned. It is learned from us, the adults. So at the risk of sounding bossy: Stop. Leave her alone.


Madonna: The ultimate boss. Fearless, assertive, driven, in control, and unperturbed by her many, many critics.

Tina Fey: Comedian who, in her autobiography Bossy Pants, criticises the impossible standards set for women, especially in the beauty industry.

Michelle Obama: Possibly even cleverer than her husband, but vilified by the right as everything from communist to terrorist sympathiser.

Beyonce: “I’m not bossy – I’m the boss”. Thank you, Mrs Carter.

Miss Piggy: Magnificently bossy, yes, especially if you’re a frog, but not actually real.

Oprah: Powerful, influential, altruistic, humane — but still perceived as bossy.

Margaret Thatcher: As the UK’s first and only female PM, not a shrinking violet. Bossy, however, seems inadequate here.

Hillary Clinton: Brilliant, powerful, tenacious — therefore bossy.

Verucca Salt: Roald Dahl’s caricature of bossy who ended up in the Bad Egg chute. No equivalent male character.

Naomi Campbell: No other supermodel perceived to be so bossy, or so prone to low-level violence.

She says it’s racism. We dare not disagree.

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