Monday, March 17, 2014

Women's Month 2014: Banning Bossy, Finding Role Models, and Shaping Our Future

By now you've probably heard about the Ban Bossy campaign, an effort launched this month co-sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America and The campaign is an attempt to subvert the ways we as a society regard young females who show an interest in leadership. 'Bossy' in and of itself isn't a negative word, though; the problem lies in how it's used. Bossy has come to serve as a stand-in for words much worse, a seemingly innocuous pejorative that in fact discourages and intimidates girls who might otherwise speak up. It's one of the myriad tiny ways we instruct young women to be seen and not heard, to be submissive and gentle rather than brave and outspoken. And it has to stop.

Naturally, there's been a bit of pushback against the campaign by those who would continue to adhere to the status quo, casting Ban Bossy as an overreaction or exaggeration on the part of women. The prevalent argument among men, however, smacks simultaneously of laziness and ignorance--something along the lines of 'oh what, now there's another word we can't use? Where does it stop?!'

Here's the thing about that, though:  thinking twice about the words you use before you use them is literally the least you can do in the fight for gender equality. No, you're not being oppressed when we ask you to consider that maybe conditioning little girls to view themselves in such a negative light isn't the most positive way to introduce them into grown-up society, especially when that society will graduate into referring to these same little girls as "bitches" and "cunts" when they attempt to take on leadership roles as adults.

If you're really adamant that dropping one word in a singular context from your vocabulary is too darn difficult, fear not. There are other minute changes you can and should make in the way you speak, the way you interact with other humans and the way you see the world that can make things better for women, which will ultimately make things better for everyone. These are little ways that sexism has become ingrained in our society, and the only way we'll ever dispose of them is by policing ourselves first. And don't go thinking this is simply a list of tips for men--ladies can be equally and occasionally guiltier of committing these crimes against the female gender.

1. To quote the fabulous Tina Fey: "...stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores." Now, while Tina and I may differ on this premise of it ever being "okay" for men to call women these names, the larger point is that we need to seriously reconsider the language we use when we talk or even think about women. I challenge you, as I've challenged myself, to take a tally of the number of times you mentally call a woman who has vaguely slighted you (or who is simply wearing an irritated expression) a 'bitch.' Count how many times you make a split-second decision that some girl is a 'slut' simply because she dresses less conservatively than you do. Ask yourself, and answer honestly, if you've ever shamed another female about her body, her assertive personality, or her sexual activities. If you're like me, you haven't been perfect on this front. You've transgressed perhaps more times than you'd like to admit. But awareness is the first step. Ask yourself why you jump to using these words, and try to justify why they're necessary (spoiler alert: they're not). It'll take awhile, but eventually these words won't be the first ones that spring to mind, and if they aren't in your thoughts, they won't be on your lips.

2.  In a similar vein, think about how frequently we as a culture choose to insult others, but most especially women, based on their appearances rather than on the situation at hand. If I hear one more criticism of Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama that discusses their clothing or hair rather than their accomplishments, I will scream. I'm appalled to say that I've literally (and more than once) heard arguments settled with the words "yeah, but (s)he's fat" as an explanation for not respecting someone. No, women are not the only targets of these types of attacks (the endless onslaught of Chris Christie fat jokes also springs to mind here), but it cannot be denied that when the person being discussed or criticized is a woman, people are much quicker to go to the appearance-based insults well. Stop being surprised that Melissa McCarthy is funny despite her full figure, that Sarah Jessica Parker is wildly successful despite her "horsey" face, that Lady Gaga is talented despite dressing unconventionally, and instead appreciate the work they do. Just because someone's appearance doesn't fit your narrow frame of beauty doesn't make them ugly, and it has nothing to do with their ability to excel in their field.

3.  Quick, think of someone whom you believe encompasses an "empowered female role model" in current popular culture. Did someone like Katniss Everdeen or Arya Stark spring to mind? How about Leslie Knope, or Liz Lemon?  Katy Perry? Ke$ha? How about Honey Boo-Boo, or the Kardashians? What if I told you every single one of these answers is the right one, and that there are infinite others you could've given that would have been just as correct? It's true--empowerment is one of those qualities that never looks identical on any two people. All of these fabulous ladies are brave, intelligent, ballsy, and kind; the difference lies simply in how they meet those criteria. The picture of an empowered woman comes in myriad forms (even ones you may not recognize at first) and is as ever-changing as our modern culture. We need to stop pigeonholing the idea of female role models into rigid parameters that can't ever be re-negotiated. Katniss is allowed to fall in love and still be badass; Ke$ha is allowed to sing party songs and still be intelligent; Kim Kardashian is allowed to be US Weekly's favorite subject while simultaneously being one of the more charitable celebs in Hollywood. These women are all to be admired, and I'd be willing to bet that they've all been referred to as "bossy" (or worse) at least once.

I could continue this list for days, cataloging all the baby steps we can take to make things better for women. I could tell you that in the grand scheme of things, banning 'bossy' is something that stands to reap a huge benefit at the cost of almost zero effort on our parts. The Ban Bossy campaign, like most feminist campaigns in this vein, isn't asking you for much at all:  they're simply asking you to think before you speak. And that's something we could all stand to do more often.