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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bossy boots

So I wrote this Plog a couple of weeks ago, but kept it in "drafts" for a while, as I wasn't quite sure the tone was right. Once again, proving my excellence at hitting the zeitgeist, I see this has been in the news this week, so I thought I'd hit "publish"...

The childminder said the baby had been "making her voice heard". That when one of the other little children picked up a toy she was playing with, the baby said, "No, no, no, no, no!".

"Oh dear," I said. "Has she been a bit bossy?"

"Assertive," the childminder replied, diplomatically and entirely fairly.

When I got home, I thought about the word "bossy". It was me who used it - but you do see it crop up frequently on children's programmes and in books, to describe little girls or other female characters who are, well, bossy. I realised that you literally never hear it used to describe little boys. Think about it. Think about a bossy little girl. Change the gender. You suddenly wouldn't call him bossy, would you?

What would we call him? Officious? Possibly - depending on the context. Authoritative, displaying leadership qualities? Potentially, although this is far from the pejorative intended by "bossy". Controlling? Maybe - but he would need to be high status for this. "Bossy" can be anyone - sorry, any female one - regardless of actual status.

So, being a word geek, I looked into the etymology of "bossy" for clues as to why it's a gendered word. It appears to have come into common usage as recently as the 1900s from America - derived from "boss"; in that time, it was surely a male word. So it is much more recently that we have applied it firstly to women, and then pretty much exclusively to women.

I have seen enough of 17 month olds to know that - at this age at least - there's no difference between boys and girls to speak of. Well, perhaps as a whole the boys are a bit quicker to walk, and the girls are a bit quicker to talk, but that's about it. I know perfectly well that boys can behave just as "bossily" as girls. So the construct is adult. 

The behaviour that is exhibited equally by both genders as small children learning social skills for the very first time, is pulled into focus and whilst the boys' behaviour goes unremarked, or maybe with a smile, "He knows his own mind, doesn't he?", people who use the word "bossy" shine a negative light on girls simply for expressing what they want.

As tiny toddlers we (and I am not excluding myself from this - I was the one who initially described the baby as "bossy") are saying to girls, "Be quiet. Do not think it is your place to tell others what to do. Your behaviour is poor. Try to acquiesce."

Looking at female roles in children's TV, there is often the stereotypical "bossy" female. I am sure this is also the case in children's books, although we're still on board books at the moment, because someone - and I'm not naming names - hasn't yet worked out she isn't a goat, and will try to eat anything that isn't chew-proof. The answer to Where's Wally? is usually in her nappy.)

On CBeebies again, bossy - or rather "negatively assertive" characters include Bluebird in Everything's Rosie (having just Googled this to check spelling, I see there is even an episode entitled Bossy Bluebird), Bella in The Tweenies (described as "bossy" on the CBeebies character page), Joan the "bossy fennel" in Mr Bloom's Nursery (described as "bossy" by the BBC press release) and Lola in Charlie and Lola to an extent. (I give her a free pass, as bossiness isn't her defining - and in most cases mentioned already - only characteristic).

"But Laura," I hear you saying, "just a couple of weeks ago, you were moaning that girls were too kind and nurturing and under-represented, that their voices weren't heard at all. You can't have it both ways."

And that's the problem. It's both ways. Two ways - demure and nurturing or harridan. (Harridan - another female word - can you find a male equivalent?) Once again, reducing women to the age-old dichotomy of virgin/whore. Well, perhaps whore is a bit strong for CBeebies. Though I would definitely tune in to watch that episode of Show Me, Show Me: "Show me, show me prostitution, Pui!"

In The Tweenies, for example, there are four child characters: Bella (the bossy girl), Milo (a boy, bit of a joker), Fizz (flicks her hair a lot and likes ballet and dolls) and Jake (the littlest, gets his words wrong); in order to have a defining characteristic as a female, it appears to need to be either naggy or girly.

Why can't Fizz get her words wrong, or Bella joke around? Or indeed, why can't Milo be "bossy"?

I'm not sure banning the word "bossy" is the answer - but an awareness that there's a problem would be a good start.

And more to the point, when is the Show Me, Show Me prostitution special ever going to air?

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