Be Bossy

boss·y1, adjective. Fond of giving people orders; domineering. “She was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar.” Synonyms: pushy, overhearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; high and mighty. “we’re hiding from his bossy sister.” Antonyms: submissive.”

This is the result when the word “bossy” is googled. Notice anything about the examples? What about the antonym? I heard this more than once as a kid. But I didn’t notice that when a boy asserted himself, he was called a “leader.” 

I was a bit of an odd kid. In a blog post for the Columbus women’s group, Creative Babes, I told the following story: 

“Well, I was pretty ambitious. And I honestly don’t know where I even learned what it was or what it meant, but I would tell people that I wanted to be a CEO. I actually used to make PowerPoint presentations for fun, and kept school papers in file folders. My favorite make-believe game was pretending that I was the owner and editor of my own magazine, and my two younger cousins were my assistants. (I promise I have a very horizontal approach to leadership now.)  But it wasn’t all make-believe. I actually created, “Diana’s Magazine,” where I sold services like car-washes and cleaning dishes, wrote poems, and promoted upcoming “shows” that I would put on for my family.”

Creative Babes, Meet Diana Muzina

Where did calling little girls bossy even come from? Little Miss Bossy by Roger Hargreaves was published in 1981. In it, Little Miss Bossy tells everyone what to do, until Wilfred the Wizard casts a spell on her, and she “learns her lesson.”But the pejorative use of “bossy” definitely existed before perms and neon leg-warmers. 

What bossy is about, is tied to sociopolitical issues of social hierarchy; specifically, power. Power that is often associated with high status. And, because of privilege, white men hold the majority of power and status. This is tied to a concept called hegemonic masculinity, or, standards against which all men are judged. In our world, hegemonic masculinity involves largely being white, middle class, young, and heterosexual. Those that do not have all of those things, have different access to opportunities – different access to power. And as women, we are automatically precluded from that access. Due to the fact that manhood is measured in this way, most of men’s lives are spent avoiding emasculation. The theory of hegemonic masculinity says that “women, men or color, working-class men, and gay men are the groups against which men act out their definitions of manhood – the other, “nonmen,”against whom their masculinity is defined.” (Questioning Gender, Robyn Ryle)

Gender roles are ascribed to us even before we’re born. Think of all the “gender reveal,”parties that have been trending. Pink for girls, and blue for boys. Frilly outfits for female babies, and building blocks for the males. In a study conducted by Seavey et al. in 1975, participants were prompted to describe the same exact infant using adjectives. Groups were told that the infant was either a girl, a boy, or without gender. The labeling of gender led to a stark contrast in perceived differences between the children. The perceived boy was described as strong, while the perceived girl was described as soft. (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, Stephanie L. Meredith)

What countless research has shown is that when you violate your attributed gender role and step outside of your gender transgression zone you will be considered taboo, unnatural, or abnormal. This gender polarization is used to reinforce traditional gender roles – and describes “the ways in which behaviors and attitudes that are viewed as appropriate for men are viewed as inappropriate for women, and vice versa.” (Questioning Gender, Robyn Ryle)

Hence, when a little girl takes charge and exhibits strong, powerful behavior she is called bossy. 

Now, I just fell into a bit of an academic black hole, as there are countless gender and power theories to explore. But what I really want to assert is the effects that being called “bossy,”can affect. 

I had been an outspoken, gung-ho little leader, but quickly turned to bottling emotions, opinions, and my perspectives because I didn’t want to come off as bossy. I would raise my hand in class, but made sure to not be the first hand to raise. Further, I didn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t say anything to being made fun of for my crooked teeth in third-grade, and I didn’t say anything when I was eighteen, won the popular vote for student class president, but was told that the school needed to “see a boy”in a leadership position. (Ironically, my senior superlative was “most likely to be president.” Good one, guys!)

I was told bossy was a bad thing. But if I had continued to be bossy, maybe I would have righted some wrongs, or obtained some of the opportunities I deserved. 

In the Creative Babes blog post, I went on to say the following:

“Now it didn’t end there. I made the tickets and the environmental branding to go along with it. A couple weeks ago I was telling my older sister about this project, and we started reminiscing. She told me that I always had a business plan, “I would want the glam experience of selling lemonade, and you would ask me what our ‘target audience,’ was.” Yeah, I was weird. I definitely got that I was bossy, but now I proudly boast a “girl boss,” placard at my desk at work and recognize that was just something people say to little girls who are strong leaders.”

Creative Babes, Meet Diana Muzina

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There has been so much talk of not calling little girls bossy anymore. But what I think we really need to do, is change the connotation. What we really need to do is push the boundaries of that gender transgression zone. What we really need to do is make it okay for women to be and be seen as, powerful. We need to Be Bossy.