I posted a link on Facebook to the Ban Bossy campaign, because I liked it. And then a friend replied with a link to Hadley Freeman’s critique of the campaign. And then I wrote a comment in reply that, when I read it back, was definitely too long for Facebook, so I have put it here instead.
Absolutely – I by no means think that campaigns should stop with banning ‘bossy’ and obviously the bias of this particular piece of activism is towards fostering female leadership and trying to prevent confident girls having their ‘bossiness’ squashed out of them, but I still think it’s a good campaign for what it is. Mostly because I think if you draw attention to language in this way, it sparks consideration of all the other words that have negative, and gendered, connotations, and the way in which one throwaway word reveals so much about culturally-embedded prejudices.
I suppose a similar example of an attempt to highlight the importance of single words is the reappropriation of ‘queer’. Changing vocabulary on its own isn’t going to change everything, as the political correctness debate proves, but it does, I think, do something far more significant than the small effort it takes to think for a moment about what’s really being said when we say things. If people start paying more attention to one word, I think it follows that they pay more attention to all words, and that can only be a good thing in my opinion.
But yes, Hadley Freeman’s ideas would have more dramatic effects and I’d love to see all of them implemented, but they also take more to implement – and stuff like policy changes, which isn’t something we can all get involved with. I see the point she’s making, but I’m not sure how useful it is to pit these different feminist projects against each other. The Ban Bossy campaign is specifically about female leadership, and sure, Sheryl Sandberg could use her position of power in any number of different ways and put any kind of spin on a campaign that she wanted, but I’m not sure I agree with the general feminist belief that any feminist, and specifically any feminist in a position of power, has a responsibility to speak/act/campaign for ALL women. Sandberg has experience of being a ‘bossy’ woman, of being a high-flying super-leader, and she’s using that experience to try and open that particular door for other women/girls. In some ways I almost feel that the problem with feminism at the moment, and the reason it seems to have lost momentum and focus, is because it’s trying to do too many things. I don’t want to say the goals are too ambitious – that makes it sound like I’m saying that we should settle for what small gains we can make, which isn’t what I mean – but at the same time I think trying to manifest large-scale social change top-down is a) difficult, near impossible, and b) challenging to negotiate, because everyone has different ideas of what they want and what they think is most important. Personally, there are a million changes I would prioritise over banning the word ‘bossy’, but I welcome the campaign nonetheless because it’s still doing something, and it’s still raising awareness of feminist issues.
I don’t think it’s a problem that Sandberg is ‘aiming to help little girls who were like her’ – it’s quite natural to want to help other people like ourselves, and as that’s what we know best, quite logical, too. Sandberg could go out and interview a bunch of teenagers and work out what they really wanted, what the majority of them cite as being an issue, and maybe none of them would cite being called ‘bossy’ but I feel that’s missing the point. For one thing, it assumes that Sandberg sat and thought hmm, I want to launch a campaign to help young women, what can I possibly do? Then came up with some small-scale half-baked idea based only on her own memories of being young, showing just how out of touch she is with the youth of today and massively missing the mark in a well-intentioned but useless kind of a way because she didn’t do any research. More likely is that the desire to launch the campaign came from her own ‘bossy’ issues. It also assumes, somehow, that she has a responsibility, as a woman in power, to use that position for the good of other women – in fact, for all women. And whilst I would like it to be true, and not just in the case of women, that people in positions of privilege use that privilege to pave the way for those with less privilege, our society, and the capitalist economy, does not see it that way. Well, except in the case of figureheads who belong to marginalised groups, who are expected to work far more for the cause of those groups than mainstream leaders, and who tend to attract criticism if they don’t take up that mantle. I feel uncomfortable with that, because although I personally (not that I’m high-profile, obviously, but every little helps…) feel a sense of responsibility to be public about my various ‘abnormalities’ in the interests of increasing visibility and making them more normalised, I don’t think anyone should be pressured into that – in some ways it seems that it reinforces prejudice by giving more social responsibility to the minority than the majority. If you’re gay, you must stand up for gay rights! If you’re a woman you must join feminist campaigns! If in an ethnic minority you must lobby against racism! If you have a disability you must get involved with disability awareness-raising! And if you’re a high-profile example of any of these you must foreground this aspect of your identity at all times and all your actions must be encouraging to other members of the minority group you belong to – in fact, probably to all minority groups, because you obviously feel sympathy with marginalised peoples in general.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff contained within those sorts of assumptions. For one, it seems almost counter-intuitive to put so much emphasis on difference when the idea, really, is to make that difference less important. It’s like we’re trying to say hey it shouldn’t be a big deal that this big powerful person is a female/gay/not white/disabled/etc. person and at the same time saying OMG female/gay/non-white/disabled leader OMG! And then the person becomes defined by their difference rather than by what they are doing. News articles abound in which the relevant descriptions focus on these ‘remarkable’ aspects of these people’s identities – ‘female CEO blah blah’, ‘gay actor blah blah’, ‘disabled athlete blah blah’: they are always marked by their difference, and if something goes wrong, if they fuck up, this is still the relevant information, with the inference being that somehow there is a connection – ‘gay actor arrested for drink-driving’, ‘female CEO found guilty of fraud’, ‘disabled athlete tested positive for drugs’. On the one hand there is visibility at stake and it’s important to see that yes, female, disabled, gay, non-white, etc., people CAN be in all these important and high-profiled positions and they ARE out there, but on the other hand it obscures a lot, too. Articles and interviews inevitably focus on identity politics, so a female CEO will likely end up being asked how it is to be a female CEO, where a male CEO will probably be questioned on, you know, what he will be doing as CEO. Although of course I do think it’s important to talk about those things as well because how else do we know what issues need addressing? But it’s complicated, and I suppose to some extent that IS the responsibility of being trailblazing.
There is also a double-standard here – public figures who belong to minorities are assumed to be less prejudiced, and are censured all the more viciously if they aren’t. Most of the time I’d hazard that those on the receiving end of discrimination and stigma ARE probably more likely to be tolerant of other stigmatised groups, but it’s by no means impossible to be a narrow-minded dickhead whatever flavour you come in. Our positions of privilege are all relative. I’m a woman, so in relation to men I have less privilege, and I have a mental illness or two, and I’m not heterosexual, but I’m white, and I’m middle-class, and I was raised in a monocultural, middle-class area where university education was an unquestioned assumption. When I was a kid it was just me and my mum, and we lived on benefits, and between the ages of 8 and 11 we were probably the poorest and most looked-down-upon people who lived in the small village we inhabited at that time. By the standards of that village, a single-parent, unemployed family living in a rented house with a clapped out old car (bright turquoise – how vulgar!) that had to be pushed down the hill to bump-start every morning was simply the pits. But the standards of the main town two miles away, or of the small independent primary school I attended, this was perfectly normal. So, anyway, my point is that positions of (dis)privilege are relational and shifting and we can only really know our own experience. Whilst I empathise with the cause of other stigmatised groups and have had the experience of being bullied and sneered at and disadvantaged, I still don’t know what it’s like to be anyone else. Other than being female, there are few outward signs of my difference (although somehow I seem to attract attention, positive and negative, regardless, so maybe there is a je-ne c’est quoi of difference), and although I’ve experienced racism a couple of times by virtue of living in a black-majority area, I can’t possibly know how it is to live with that daily in a society that still considers skin colour important, just as a man can never know how it is to be a woman every single day despite having experienced a few occasions of street harassment or sexism. Discrimination, stigma, and bullying are as various as are the kinds of features that attract those behaviours. To have experienced stigma in one capacity doesn’t qualify you to comment on other stigmas. I know what it is to be bullied, and I’ve been bullied for many things, and each felt different, each cut in a different way. This is a very convoluted way of basically saying that a) misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., are all different things, and b) the experience of misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., is not the same for all who experience it. Which is obvious, I know, but yet doesn’t seem to prevent the view that ‘we’re all in it together’.
Ok wow I’ve strayed miles from my original point here – no surprises! – so to get back on track what I’m saying really I suppose is that there seems a certain pettiness in criticising the efforts of people who are trying to change things, even if it is in a very minor way or not the way we might have prioritised. It always feels like one-up-(wo)manship when as I see it there is SO MUCH work to be done and anyone who wants to do some of it, in whatever way, is very welcome to join in. Ban Bossy might be the activism equivalent of tunnelling through a landslide with a plastic spoon but it’s better than standing back going ‘cor, that’s a lot of rubble, no idea how we’re gonna clear that’ and hoping if you stand there stroking your beard in contemplation long enough someone else will come along with a fuckoff great bulldozer and take care of it for you. Start off with your little spoon, recruit other people to come along with their little spoons, and you’ll soon be doing the work of a bulldozer. Well. You know. That’s the dream anyway.
Essentially: something is better than nothing. And whilst Freeman isn’t wholesale slagging Sandberg off, I do take objection to the tone, which seems unnecessarily negative. I’d love to see, in general, more support of people’s ideas, both in the media and in human beings. I fully acknowledge that I’m quick to criticise and hard to enthuse and I hate that about myself. Sometimes the internet showcases the best aspects of humanity in a manner that fills me with joy, but it’s also a platform for cynicism, whinging, and back-seat driving. So much comment, so much passing judgement, so little actually doing anything (no, it is not lost on me that I’m doing precisely this right now). I feel like at the very least instead of sitting here poking holes in everyone else’s ideas, if we aren’t going to come up with our own we can be supportive. In fact, even if we are going to come up with our own. We can add them instead of having to see it in terms of replacing. Less ‘well I have a better idea’ and more ‘I have an additional idea’. Building, collaborating, expanding – there’s more than enough space.
You know. We all have a spoon. And we can all use that spoon. And I just wish that we would focus a little less on what other people are doing with theirs and more on what we’ll do with ours – because if they’re digging in the same general direction, it’s just bloody great that they’re using it for something more than feeding themselves. Sure, the reason we’re at the current state of affairs is because those with the power to help other people help others like themselves and thus the higher echelons of power look pretty homogenous, but I don’t think that means it’s per se bad to help in that way. In the long-term I suppose what we’re fighting for is for the notion ‘people like me’ to be broader and less based on easily-catalogued identity traits, so that it comes to include simply ‘people’, but for where we’re at right now, I’m not going to criticise Sandberg’s focus on female leadership. It’s still taking us in the right direction. It’s still getting people thinking about the implications of language. It’s not going to revolutionise the whole world, but nothing is going to do that. And yes, it privileges a certain kind of leadership – a masculine conception of what a leader acts like – and it still only reformulates that to make it more acceptable for girls to wear that behaviour, and it doesn’t challenge our ideas about ideals of leadership in general, but still. It’s something. And maybe it does spark off other thoughts too – maybe we do start thinking well if a certain behaviour is seen positively in boys but in girls is devalued with the negative ‘bossy’ then perhaps the matter at stake here isn’t only whether girls performing ‘masculine’ attributes are denigrated but whether those attributes are actually as desirable as we thought – in anyone. You can read it both ways – a positive attribute that’s only negative in women, or a negative attribute that’s only positive in men. Which way you look at it, I suppose, changes whether or not you think ‘bossy’ should be banned or equally applied to boys, and now I’ve started thinking about that I’m going down another rabbit-hole of contemplations. But in any case I’m obviously being very black and white about it when there’s really no such thing as an unequivocally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ trait, just to highlight the point that the Ban Bossy campaign does nothing to challenge the automatic correlation between leadership and ‘bossiness’, nothing to make way for new styles of leadership, so of course it is narrow and slightly short-sighted in remit- but it’s not claiming to be anything more wide-ranging than it is, and nor does it need to be.
Ban Bossy has its flaws, its scope doesn’t reach to the heart of the issues, but I’m not going to say ‘hey Sheryl Sandberg, you should’ve done something else!’ I’m going to say Hey, Sheryl Sandberg, thanks for getting your spoon out.