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.
Most Viewed Stories
This Conspiracy Theory Will Change How You Feel About the Bachelor Villain
The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for the Women’s March
Here’s the Official List of Speakers for the Women’s March on Washington
15 Protest Sign Ideas for the Women’s March on Washington
Sexual Assault in the Amazon
The Sheer Perfection of Donald Trump’s Golden Shower
Things to Keep You Warm and Dry at a Protest
Your Guide to Peeing During the Women’s March on Washington
TMZ Reports Trump Will Actually Have Really Cool Inauguration Performers
Your Guide to NYC Inauguration Weekend Protests
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesA Holiday Season Weekend Through London
A good guide for avid The Crown fans.It’s About Time You Learned Tove Lo’s Name
The singer has crafted pop hits you’ve heard a thousand times by now.Marina Abramovic Has Outlasted Her Lovers and, She Hopes, Her Critics
The world's most famous performance artist at 70.The Wing: Do Women Still Need a Space of Their Own?
This exclusive social club for women, is part sorority, part start-up.In Virtual Reality, Women Run the World
A new generation of female artists is making VR the most diverse corner of the male-dominated tech space.The Novelist Disguised As a Housewife
Shirley Jackson wrote 17 books while raising four children — and she couldn't have had a successful career without them.Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.Unknown NFL Player Tries to Get Attention by Asking Aly Raisman Out in Video
That’s one way to do it.Don’t Mess This Up, Mischa Barton
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.