Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
As readers of my How to Fail… book already know, I have a system for detecting B.S. It isn’t foolproof by any means, but it serves me reasonably well in an imperfect world. Briefly, the system requires a two-point confirmation. For example, if my personal experience matches the findings of established science, I am more likely to be a believer. But if the science and my observations disagree, or science and common sense disagree, it triggers my B.S. detector.
I also accept eyewitness reports from other people as one form of evidence, although that clearly has huge reliability issues. But in practice, if you say you had a good experience doing X, and studies say people enjoy doing X, I conclude that X is probably an enjoyable thing for some people.
Now to my point…
Actor Emma Watson noted during her recent speech at the UN that assertive girls can too often be labelled “bossy,” and this is a form of sexism. I have heard this claim many times. Does it pass the B.S. filter?
I pause to remind you that passing or failing the B.S. filter does not indicate truth or falsehood. It only indicates that a thing has credibility issues or it doesn’t. And that can be important if you are an advocate for the cause.
Let’s put the “bossy” claim through the B.S. filter and see how it comes out. My starting bias is that while sexism clearly exists, the “bossy” theme hurts the credibility of advocates for women because it doesn’t register as true with men.
Most women have, I assume, had personal experience with the “bossy” insult. Perhaps women have heard the word being used on the playground or at work, and now they have heard from Emma Watson and others that it is a common experience. For women, the bossy claim probably has two-point confirmation and passes their B.S. filter. (Women, can you confirm that assumption?)
I have no personal memory of a male ever calling a female “bossy.” I leave open the possibility that I have heard “bossy” a hundred times and had no special reason to remember it. All I am saying is that I have no memory of hearing it. I can’t say it has never happened around me. But I do have distinct memories of women calling me bossy. So the bossy claim fails my personal experience filter. But that doesn’t mean much.
Perhaps the “bossy” claim has been studied by reputable scientists, but I am not aware of that study. So science doesn’t help with my B.S. filter.
What about common sense? Does my common sense – if such a thing exists – support the idea that people are calling assertive girls bossy while giving assertive boys a free pass? Let’s dig in a little.
I always like to start with context. The “bossy” contention implies that there are special insults just for women. That part is obviously true. Words such as bossy, bitch, witch, whore, slut, and of course the c-word are usually reserved for women. The mere existence of special insults just for women seems to support the claim of pervasive sexism.
But men have special insults too. Asshole, dick, douchebag, motherfucker, and bastard spring to mind. You rarely hear those words applied to women.
My personal experience is that when people act in ways we don’t like, we label them with awful words, and we often pick those words based on gender.
My observation over a lifetime is that take-charge individuals are always respected, regardless of gender, so long as they are both capable and well-meaning. If not, the gender-based insults will start flying. The take-charge guy will be labelled a clueless dick and the take-charge gal will be labelled a bossy c-word. But in both cases what is being questioned is competence and intention, not gender. That’s just my personal observation and I don’t equate it with truth.
I hold open the possibility that people all across the country are suppressing assertive girls by labelling them bossy. But my hypothesis is that women are seeing it and men are not. That’s a problem if you are an advocate for women. If, like Emma Watson, your message is meant to change the minds of men, you must first satisfy their B.S. filters with your claims. Communication only works after you establish trust.
I watched the Emma Watson video of her speech and the bossy part shut me down. I don’t remember a thing after that because it struck me as under-sourced and not sufficiently credible based on my personal experience and memories. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid point. That just means it doesn’t work as a point of advocacy.
The first rule of sales is that you want to say things the customer agrees with. You start with the easy stuff, such as “You like efficiency and low prices, right?” Once the customer starts “pacing” you, to borrow a term from hypnosis, you can start leading them to the decision you want them to make. Ms. Watson started her speech, which was primarily aimed at men, with a claim that I suspect lacks credibility for men but not for women.
If you want to influence me, start with something I know to be true, not something that makes me scratch my head and wonder if everything else that follows is just as iffy as the first thing.
I don’t think there is any way to get objective data on whether the word “bossy” is suppressing assertive girls everywhere. My only point is that in the context of advocacy, the bossy claim works against the cause because it registers as true to women but questionable to men.
Men, in your experience, and in the year 2014, are the capable and well-meaning girls and women who assert themselves routinely being called one of the b-words? Or is it simply the case that we insult bad people with gender-specific insults and half of those bad people are female?
Note to Jezebel, Gawker, and Huffington Post: A good way to take this post out of context is with a headline such as “Cartoonist doesn’t believe anyone has ever insulted a woman because he doesn’t remember seeing it.” That’ll work.
[Update: Let’s assume Emma Watson is correct and some little girls are called bossy for no other reason than because they volunteer to direct the neighborhood play. That seems sexist. But what about the little girls who are pushy, selfish assholes and not “assertive” in a good way? Are they 1% of the girls being called bossy or are they 99%? How would we know? Since adults generally won’t call a little girl an asshole, would they call that girl bossy, and would that girl grow up thinking the problem was sexism and not herself? These are questions, not an opinion. I can’t have an opinion without knowing how often adults are using the word bossy as a label for take-charge attitudes versus pushy, selfish, obnoxious behavior. – Scott]
[Update 2: Interestingly, I have no memory of any boyhood friends acting bossy, pushy, assertive, or anything in that general direction. Boys tend to follow what they perceive as the best idea, or they follow the herd, or they follow their penises. I have zero memory of any boy ever trying to tell me what to do as a kid. So I wonder if the unusual lack of adult-like assertiveness in young boys makes normal girl behavior seem more bossy in contrast. – Scott]