The Problem With Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Ban Bossy’ Campaign

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Getty

Whether you see her as a feminist torchbearer or a corporate cheerleader, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization has achieved something older women’s-rights groups have struggled to do lately: Grab headlines. In the past few months alone, Lean In announced a partnership with Getty Images to expand stock-photography depictions of working women and mothers. And this week, in partnership with the Girl Scouts, it made waves with a Beyoncé-endorsed campaign exhorting people to stop using the word bossy.

While there was a generally warm reaction to Lean In’s new stock photos, the response to “Ban Bossy” has ranged from rather tepid to downright hostile. “I am bossy. And I don’t give a *$&% if you call me that,” wrote Jessica Roy at Time Magazine. Slate’s Katy Waldman declared, “I don’t intend to stop using it, even if the feminist super-team tells me to.” Count me among the detractors. I’m all for encouraging girls to lead, but the term bossy is hardly a problem big enough to warrant the combined star power of Sandberg and Beyoncé and Jennifer Garner and Condoleezza Rice. I’ll admit it: Bossy doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because I’m a grown-up, proudly self-identified boss-lady. Or because I associate the term more with Kelis’s 2006 single (“You don’t have to love me / You don’t even have to like me / But you will respect me / You know why? / 'Cause I’m a boss”) and Tina Fey’s humorous memoir than with schoolyard taunts. Sure, according to the dictionary it means “inclined to domineer,” but I interpret it more as “inclined to dominate” — to be a woman with power who isn’t afraid to use it. Bossy has never made me flinch the way overt slurs like cunt and bitch do.

The main reason I can’t stomach a bossy ban, though, is that it represents a feminist strategy that’s failed in the past, and it plays into a negative characterization of feminism more generally. The movement for gender equality is at its best when it emphasizes expanding choices for everyone. Most feminist efforts — from ensuring reproductive rights to making public spaces safe to fighting for flexible work arrangements — do just that. But the conservative narrative about several decades of feminist victories claims that by giving women options they didn’t have in the past — to be proud single mothers, unapologetic CEOs, sexually active without a dozen children — feminists are actually stomping on the rights of women who want to make more traditional choices. Not to mention men.

This anti-feminist narrative has been surprisingly persuasive. (Just think about how many women you know who have said, “I’m not a feminist, but …” and then proceeded to say the most feminist thing you’ve ever heard.) In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist protests in the offices of women’s magazines and in front of beauty pageants were powerful visual spectacles, but they didn’t end what activists perceived to be sexist cultural institutions. Later, feminists founded alternative publications themselves, and foundations set up scholarships for women based on brains, not bathing suits. Since then, the cultural relevance of women’s magazines and Miss America have waned considerably (with and without the help of feminists) — just look at the beauty pageant’s decades-long ratings slide, and how the old glossies have struggled to compete with feminism-inflected publications online. Despite the nonthreatening tone and digital platform of “Ban Bossy,” the campaign is an heir to that earlier type of activism, which sought to restrict bad stuff rather than create a compelling alternative.

Of course, many restrictions are worth fighting for, especially when they protect physical safety and personal autonomy — think of child-pornography laws or perimeters around abortion clinics. When it comes to cultural change, though, applying such hard-nosed tactics doesn’t make much sense.  

Culture is a constantly changing thing that we create and shape collectively, not a set of rules that are formally written and rewritten by some governing body. Sure, radio stations can be persuaded to drop a host who used racial slurs or Wal-Mart can be pushed to stop selling girls’ underwear with the phrase “Who needs credit cards …” on the front. Bans and boycotts can be used to great effect when they’re concrete and narrowly focused. But the feminist movement, at its best, does not simply decry negative media depictions or declare certain words off-limits; it creates better alternatives and rewrites narratives to be more inclusive. Kathleen Hanna didn’t start a “Ban Slut” campaign in the '90s — she wrote the word on her belly with a Sharpie, owned it, and continued making awesome music.

Which is why it’s so frustrating to watch Lean In try to expand girls’ options by restricting the way we talk about them. It’s counterintuitive, and it makes feminists look like thought police rather than the expansive forward-thinkers we really are. Sandberg knows better — the Lean In stock-photo effort proves it. If she had released a report about how stock photos perpetuate negative stereotypes about working women, the response would have been a collective shrug. Instead, Sandberg created a set of alternative images — and we all talked about them. I wish she’d taken the same approach to bossy. I just might be listening to my new favorite Beyoncé song right now.