Banning the word "bossy" is wrong

Instead of wanting to ban words, a stronger, more empowering message to girls and young women would be to embrace adversity

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The Independent Online

Among the pile of DVDs we have at home lies a 30-year-old video remastered into a DVD of the Little Miss series. My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter loves it, which is unfortunate, because (being from the early 1980s) it is packed full of negative female stereotypes that no little girl should be exposed to.

There is Little Miss Splendid, who cares only about hats and things looking nice; there's Little Miss Trouble, who gossips and spreads lies about other Little Misses and Mr Men; Little Miss Late, who keeps saying "sorry" in an Essex girl voice by the actress Pauline Collins; and finally there is Little Miss Bossy, a blue ball of stroppiness with a passive-aggressive daisy poking self-righteously out of her bossy little hat. True, there are plenty of negative characters in the Mr Men books – Mr Lazy, Mr Greedy and so on. But because I have a daughter I loathe the Little Misses so much that I may have to become Ms Clumsy to drop the DVD into the path of the oncoming Dyson.

You would think, then, that I'd be all for the new campaign by Facebook senior executive Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham and Michelle Obama to ban the word "bossy" because it is applied only to women, negatively. The hashtag #BanBossy won the campaign wide support on Twitter. Sandberg said she wanted to launch the campaign because a teacher had told her when she was younger: "Nobody likes a bossy girl", and laments that little boys who are assertive get called leaders instead. Sandberg says: "Words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead."

I am in no doubt that, by secondary school if not earlier, girls are putting their hands up less than boys in the classroom. I also agree that there are certain words, such as "feisty" and "airhead", which are used only to describe women and girls. But banning the word "bossy" is wrong. For a start, it seems an awful lot of money and effort to spend on something that is impossible – arbitrarily banning words when language is so organic and is ruled by forces stronger even than Facebook, if that's imaginable, is not going to happen.

Yet, if the real intention is not to impose a global ban but, as seems more likely, to empower girls and women to object to its use, I am still against this project. Girls are afraid of putting their hands up in class out of a lack of confidence, not because they fear being called "bossy".

Second, there is an unintended consequence of this campaign, which has already happened – that it is sending a message to girls that they should not be assertive.

Finally, Sandberg seems to be pinning her own experiences to her big projects – her book and movement of last year, Lean In, was the result of her own timidity earlier on in her career – but has it not occurred to her that these experiences have helped to make her the high-flying achiever she is today?

Because, perhaps instead of wanting to ban words, a stronger, more empowering message to girls and young women would be to embrace adversity. She should say: I was called bossy at school, while my fellow male pupils were not, but I set out to prove that bossiness can work for a woman, that it is just another word for assertive, that it is good to be exacting and demanding of others – and now look where I am.

We should embrace the adversity life throws at us, especially in those younger years when we are so sensitive and impressionable. Women should embrace "bossy", reclaim it for positive use. The counter-campaign, #BeBossy, is more sensible, if a little less star-studded. My own daughter is certainly assertive and wilful. She is even, dare I say, bossy. But I don't want her to grow up believing this is a negative word, which is what would happen if it were banned. It is good to be bossy, I will tell her. But first I have to get rid of that Little Miss DVD.

A touch of frost

The visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by David Cameron seemed to pass off successfully, prompting the question why he didn't go to the region earlier in his premiership, but waited nearly four years. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were frequent visitors when they were in Downing Street. I am told that it was to give US Secretary of State John Kerry diplomatic space to get on with the latest peace initiative, but that surely should not have prevented Cameron from going earlier.

Anyway, there was much interest in Cameron's meeting with Blair in Jerusalem – the official picture showed them sitting rather awkwardly about 4ft apart, and the PM insisted afterwards he was "not friends" with his predecessor. But this was all for the optics, as they say – it suited both men to not seem too cosy, with Blair about to donate to Labour to help Ed Miliband try to win the election, and Cameron desperate to assure Conservatives – who are already panicking about the next leadership contest 14 months before the election – that they could still win. Yet, I understand, relations between them remain warm.

Cat-and-mouse game

Last week, the House of Commons authorities rejected a plea from MPs to bring in a cat, offered by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, to get rid of the mice that, more than ever this year, are plaguing the Palace of Westminster. It was claimed this is because MPs cannot be trusted to look after the moggy. I was cursing this decision on Thursday when, sitting in my office overlooking Parliament Square, a mouse jumped up on to my leg before scampering under the table. Perhaps the authorities will reconsider if I offer to take personal responsibility of the cat.

Canteen shock

Fresh from this incident, I walked down the dimly lit corridor of newspaper offices just above the Commons chamber to steady my nerves with a cup of tea. Just as I got to the press gallery canteen, a utilitarian place which is not a patch on the Old Bar which was demolished a few years ago, I found myself walking behind PR chief Roland Rudd and Blair's former gatekeeper Anji Hunter. I assumed they had got lost on their way to a more salubrious dining room where MPs and peers have lunch. From the looks on their faces, I think they were surprised too.

It turned out they had just come from the memorial service at Westminster Abbey for the late Sir David Frost and there was a lunch for some of the guests in the canteen. Joan Bakewell arrived amid the queue for tea and biscuits. There must have been a separate do for more glamorous guests such as Sir Michael Parkinson and Princess Beatrice. I hope a Commons mouse didn't disturb their lunch.