Putting the brakes on sexist mores
While we’re banning ‘bossy’, here’s a few more words I’d like to usher into oblivion
Ban bossy: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Photograph: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
The brakes failed last week on a car I have been renting for the past seven months. I called the rental company and they sent a mechanic out. He arrived, kicked a few tyres, gave it a spin up and down the street, and stood on the footpath, scratching his belly. “Nothing wrong with that car,” he said.
When I asked how his diagnosis was compatible with my experience of the brakes failing twice in 24 hours, he looked thoughtful, and then reached into the mechanic’s international handbook of stock explanations for unexplained faults in vehicles driven by women. “You must have forgotten to turn the key in the ignition.”
Later, I was on the phone with the rental company, who insisted the car was perfect. But they would exchange it, a chap called Geoff said, if I drove it the 20km to their office. When I suggested this might be dangerous, he said I was being “hysterical”. I asked to speak to his superior. “Now you’re beginning to sound a bit wrought,” he said.
Wrought wasn’t the word I would have used, or even overwrought. Incandescent would have been more accurate. Murderous, even.
I thought again about this conversation when I read about the proposal by Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé to ban the word ‘bossy’ which, they argue, is a way of discouraging little girls from showing leadership skills. The campaign has generated a mixed response in the media, and much sneering amongst the kind of internet commentators who refer to us as ‘wimmin’.
It may be simplistic to suggest that words can be wiped from the lexicon – but then, this is a campaign aimed primarily at young children and their parents. The initiative is not just about language, it is also about drawing attention to what I would call the expectations gap between the parents of boys and girls. One 14-year US study found that parents of adolescents placed more emphasis on leadership skills for their sons than for their daughters.
But ‘#banbossy’ is primarily about language – and drawing attention to how words can be used to marginalise, sideline or control 50 per cent of the population. I’m all for it. Because I’m tired of being called ‘hysterical’ when what I am is livid. I’m tired of hearing ‘emotional’ used against women as though it’s an insult. And I’m tired of being told I’m ‘whining’ when I say I’ve had enough.
While we’re at it, there are a few other words I’d like to usher into oblivion. ‘Bitchy’ is only ever used about women and gay men, though straight men are just as capable of it. ‘Hormonal’ is another – last time I checked, men have hormones too. ‘Sensitive’, ‘pushy’ and ‘ambitious’ tend to be insults when used about women in a corporate context; used about men they’re often meant as a compliment.
Pass on passive
This language-based conditioning starts in childhood. Even when we’re trying to be complimentary, we can be guilty of sending little girls the message that their role in life is to be compliant. We praise them for their looks, for ‘playing nicely’ and being ‘ladylike’. We don’t give them permission to be competitive or loud or disruptive, behaviours we tolerate in boys. We don’t stress nearly enough the importance of standing up for themselves.
In her book, How To Be a Woman , the writer Caitlin Moran makes a convincing case for why women should reclaim the word “strident”. Being ladylike is no fun. Being strident, I’ve found, is not just fun, it can be very effective.
I eventually got to speak to the manager of the car rental company, a woman. A day later, a Saturday, a new car was waiting outside my house, and Geoff had been dispatched to take the old one away in a tow truck. As we tossed him the keys, I thought he looked a little wrought.