Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scout CEO Anna Maria Chávez took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week to call for a ban on the word "bossy." They argue that the word is overwhelmingly used in a gendered way—it's directed at girls, in order to stigmatize them for being "assertive, confident and opinionated"—qualities for which boys are praised.
I think that Sandberg and Chávez are basically correct on the way the term is used for girls. The question they don't address, though, is whether boys deserve that praise. When is it good to be assertive, confident and opinionated? Are there some situations in which this behavior is just plain awful? Maybe the problem isn't just that we call women "bossy" too much; maybe the problem is that we let men get away with behavior which we should call "bossy," or something worse.
We do occasionally call men something worse. Guys who are abusive are referred to as "assholes" or "jerks"—words which connote a real abuse of power, rather than the diminutive, condescending "bossy." Terms like "asshole," then, are the other side of praising guys for assertiveness—men's power, whether for good or ill, is taken seriously, while women's is diminished or condescended to. Sandberg and Chávez are right that women's power should be respected as men's is—but their enthusiastic take on empowerment doesn't leave a lot of room to question instances in which power, or bossiness, can be bad.
Here's one example that's been in the news recently: the behavior of New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Christie has had a long-standing reputation as "a hands-on, take-charge kind of guy," to quote one laudatory Daily Beast profile from 2011. An article from the New Jersey Star Ledger added that labels like "Straight talk. No nonsense. Tough guy…are practically clichés when talking about Gov. Chris Christie." You could substitute in there Sandberg and Chávez's "assertive, confident, and opinionated." Christie would probably be called "bossy" if he were a girl; as it is, he's just a guy doing that awesome thing guys do.
That awesome thing being, as it turns out, quite unpleasant. Even before his most recent scandals, it was clear that for Christie, "take-charge" and "spout abuse" were often more synonymous than not. In July 2012 he called a reporter "stupid" and "an idiot" at a press conference; nor has that been the only incident.
Of course, more recently, evidence has appeared indicating that Christie's staff were involved in closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge, apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for failing to support Christie's re-election bid. The governor himself denies any involvement, claiming that he wasn't really as take-charge as all that. But the suspicion remains that his praiseworthy assertive personality translated in this instance into thuggish abuse of power—or, if you prefer, into mean-spirited bossiness. Yet, for all the invective hurled in Christie's direction, few seem to have applied the "bossy" label to him.