LONDON – Women all over the Internet are picking holes in the Ban Bossy campaign. Launched by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. singer Beyonce, it seeks to ban the word “bossy” on the grounds that it discourages little girls from ambition and leadership.
They could have picked a less ironic slogan. Seeking to ban things is as bossy as you can get. Other women have suggested it would be better to temper pushiness in boys or to reclaim the word “bossy”; the Internet is alive with a million feminist criticisms.
However, I can’t help falling in love with the campaign’s spirit. The semantic dissection is all very adult and they are speaking to children. Their phrasing may be imperfect, but the 10-year-old me knows exactly what it means.
It’s not really about being “bossy.” I was a sporadically bossy child. My best friend, Danielle, a far easier-going little person, was simply never given a say. Which games, which sweets; how to construct a secret language, when to climb a tree — I was the colonel of these decisions and she a long-suffering lieutenant.
But nobody told me off for that sort of bossiness, though they should have done. Chances are they didn’t notice. It mostly happened when we were alone. Released into the great “Lady of the Flies” of the school playground, I rarely held the conch.
Alone with gentle Dansy, I ruled. At school, in a group big enough to play the Famous Five, I was given the role of Timmy the dog. I literally fetched sticks. I drank water from a bowl on the floor.
These days, there are Internet sites for people who like that sort of thing. Back then, it was just the natural instincts of girls to establish a power hierarchy.
This wasn’t bullying; it was all healthy enough. But there was a sense from the adults, for most of my school career, that I ought to pipe down. Not to be less bossy, just to be less.
Every school report complained about my efforts to make the class laugh. I was often sent out of the room for it. I wasn’t properly rebellious: I never swore, heckled or fought. I was fairly in awe of teachers’ authority; invited to use their first names in later life, I never could.
I just liked to make jokes. They called it “showing off” and “attention seeking.” Which I suppose it was, but in such a harmless way that I remain suspicious of the negative language to this day. It was as though any edges must be rubbed off, to create a modest, obedient and humble young woman.
I remember the scripture lesson when someone read a Bible verse including the words: “Suddenly, Jacob came upon a well” and I muttered: “Well, well, well.”
There is an obvious way to go, for a truly disruptive child, with the sentence: “Jacob came upon a well.” I’m sure you can spot it for yourself. But I didn’t go down that road; my response was impeccably pre-watershed.
I just thought “Well, well, well” would be a funny thing to say if you suddenly found a well. Better if it had been three wells, but you can only work with the material you’re given.
I was engaged with the story. I was listening. It was quite an apt contribution, really. But, when the class laughed, I was told to stand outside for the rest of the lesson. I can still feel the shame and bafflement as if it were yesterday.
They thought I was too confident. I was never, in my whole school career, given a job as a monitor, a form captain or a prefect. I never won any kind of prize.
In the sixth form, I was allowed to edit the school newspaper for a term, but (in a school first) only with a co-editor whose calmer manner I was told would be “good for me.” She was brilliant, but the implication was still embarrassing.
The 18-year battle to make me stop showing off was connected, somehow, to the other message I received throughout my teens, loudly from magazines and books and TV, that I was too fat.
I don’t know that I can put the link into words, but I felt it viscerally. I was just altogether too there, taking up too much space and air time. Big, fat, loud and unladylike. The act of growing up appeared to be one of shrinking, of becoming less conspicuous.
I was thinking about this during the recent debate about women on panel shows. I do some of these shows but never talk as much as the boys do. I rarely interrupt, I don’t express every funny thought in my head, and I don’t fight for the conch — because I can still hear the voices telling me not to show off. Nice girls smile politely and listen.
For better or worse, I’ve learned to be more “feminine.” I’m no longer bossy in the honest sense; I’ve mastered (mistressed) the art of passive-aggression. Oh, how I smile and bat my eyelashes to feminize my steely resolve. Frankly, it’s loathsome. I’d like myself a lot better if I shouted. But this way is more acceptable.
Perhaps girls are more likeable for shrinking and blending, smiling and whispering? But that will never redress the imbalance in politics and public life.
So, as far as the Ban Bossy campaign goes: Bossy may be the wrong word. Banning anything is rarely good. Children need to be calmed and socialized, if only to make teachers’ lives bearable. My adult self sees all the holes in this campaign. But my child self understands the warm, encouraging principle at its heart. Thus I hope it will grow big and fat and loud, seeking all the attention it can get.
Victoria Coren Mitchell writes weekly columns for The Observer and The Guardian newspapers