No More Public Service Campaigns Please!

Photo Courtesy of Rich Jones

Photo Courtesy of Rich Jones

Everything seems to move faster today. Among my cohort, it took four to five decades to finally gain the courage to be ourselves without concern that someone might call us ‘bossy’ or ‘pushy’ or ‘selfish.’ I know lifespans are increasing but five decades is a long time to grow a pair. By the time we gain the chutzpah, we need bridgework and our hair starts to fall out. Quel drag.

A recent high-profile campaign called “Ban Bossy,” with endorsements by Diane von Furstenburg, Jennifer Garner, Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham and other accomplished women, sheds light on the enduring double-standard where the same trait is favourable on a man and shameful on a woman.

The Ban Bossy campaign was launched by Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook in conjunction with her organization Lean In and with Girl Guides. Its aim is to empower girls to become leaders. (If everyone is being trained to lead, who’ll be left to follow?)

Every woman who has ever been a boss knows how pebbly the path is to being respected as a leader without being labelled a ‘bossy bitch.’ There are good bosses and bad ones and gender is no predictor of intrinsic skill here. Yet, society remains uncomfortable with a woman exercising her power. As soon as she does, the labels (selfish/bossy/show off/pushy/bitchy) get unpacked pronto.

These types of “self-esteem” campaigns are well-meaning but they completely miss the point. It also doesn’t help that Proctor&Gamble’s Pantene brand has jumped on-board with a video populated with the type of very slim, beautiful women (with great, shiny hair) who would not look inappropriate in their product ads.

The fact is name-calling is merely a symptom of women’s second-class status in society. (“He’s the boss; She’s bossy” etc.) Banning the word—as if—would accomplish nothing. No matter how accomplished women are, they still pay a hidden gender tax, either in purely economic terms or in social currency.

The successful CEO? She must have a terrible love life.

The forceful politician? Her ass is too big.

The fashion tycoon? Her husband fronted her the money.

Words do have power, of course. But the intention behind them has even more power than the words themselves. For example, calling someone ‘slut’ or ‘girlfriend’ can have very different meanings depending on the context and whether the intention is to be friendly or mean. An overly earnest ban on certain words only gives them more power. It’s better to own them, not ban them.

A good example on how to handle this is Tina Fey. She titled her quasi-memoir Bossypants. The likelihood of her achieving her success without being bossy (and the boss) is pretty slim. She could have played the victim card similar to the put-upon, First-World damsels in the Pantene video and written about all the people who tried to undermine her along the way. (And there must have been more than a few in that high-stakes field she’s in.) Instead Fey made the better choice: To forge on. Win some Emmys. Write a bestseller. Buy a cool apartment.

The Ban Bossy campaign only reinforces the message that girls and women have a fragile sense of self that can’t withstand a little outer turbulence. A better campaign would teach women to accept that success takes hard work. That means ploughing ahead despite the bouquets—and brickbats—people will throw your way.

I say we ban campaigns that imply girls and women can’t handle a little stormy weather.


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