Little Miss Bossy Pants

In the comments to a Facebook share of my previous post on gendered language on [“Vivid Unconscious Biases“], JB, a friend of a friend, writes:

“bossy” is an inherently gendered term and is always used as an insult. I can’t remember ever hearing it applied to a man. Indeed, it strikes me that calling a man “bossy” would imply that he was perceived as effeminate.

While I think this is overstated, and I don’t share the intuition about “bossy” signalling effeminacy when applied to men, I do tend to think of “bossy” as (weakly) gendered. And I agree that “bossy” is always or almost always pejorative. That’s why the OED definition “Given to acting as ‘boss’ or leader. colloq. (orig. U.S.).” isn’t satisfactory at all. If it were, calling your manager a “bossy boss” wouldn’t sound both absurd and tautological at the same time (cf. “preachy preacher”).


Ironic claim about what matters in the “Ban Bossy” video. Sure, “words matter” – but should it matter whether what we say about words is in fact true?

Rather, “bossy” tends to mean something closer to, “exceeding one’s authority in an overly-assertive, brusque, and/or domineering way”. This is the core of the argument behind “Ban Bossy” as I understand it: that when girls act assertively, correcting them by calling their behaviour “bossy” signals that they are exceeding their place, and so discourages future authoritativeness, assertiveness, and leadership. I can’t find any actual study of such an effect with “bossy”, and the premise that eliminating vocabulary leads to social change makes scant sense to me–in fact the whole thing appears be more of that specimen of bullshit (in the technical sense) that makes unverified or unverifyable assertions about language and language use to corroborate a point of view about social phenomena. But it is certainly more evidence that at least to some (including the “Ban Bossy” video stars Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, and others), “bossy” is perceived as both highly gendered and highly pejorative (or else insidiously discriminatory).

How gendered is “bossy”? Well we all have experiences of and intuitions about language use, but our memories about our experiences are highly selective, and our intuitions often unreliable insofar as they represent general trends. Thankfully this is something anyone can easily double check, using various text corpora freely available on the interwebs.

For instance, though he can’t recall ever having done so, I doubt that JB has never heard “bossy” used of a man. It’s not that rare. A quick look around the internet gives such pages as “7 Tips on How to Cope with a Bossy Boyfriend“, “How do you handle an Overdominant and Bossy Man?“, “Why are men so bossy?” etc.. COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, has 400 instances of “bossy”. A small selection of hits from the Newspaper subset: “Gone is the bossy, Big Man Off Campus attitude“, “I had to go through life with a man who felt he could be bossy, who was very traditional”, “The eldest of four children, he admitted to being a bit bossy“, and so on.

Of the 53 “bossy”s in the COCA Newspaper corpus, 19 refer to females, 11 refer to males, 6 are unspecified or gender neutral, and the rest are Mike Bossy (of New York Islanders fame). This suggests that while “bossy” is used more frequently of women and girls than of men and boys, it’s hardly unusual to hear a male described as such. And the above examples also suggest that the word is equally pejorative when used of males. There is also some evidence in COCA that the term can be used positively, even affectionately: Heidi Klum, for instance, calls herself “bossy” several times in one interview collected there: “But I like to be bossy…” Kathy Gifford is especially fond of calling her female co-host Hoda Kobt “Miss Bossy Pants”, even verbing that phrase: “…they’re not like you, Hoda. They can’t go in and just “Miss Bossy Pants” everybody around and just have fun”. And so on.

Can we be more systematic? Yes. If I had more than an hour, I could go through all 400 “bossy”s in COCA for a breakdown of gender. For some of the data, I could also add in the gender of the speaker. We might want to ask: do men call women “bossy” more than they call other men “bossy”? And vice versa: do women use the term more of other women than of men? But I don’t have that kind of time today. One rough proxy might be pronoun collocations. Searching for “she” and “he” within 4 words of “bossy” gives 58 and 36 hits, respectively.

With the right queries, Google n-gram viewer, imperfect as the underlying Google Books corpus is, can also give us a sense of the usage distribution, with the advantage of showing changes over time. Here’s a selection of queries that occurred to me [click images for larger versions]:

he/she (‘s, is, was) bossy
This shows females being described as bossy about twice as often on average over the time span, with a peak of 4x in the mid-80s, coming down to 2x in recent years.

he/she (‘s, is, was) [wildcard] bossy
This shows the most frequent words that come before “bossy” in the previous query. The prevalence of “too” suggests negative connotation (“so” and “very”, otherwise neutral, are perhaps acting like “too” as well).

bossy man/boy/woman/girl

This is the most surprising chart for me, since I expected bossy girl/boy to be more frequent than they are. This suggests that the term more readily attaches to adults than children. However, “woman” is much more frequent overall than “girl”, which might account for some of the disparity. The next graph tries to deal with this, by showing the frequencies of “bossy woman” relative to “bossy girl,” with the same for woman:girl as a baseline:

bossy woman:bossy girl vs. woman:girl

That cuts things down a bit, but still “bossy” is more strongly attracted to “woman” than to “girl”.

Two last charts, the purpose of which are to a) test your intuitions, and b) make you aware of your interpretive biases. “Boss” and “nurse” are often seen in lists of terms with strong gender-marking, the former marked as strongly male and the latter strongly female. So how might you account for the following two charts, which both show a prevalence of “male” over “female”:

male/female boss


If the second chart makes sense to you intuitively, then you have discovered within your own social knowledge and intuitions a phenomenon called “exceptional gender marking”, which can apply to words so strongly gender-marked that they require a modifier when the opposite gender obtains. Compare your intuitions regarding “male prostitute”, “male escort”, “female attendant”, “female doctor”, and so on.


One Comment

  • JB [via FB] wrote:

    Well, I’m glad to have been helpful. Still, if I’d waited a few hours, I would have seen A.O. Scott’s hilarious review of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, in which he comments, “There are actors who might have given Christian a jolt of naughty, bossy life…”

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