Early in my book, the Island of Lost Children, the Peter character comments on how Wendy has become less “bossy”—he really hates to be told what to do. And sometimes Wendy in her role as the caretaker of her two younger brothers resorts to ordering them around, often without much success in achieving what she wants. Once on the island, and with her brothers less dependent on her, Wendy finds ways to creatively work with the other children. She helps them organize into teams and has the younger children who can’t read act out letters instead of using rote methods of teaching. At that point, Peter is pleased to see that she’s no longer “bossy.”
Recently, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez, started a campaign to ban the word “bossy” (#BanBossy), especially when used with girls. Beyoncé has made similar case. These women believe that the adjective is synonymous with being “aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women” and hampers girls as leaders, causing them to remain silent when there’s a lot of pressure for them to be “liked.” Granted, the word bossy is often used to describe a particular behavior that results in others feeling controlled and crowded out, but too often the term extends beyond that to negatively describe when a girl or woman asserts herself.
So if I had to write the book over again, would I have dropped the word “bossy”? Maybe not. There’s a contrasting moment that makes it worthwhile for me, a moment that’s one of my favorites in the book. This is a spoiler, but late in the novel, after an epic battle with the pirates in which Wendy takes part, Peter no longer calls her bossy. He uses the word, “brave.”
I may not be a fan of banning most words, but what I would be in favor of is that we agree to retire those that are demeaning or hurtful. When these four women bring attention to those little messages that keep girls from realizing their full potential, I can only stand up and cheer.