I’m having a lot of complicated feelings about the new Ban Bossy campaign—the latest brainchild of Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, in collaboration with The Girl Scouts. With the goal to encourage girls’ leadership skills through “banning” the word bossy, Ban Bossy’s campaign pledge reads: “Words like bossy send a message [to girls]: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.”
On the one hand, encouraging girls to be confident in speaking their minds is vitally important, and I am all about calling attention to the important role that language plays in problematic social norms and various forms of oppression. But when I saw news of Ban Bossy on the news ticker in my work’s elevator last week, my gut reaction was “No. Nope. Wrong.” I can’t get behind the banning—even symbolic banning—of language, because that quite simply is not how language works. I said some of these words out loud, to myself, in the elevator. Then I walked to my desk and thought more about “bossiness” and girl leadership—which brought me quickly to The Baby-sitters Club.
At the heart of Ann M. Martin’s wildly popular ’90s young adult novel series is Kristy Thomas, the Baby-sitters Club’s founder and president (see book #1 in the series, Kristy’s Great Idea). Kristy is regularly described in the series as an opinionated, bossy tomboy. She’s also an efficient, strategic 8th grade businesswoman who puts her brilliant ideas into action and gets shit done. See page 2 of Kristy’s Great Idea, after Kristy “speaks her mind” loudly, and somewhat rudely, in class: “I felt bad, but I couldn’t help what I’d done. I’m like that. I think of something to say, and I say it. I think of something to do, and I do it.”
Beyond just the “great idea” of starting the club, Kristy came up with smart, savvy business tools and strategies including Kid Kits (kits filled with toys and books that the babysitters sometimes bring on jobs), club dues (for expenses like advertising in the local paper, updating Kid Kits, and the occasional much-earned pizza party), and the Baby-sitters Club Notebook (a journal wherein the baby-sitters document each job so they’re all kept in the loop). When I was growing up, I remember learning that being “bossy” was indeed a bad thing—a code word for aggressive girls who expressed their opinions and demanded that things go their way—girls who, if they were a few years older, would likely have been called bitches. But as I ventured more and more deeply into the world of the BSC, Kristy began to change that for me. She made me understand bossiness differently.
“Do you know how many times I, Kristy Thomas, have been called bossy? At least a zillion. It’s okay. See, I think bossy is a code word. When a boy is forceful and responsible, people say he’s “strong-willed” or “a born leader.” But if you’re a girl, you’re “bossy.” Frankly, I take it as a compliment.” – Mind Your Own Business, Kristy! Baby-sitters Club #107
Despite being known for her bossiness throughout the series, Kristy is also well-liked, and even admired for her solid leadership skills. She takes charge when someone needs to be in charge. She puts smart ideas into action. The other club members consider Kristy a great friend and a solid leader—recognizing that Kristy can be strong-willed and assertive, but that those traits do not necessarily make her intimidating or a “mean girl.”
The Baby-sitters Club series also illustrates the limits of Ban Bossy’s goals. The campaign treats “leadership skills” as synonymous with “bossiness,” but I think this is a miss. Kristy is certainly a good example of a “bossy”-style leader, but she is far from the only character is the series to display leadership skills. Mary Anne Saves the Day, book #4 in the series, for example, focuses on how Mary Anne, a character who’s identified predominantly as shy and inhibited, takes charge during a babysitting emergency. Another club member, Claudia, expresses her visionary qualities through creating innovative fashion and art projects. While “bossiness” may be one sign of a “born leader,” other babysitters in the series show that there’s no one right way for young girls to show their leadership skills.
While I think it’s important to examine how we use words and to consider the power behind language, I don’t think the solution is banning these words. With Ban Bossy, Sheryl Sandberg is trying to start a conversation around language, and I applaud her for that—but starting that conversation at “banning” bossy is really limiting. I see more power in reclaiming problematic language in order to change its meaning. I see the power in being bossy, and owning the shit out of it. Just like Kristy owns her bossiness, and like Mary Anne owns her shyness, and like Claudia owns the fact that she’s not the best when it comes to school but she’s kind of a genius when it comes to making art and putting together creative outfits.
And furthermore I see the power in creating media that expands the limited language that’s used to talk to and about girls. Just like Ann M. Martin (and her dozens of ghostwriters!) created a series that foregrounds a “bossy” girl as an unapologetic and well-respected leader, a not-so-academic girl as an artistic visionary, and moreover a group of 7th and 8th grade girls as savvy businesswomen who saw a niche, effectively filled it, and, yes, leaned the hell into it. As writers, as artists, as media-makers, and as people in conversation at large, we have the opportunity—and perhaps the responsibility—to promote our visions for the world, and the girls within it, into being. We can work to shift how people think about problematic words like “bossy” and beyond, and hopefully, over time, we can begin to change the narratives that surround them.