boss·y1, adjective. Fond of giving people orders; domineering. “She was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar.” Synonyms: pushy, overhearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; high and mighty. “we’re hiding from his bossy sister.” Antonyms: submissive.”
Beginnings of Bossy
This is the result when the word “bossy” is googled. Notice anything about the examples? What about the antonym? I heard this more than once as a kid. But what I didn’t notice was that when a little boy asserted himself, he was called a “leader.”
I was a bit of an odd kid. In a blog post for the Columbus women’s group, Creative Babes, I told the following story:
“Well, I was pretty ambitious. And I honestly don’t know where I even learned what it was or what it meant, but I would tell people that I wanted to be a CEO. I actually used to make PowerPoint presentations for fun, and kept school papers in file folders. My favorite make-believe game was pretending that I was the owner and editor of my own magazine, and my two younger cousins were my assistants. (I promise I have a very horizontal approach to leadership now.) But it wasn’t all make-believe. I actually created, “Diana’s Magazine,” where I sold services like car-washes and cleaning dishes, wrote poems, and promoted upcoming “shows” that I would put on for my family.”Creative Babes, Meet Diana Muzina
Where did calling little girls bossy even come from? Roger Hargreaves published Little Miss Bossy in 1981. In it, Little Miss Bossy tells everyone what to do, until Wilfred the Wizard casts a spell on her, and she “learns her lesson.” But the pejorative use of, “bossy” definitely existed before perms and neon leg-warmers.
Power & Status
“Bossy” is tied to sociopolitical issues of social hierarchy; specifically, power. Power that is often associated with high status. And, because of privilege, white men hold the majority of power and status. This is tied to a concept called hegemonic masculinity, or, standards against which all men are judged.
In our world, hegemonic masculinity involves largely being white, middle class, young, and heterosexual. Those that do not have all of those things, have different access to opportunities – different access to power. And as women, we are automatically precluded from that access. Most of men’s lives are spent avoiding emasculation because manhood is measured this way.
The theory of hegemonic masculinity says that “women, men or color, working-class men, and gay men are the groups against which men act out their definitions of manhood – the other, “nonmen,”against whom their masculinity is defined.” (Questioning Gender, Robyn Ryle)
Pink for girls, blue for boys.
Gender roles are ascribed to us even before we’re born. Think of all the “gender reveal,” parties trending lately. Pink for girls, and blue for boys. Frilly outfits for female babies, and building blocks for the males.
In a study conducted by Seavey et al. in 1975, they prompted participants to describe the same exact infant using adjectives. Groups were told that the infant was either a girl, a boy, or without gender. The labeling of gender led to a stark contrast in perceived differences between the children. They described the perceived boy as strong, but called the perceived girl soft. (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, Stephanie L. Meredith)
What countless research has shown, is that when you violate your attributed gender role and step outside of your gender transgression zone you are considered taboo, unnatural, or abnormal. This sort of gender polarization is used to reinforce traditional gender roles – and describes “the ways in which behaviors and attitudes that are viewed as appropriate for men are viewed as inappropriate for women, and vice versa.” (Questioning Gender, Robyn Ryle)
Hence, when a little girl takes charge and exhibits strong, powerful behavior she is called bossy.
Being little and bossy.
Now, excuse me for falling into an academic black hole. There are countless gender and power theories to explore. What I want to assert is the effect that being called, “bossy” can have.
I was an outspoken, gung-ho little leader, but quickly turned to bottling emotions, opinions, and my perspectives because I didn’t want to come off as bossy. I raised my hand in class, but made sure to not be the first one. Further, I didn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t say anything when kids made fun of me for my crooked teeth in third-grade. And I didn’t say anything at eighteen, when I won the popular vote for student class president, the school told me that they thought students needed to, “see a boy” in a leadership position. (Ironically, my senior superlative was “most likely to be president.” Good one, guys!)
I was told bossy was a bad thing. But if I had continued to be bossy, maybe I would have righted some wrongs, or obtained some of the opportunities I deserved.
Where do we go from here?
In the Creative Babes blog post, I went on to say the following:
“Now it didn’t end there. I made the tickets and the environmental branding to go along with it. A couple weeks ago I was telling my older sister about this project, and we started reminiscing. She told me that I always had a business plan, “I would want the glam experience of selling lemonade, and you would ask me what our ‘target audience,’ was.” Yeah, I was weird. I definitely got that I was bossy, but now I proudly boast a “girl boss,” placard at my desk at work and recognize that was just something people say to little girls who are strong leaders.”Creative Babes, Meet Diana Muzina
There has been talk of not calling little girls bossy anymore. But what I think we really need to do, is change the connotation. What we really need to do is push the boundaries of that gender transgression zone. What we need to do is make it okay for women to be and be seen as, powerful. We need to Be Bossy.