Bossy, Bitch, C*nt, Oh My! A look at women’s war on words

Women’s war of words has been brewing for decades. The recent bossy debate really brings attention to how the sticks and stones might just be the only thing hurting women. If you look at the social psychology of language, there’s a lot to be said about the sexist impact of words.

To the naysayers who think Sandberg, Beyoncé, the Lean In organization and the Girl Scouts of America are jumping to conclusions, social psychology’s Madonna-Whore dichotomy gives weight to the campaign’s argument. Sure there are such things as bad bosses, but what the dichotomy highlights is gendered sexism in language. From Sandberg’s perspective and many other women’s, women are either considered a good boss or a bossy (i.e. bad) one. The dichotomy highlights exactly that unfairness – women are either Madonnas (benevolent sexism) or whores (hostile sexism) and nothing in between. Yes, bossy, applied usually to women, is part of sexist vernacular.

The word bossy is so socially ingrained in our everyday language that it’s hard to detect its perniciousness. Unlike other demeaning words, no one is going to think to wash your mouth out with soap when you use it. The negativity it places on women is indiscernible, much like modern sexism. This might explain why there are no formal studies on its effects. It simply wasn’t on any researchers, academics or non-bossy people’s radar. Perhaps NY Magazine’s Ann Friedman might want to rethink her statement, “I’m all for encouraging girls to lead, but the term bossy is hardly a problem…” It took the female COO of Facebook, a plethora of female role models/leaders and a slew of Girl Scouts to notice that linguistics might impede their professional and economic advancement. I think they just earned a merit badge. 

If bossy hurts women, you can be sure there’s a massive laundry list of sullied words in need of reform too. Here are just a few terms women have been trying to overcome forever: bitch, slut, whore, cum dumpster, twat, skank, dyke, ho, tramp, harlot, jezebel and the queen of all insults, cunt.

All of them in some way place shame on a woman’s sexuality or body as a means of insult. Since bossy is not an insult based on the female body, its newfound pariah status can seem misplaced. Americans are awakening to the idea that our Western rhetoric not only demoralizes women on their physical attributes, but it also attacks their intangible ones too – like, in the case of bossy, their perception to be leaders. (I’m also willing to argue that Mrs., which defines a woman’s value on her relationship status and not on her accomplishments, is also detrimental to women. Mr. does not similarly define a man.) With wage gap and female leadership still lagging significantly behind, who can confidently say words like bossy are truly benign?

Like Sandberg, feminism has tried to stage similar word reforms. The rehabilitation of Bitch has come a long way. Bitch magazine actively claims it and converts it into a positive with the “belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us.” Part of me believes that all Sandberg and every woman needs to do to change the meaning of bossy is to genuinely and enthusiastically (not sarcastically) exclaim, “Why thank you for the compliment!” Critics, who see boycotting as an extremist strategy, have to understand that word reform is immensely slow though. It’s taken 20 years to reconstruct bitch’s meaning, but it’s still used in a derogatory fashion.

Slut, unlike bitch, still retains a lot of is acridity. It’s been used to putdown women seeking the same sexual expression men enjoy (the word for that is double standard). Slut shaming aims to punish women who don’t adhere to strict sexual mores or conservative clothing. And in the worst case scenario an epithet used to justify rape and blame victims. Feminists have tried to neutralize its negative meaning in a take-back-the-night kind of way, but with little success.

Then there’s cunt. To be clear, I’m not ready to reclaim the c-word in some feminist cunt d’état (though Vagina Monologues’ mother, Eve Ensler tries each year on V-Day). Comedian, writer John Mulaney has an interesting bit about the hierarchy of slurs (though he left out the c-word). Basically, if it can’t be said without offense, like the n-word, it is irredeemable. When an alternative name for a female’s genitals can only be spoken if spelled out with other words like “C U Next Tuesday” or is so infamous that only the first letter is needed to understand what you’re talking about, perhaps it should be added to the vocabulary of words that must never be spoken. If you’re unsure of whether boycotting bossy is the right path, there should be less confusion with cunt.

Heck, even the f-word itself, feminism, is still a PR nightmare, which brings me back to why so many people are opposed to the bossy ban. Women did not start the war on words. Feminism is merely responding, finally, to centuries of verbal diarrhea that has been flung at women. The campaign is not some backward feminist ideology meant to restrict choice; it’s asking that everyone make more responsible word choices. Reform or boycotting are the best options; the only other one is to start applying it to men too, but that’s lowering the respect bar rather than raising it. The bossy ban is increasing people’s awareness that the old adage of sticks and stones is wrong. Bruises heal, but words can leave invisible and permanent damage. For all the things that keep women as disadvantaged minorities, language might be the most dangerous because we use it every day, and often too carelessly.

By speaking out, Sandberg is merely breaking from normative behavior. She’s becoming a system threat to everyone who feels entitled to use bossy cavalierly or feels their chosen rhetoric comes without repercussions. She’s no longer ‘playing nice,’ and any backlash she receives (like calling her bossy) is again, hostile sexism. Regardless, even if you disagree with Sandberg and the movement, I can guarantee you’ll probably rethink calling someone bossy next time.

When adults become parents, they go to great lengths to change their language to set a positive example for their children. Abandoning their days of talking like sailors is an attempt to raise well-rounded, respectful kids. Isn’t that what the bossy ban is trying to do for girls? The semantics to our every day language can carry much more influence than safely converting hell into “H E Double Hockey Sticks.” So reconsider calling some a bitch, slut, whore, cunt or bossy next time you’re tempted to use it, that brief moment is perpetuating a decades old war of words aimed at demeaning women. If we want what’s best for our daughters, reforming or eradicating bossy is a very, very small price and inconvenience to pay. And aren’t our daughters, the potential first female president of The United States, worth it?

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