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‘Ban bossy’ and the bossy women in pop culture

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Last week, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and her “Lean In” organization announced a new campaign in partnership with the Girl Scouts to “ban bossy.” The rationale? The campaign’s organizers argue that from an early age, boys are praised for being assertive and showing leadership skills, while girls are criticized for it, establishing patterns that follow young women into middle school and then on into the working world.

A number of high-profile women in entertainment and culture, including Jennifer Garner, Jane Lynch and Diane von Furstenberg, have signed on to the campaign. But the most high-profile among them is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, who gave the kickoff video its tagline, telling viewers “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”

That’s an important mental shift for girls and women to make, but it also gets at the scope of the challenge. Beyoncé is quite literally the boss, capable of making a record largely without her studio’s knowledge and releasing it on her own terms and timeline, and devoting that album to a singular portrait of professional accomplishment, married sexuality and motherhood. But not every woman’s achieved that level of public and private autonomy. And pop culture both has an enormous role in shaping our senses of what it means for a woman to lead, and the difficult task of working with audiences’ existing expectations for strong women and girls.

Michael Schur, who co-created the political comedy “Parks and Recreation,” says that the show’s writing staff has tried to balance public servant Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) tendency to take charge in any situation by making clear that she takes criticism well, and demonstrating how committed she is to her friends’ challenges, as well as to her own. “A self-aware–and occasionally apologetic–bulldozer is better than one who is narcissistically ignorant of her effect on other people,” he explains.

And Schur says that ultimately what matters is that Leslie is exceptionally competent, a trait “Parks and Recreation” began to highlight in its second season after portraying her as a bit of a buffoon in the first. Rather than falling into pits or desperately trying to earn her mother’s approval, Leslie becomes someone who wins international awards for her leadership, and who engineers a merger between two towns to solve a fiscal crisis.

“We’ve made Leslie extraordinarily hard-working, and extraordinarily good at her job,” Schur says. “So even as she is being control-freak-y and demanding of her co-workers, she is getting amazing results and putting together massive projects that entertain and benefit a very large group of people.”

Leslie isn’t just imitating the qualities that make someone worthy of a leadership position. That’s ultimately the implication behind “bossy,” a suggestion that there’s a gap between the ambitions and the abilities of the person who’s the target of the word, a delusion that renders her a little ridiculous. Instead Leslie actually embodies those traits, even if the people she’s trying to serve don’t always appreciate them. Over the last two seasons, as Leslie runs for city council and then loses a recall election sponsored by a local soft drink company, “Parks and Recreation” has been an extended meditation on another kind of cognitive dissonance: the difference between the kind of competent leadership voters think they want, and how they react when they get it, particularly in the form of a woman.

Shonda Rhimes, the creator of both the smash hit political soap opera “Scandal” and the long-running hospital drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” declined to be interviewed for this story. But in Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the crisis manager at the center of “Scandal,” Rhimes has created an exceptionally forceful female figure who is loved, rather than criticized, for the flair with which she issues orders.

Like Leslie Knope, Olivia is often excellent at her job. It’s a position that has even greater potential for friction than Leslie’s tenure at the Parks Department: Olivia swoops in and takes control of her client’s personal lives, their schedules, their cell phones and their reputations. But while Leslie’s enthusiastic pursuit of new initiatives can irritate her colleagues and constituents, Olivia’s arrival on the scene of any emergency tends to be greeted with profound relief. That’s because people hire Olivia when all their efforts to save themselves from humiliation, loss of their careers, or even jail, have failed. They’re desperate for her to start marshaling resources and telling them what to do.

And the staffers who work for Olivia at her firm have all been through this same process. She’s rescued all of them from shameful, terrible situations, and their gratitude means they’ll follow their boss anywhere, even into the presidential campaign of a married man Olivia just happens to be schtupping. If “Parks and Recreation” is about how citizens react to female leadership in the best of circumstances, “Scandal” is a meditation on what caliber of disaster it takes for powerful people to surrender and admit that Olivia Pope knows best.

As much as it’s fun to cheer watching fictional women shake off criticism and step up into leadership roles, it can also be cathartic to watch them act out in ways that might get them labeled “bossy,” impatient, or petulant, novelist Jennifer Weiner says.

“In ‘Good in Bed’ [Weiner’s debut], there’s a weight-loss group getting a lecture about serving size and portion control, which any woman who’s ever read a magazine or been on a diet knows all about, and there’s what the protagonist calls a ‘fat lady insurrection,’ where the women start pounding on the table and demanding medication,” Weiner explains. “It’s a funny scene, but I think there’s an element of wish fulfillment there, too. Women are still socialized to be patient, to sit through the lecture again, even if you’ve heard it so many times you could give the lecture yourself, and I imagine my readers who’ve been in those situations being pleased at the idea of pounding on a table and saying, ‘You’re not telling me anything new.’”

Weiner, who’s an outspoken advocate for increasing the number of women reviewing books and for expanding the bounds of what fiction’s considered worthy of serious notice in literary publications, says she’s leery of removing words from the lexicon. But she says personal experience has taught her that words like “bossy” can be used not just to suggest that women are imitating men, but to encourage women to pull back from effective advocacy efforts for fear of being seen as marginal or crazy.

“Last fall a reporter for The Atlantic suggested that my ‘strident’ ways were causing my campaign to backfire,” she remembers. “That turned out to be completely untrue–in the past year, the New York Times Book Review hired a female editor-in-chief, devoted a regular feature to commercial books, and made tremendous improvements to the ratio of books by men versus books by women that it reviews, and the number of women it profiles and publishes.”

If Weiner’s experience offers a lesson, it may be this: The chance of stripping “bossy” from anyone’s vocabulary may be small. Instead, the best prospect may be to make girls less afraid of that, or any other label that implies their assertiveness isn’t valuable or attractive. As Leslie Knope puts it jauntily: “I’ve gotten to know the city councilmen pretty well because of my campaign. If you hear them talking about ‘that blonde pain in the ass,’ that’s me.” But that kind of criticism doesn’t hold Leslie back from trying to make Pawnee a better place, and doing it with a near-perpetual smile on her face. Calling Leslie or Jennifer Weiner “bossy” might slow down their progress by affecting other people’s thinking. But no mere word can stop these women permanently, not when there are bills to be passed and novels to fight for.