This week I will be talking about the asymmetry in the English language when it comes to adjectives that are used to describe the female gender. Symmetrical language refers to when there is one word used for one gender, and another completely different word used for another gender. Asymmetry occurs when there is a word, or set of words, that only applies to one gender.
In English this can be seen with the gendered alignment of adjectives that are only used to describe women or girls, and nearly never used when referring to the male gender. Some of these words include “feisty”, “hormonal”, “shrill”, “hysterical”, and “bossy”. There are many more words like these, but I will be focusing on the word bossy and my personal experience with it.
According to the Oxford English Language dictionary, bossy means someone who is “fond of giving people orders; domineering.” The definition includes no use of pronouns, or any indication that it is referring to a particular gender. However, in my lived experiences, that is not the case. In real life, “bossy” ends up meaning to describe someone assertive who happens to be a woman, and people tend to be more uneasy around women who speak their mind. Growing up, I never heard “bossy” be applied to any of my boy classmates, it was only ever used when referring to girls- and always in a negative way. When boys display these characteristics (speaking their mind, or telling their friends what to play at recess), they are often praised and called “little leaders”, or just generally seen in a positive light.
I was worried that my tendencies to speak my mind and make my own choices would give me the label “bossy”, whereas all I was doing was being a “little leader”. I’ve never been someone to just follow the crowd, but I was always aware that this might have given me the label “bossy” while the boys I grew up with never had this issue.
It’s not simply my lived experiences that support my claim that “bossy” is a gendered adjective. This article in the linguisticpulse.com blog uses data to examine this phenomenon and it says the same thing, “bossy” is not for males.
But what can we do about it?
There are a couple of things. I think the first one would simply be to empower girls to be able to say “so what?” when people call them bossy. I remember saying to one of my teachers when I was younger that I was worried that in a group project I was concerned I would be considered bossy for helping organize the team, and she said to me “Who cares? Let them think that.” And that was one of the first times I realized that I didn’t need to listen to labels that came from people who wanted to put me in a box. If we could get more teachers to show their female students that they can just say “so what?” to rude adjectives like bossy, I think this would be majorly useful in combating the use of the word bossy, as it would take away power from the word.
Similarly, I would suggest unlearning the gendered aspect of the word and apply it to men too. Instead of using bossy to refer to women who are leaders that speak their mind, we could simply return to using bossy in its original definition, for all people who are too domineering. This does something similar to teaching girls to say “so what”, as it removes the dimension of sexism and gender inequality from the word. It will be a difficult transition since calling men bossy sounds so foreign, but it’s possible. And, if possible with the word bossy, we could apply the same idea to the other words that I mentioned earlier in this post (like shrill, or hysterical).
In 2014, there was a movement to simply ban the use of the word bossy as the organizers of the movement (one of whom was Beyonce) felt that there was no point in letting there be space for the word to take up. They even released a short promotional youtube video to further their campaign. Banning “bossy” is an interesting approach, but I don’t think it is incredibly realistic. It has merit in the fact that it would require people to think twice about their use of the word, but banning a word seems like it could cause more problems than provide solutions.
Of the approaches mentioned to solve the gendered adjective problem, my favorite one would be simply to de-gender these adjectives and use them for anyone whom the original definition fits. Like I mentioned, this will take time, but who knows, maybe people will get really into calling men bossy as well!