You Said It

Boss Behavior

At my school, outspoken girls didn’t get respect—we got detention.

Collage by Minna.

Collage by Minna.

A dear friend recently told me I “come across like the villain in a didactic novella aimed at teen girls.” I had just made a callous appraisal of a mutual acquaintance’s musical taste that my friend found “cold,” deliberately so. He was right: Cold is the temperature at which I function most efficiently. I have never been described as “nice” without an accompanying “…if you know her.” I’ve come to accept this about myself, but it’s taken a while.

As a child I was happily weird and witty, inquisitive, daring, creative, and unafraid. But before I reached adolescence, I was tricked into thinking my strongest traits were shameful. Report cards described me as “smart but bossy,” two traits that were stigmatized, especially for girls, at my small-town elementary school. Most of the teachers there were suspicious of my preference to work independently; they said I asked too many questions. In the fifth grade, my homeroom teacher rolled his eyes impatiently when I asked how to use a semicolon. Oh, fuck, I thought. Have I asked for too much? And so I learned servility. I became scared of saying too much, of being seen as “too demanding,” of asking for respect or knowledge or help. (I still do not know how to use a semicolon.)

Thankfully, my mother—another “nice…if you know her” type—understood that “bossy” didn’t have to mean “asking for too much.” To her it meant “entrepreneurial.” Both of my parents were self-employed, and my mom worked from our home. On the days I didn’t go to school (which were frequent thanks to her lenience toward letting me skip), I’d overhear business calls during which she’d dress down male colleagues who dared question her authority. I accompanied her to meetings and appointments, to her lawyer’s office, to the bank, and out to lunch; everywhere she went, I watched her command absolute respect from everyone. She approached her work in a way my teachers would have called “disobedient.” My mom was bossy.

I respected her fierceness, but she was a grown woman in control, and I was just a kid. I aspired to respect myself the way my mom respected herself—the way she respected me—but figured I’d have to wait till I was well out of school. When I’m 35, I thought. That’s when I’ll find that confidence.

After all, at my school, bossy girls didn’t get respect—we got detention. If you were bright, smart, funny, talented, and/or influential, you were seen as a threat to the status quo. You were called “trouble.” Sadly, I’ve found that the rest of the world often works the same way. Women, particularly young ones, who command attention and respect and who dare question the status quo are all too often seen not as assets, but as threats to those in power, who, not coincidentally, are seldom young or women. So terms like “bossy” get used pejoratively to shame women into thinking agency, autonomy, boldness, and inquisitiveness are actually character flaws. What we should be, we’re told, is “nice”—often a euphemism for compliant, amenable, and weak.

I don’t mean to suggest that only men use this tactic, nor that it is used exclusively against women. But it’s just true that those in power are quick to denigrate anyone who threatens their position, and in our society, the people with the most power, on the whole, are older white (cis) men. And I know that of all the ways that oppressed communities are silenced, being called “bossy” is far from the worst. But the effects of such microaggressions accrue over time, and they can shut people up for life. They shut me up for 13 years, but I didn’t wait till I was 35 to find confidence and autonomy, thanks to the examples set by my mom and a bunch of other bossy women: Kathleen Hanna, Karen O, Salt-N-Pepa, Tina Turner, PJ Harvey were all pretty big then, and they all came into their power in their early 20s. When life got particularly stressful for me, these young, strong, mouthy women were the ones who held me up. In their music I heard the strength of those who have overcome expectations and broken rules.

Recently, Lorde has been the same kind of role model for me: She is smart, talented, and outspoken, and seems proud, rather than ashamed, of those qualities. She owns them. She is in love with being queen; she is never not chasing a million things she wants. She knows the value of herself, and she wields that value like a scythe.

It bothers me when Lorde and young women like her are treated with skepticism and disapproval. The impulse to push down any young woman who dares to embrace her own power is born of the same fear of women that landed me in detention for half of my adolescence.

Months ago I saw an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that showcased the work of the mixed-media artist Wangechi Mutu. One of the most stunning installations in the show was a giant kentauride, or female centaur. I was drawn to that piece because of its name, a message I hope the younger version of me—that bright, bossy girl I lost on the playground then lovingly reclaimed—would be comforted to know I now live by: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid, and her enemies began to fear her The End.

These days, I am not afraid of anything, and being called “nice…if you know her” feels OK. I understand that I owe it to myself to be a boss. And when my friend called me a “villain in a didactic novella,” I responded like a boss: I said I didn’t care. And I don’t. ♦

Carly Lewis is a writer who lives sometimes in Toronto and sometimes in New York. Her work has appeared in Vice, the Guardian, Bitch, the Globe and Mail, and The Atlantic.

12 Comments

  • antisocialite April 15th, 2014 8:22 PM

    This is so great, I’m often called a “bitch” because I say what I mean and don’t censor myself when i think something is wrong.

  • simooone April 15th, 2014 8:57 PM

    I totally understand the whole getting in trouble at school thing. I’d be assertive, say what I thought or be honest in some other capacity and have talks with administrators about how I REALLY felt by all the overprotective moms thinking I was corrupting their children. I was expected, almost encouraged, to feel insecure about my security. I’d say something remotely feminist or smart, even, in a way that seemed articulate and thought out and I’d be told “you might not think that forever,” “you say that now,” and “people change,” all in the hopes that I, like those nameless people, would change. “Other kids aren’t ready for that,” “Just keep your thoughts to yourself.” What further confused the budding feminist in me was that this was coming from female teachers and administrators, working women I would have expected to understand what it was like to be denied a voice because of their gender. Honestly, I’m still disappointed, but I do love that I was able to develop a really strong sense of self and ability to… not to sound bitchy, but question authority.

  • mangomilk April 15th, 2014 10:01 PM

    THIS ARTICLE IS FREAKISHLY ON TIME IN MY LIFE. I was just in a huge argument with a boy over liberal vs conservative beliefs, and I needed a reminder that I am not a bitch, I am a strong, intelligent young woman who can stand up to a man without losing control. Thank you so much Rookie! :)

  • Indy500 April 15th, 2014 10:13 PM

    Whenever I get called a bitch I say thank you, because I am bitch, but a bad ass one who doesn’t care what any idiots say. But it pisses me off when people make it seem like being bossy is bad, because it’s not, it’s heroic because your going for what you believe in.

  • myl5597 April 15th, 2014 10:25 PM

    Thank you so much for this article. It deeply resonates with me.

    I remember my class had a project. I, being a perfectionist, oversaw my entire groups project. It was a powerpoint presentation and I remember vetoing one of the kid’s slide because I thought it didn’t make sense in the context of the project. My group voted on the issue, and the other girl in the group had a crush on the boy so she voted in his favor though in reality she was neutral on the subject. the boy brought the issue up to the teacher eventually, and I got points docked from my grade for not being a team player.

    Five years later I bumped into that male classmate of mine and we got to the subject of that project. Laughing, he told me that he remembered me being horribly bossy. I was facebook chatting him and his dad apparently walked into his room because he went “remember that project? all my dad remembers about you is how mean you were to me lol”.

    That year I was in his class and worked with me often, and he would always go “shhhh don’t worry about it” whenever i didn’t understand something. he thought he was a “natural leader”, and domineered discussions

    i still don’t understand why women aren’t “allowed” to be direct and assertive like men are. Why was i thought of as rude while his behavior was tolerated? why are women told be silent, obedient followers when our work force needs people willing to lead and take initiative. I am livid just thinking about how people like that boy and his dad have shaped me into a person afraid to raise my hand in class or pitch ideas to my peers

  • neonbubble April 16th, 2014 7:14 AM

    This is an inspiring article, so thanks for writing this. I definitely agree and have noticed this around me and in the media (particularly TV) too. Especially relating to black women, being labelled as crazy for merely speaking their minds. Like, what has that got to do with anything. I’ve always thought that you don’t get anywhere without asking for or going after what you want. So what are we, as girls, just supposed to wait for things?

    This has really pushed me to think about myself to start doing what I want and saying ‘I don’t care’ to the wellbeing, but negative naysayers.

  • carolynmin April 16th, 2014 9:11 PM

    I absolutely adore this, it really resonated with me. I’m an executive on my school’s Student Activities Council, and the other day I told off two other executives for not doing their part in a student council event being run by another executive. It made me so angry to see two people who are in positions of relative responsibility and authority blatantly ignore their duties just because they didn’t feel like doing them, yet expecting the same kind of help when they need it in return. The best part was that both of them afterwards were talking about how they didn’t have to “deal with my shit.” My tone may have come off as too bossy, or I might have been taking our roles too seriously, but honestly? I could not give a single fuck.
    Thank you for writing this article Carly, sometimes us girls need a reminder that it is not only okay but sometimes necessary to be a bossy ass bitch, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with claiming the assertive power that belongs to you. Letting people know how you really feel and having the strength to say “I don’t care” when they try to give it back to you is such a liberating experience.

  • Sarah April 17th, 2014 12:13 PM

    this is the story oF MY LIFE. but guys, embrace it and rejoice, we’re all boss ass bitches who will (repeat: will, not might) rule the wold.

  • April 17th, 2014 10:22 PM

    This is a beautiful article.
    I get in trouble at school for having opinions. My principal even called me into her office to tell me how its laughable that I have so many opinions at my age.
    It’s nice to know that it’s not only me. Everyone should be able to be who they are without getting beaten down by other people. And if we have opinions and are able to think for ourselves, then no one has any right to tell us that who we are isn’t good, and that we need to dial down who we are. Thank you for writing this article. It’s really beautiful and true.

  • ArmyOfRabbits April 18th, 2014 11:44 AM

    My younger sister and I are the “quiet and calm types” and we can relate to this article. They have called us “bitch” and “whiney” when we spoke up for things that we knew was wrong and felt uncomfortable: things like racism and sexism. We ended up losing some friends and acquaintances, but in the end, our FIRE helped us gain better friends.

    The people I often look up to are the people with feisty temperament with pure heart. They helped me lead the way and kept the FIRE burning.

  • Berries April 19th, 2014 9:14 AM

    This reminds me of what a teacher once told me when I was 12 – ”you are arrogant, but you’re good”. I thought it was very strange to say that to such a young person.

    I def relate to that part of people teaching you to be insecure about your security. For me it’s mostly my looks. Whenever I say anything neutral about my body like – ”I got broad shoulders” people are like – ”nooo your shoulders are perfectly fine!” and I am like ”Of course, I know they are, they are just broad. Which is fine.”

    Like what the heck, if you are neutral or secure about something that it seems like everyone assumes that you are not, you MUST be insecure about literally everything because you are a yong woman… or that you should be, for some reason.

    I share my opinions and I am not easily impressed by authority. Of course I admire my supervisors and teachers, but just because someone has been teaching for 22 years that does not mean that I think everything you say is perfect. I am aspiring to become a scientist and trust me, some wonderful smart scientists still say things that made me go – ”Don’t you think we should do it like this and that, because…”. Some say that I should watch my mouth, but on the other hand some scientists really appreached it. I can understand it could be intepreted as arrogance, but I feel responsible for an experient when I am involved with the design, right?
    I want my students to be like that when I am older and experienced. Really. Keep me focused. Share your opinions with me. I want to keep my mind open.

  • georgiinnaaa April 22nd, 2014 1:15 AM

    This is a great article. I’m not one to speak up and ask questions in class, but outside of class I am very outspoken and am not afraid to tell my opinion. I’ve definitely felt criticism from others because of this.