On Lean In

March 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

Joshunda Sanders wrote this good piece on Lean In‘s recent campaign to ban “bossy”, and some of her statements have provoked me to do something I haven’t done in a long time: blog. Before I get into some of my thoughts related to Lean In, let me make clear that I do not disagree with Sanders – Lean In’s campaigns express white privilege, a problem deserving our attention and critique. It is not her problematization of Lean In as privileged that provoked me to write, it is the broader habit of the feminist blogosphere to denounce Lean In that I take issue with. I don’t fully understand why people are upset about Lean In failing to attend to structural issues when it has never prioritized, or even acknowledged the necessity of, changing structural issues. Lean In just isn’t the droid we’re looking for.

For example, Sanders wrote, “Banning the word bossy skirts the true issues at the heart of women’s inequality and our self-consciousness in the world of work: money and privilege.” I don’t expect Lean In to focus on those “true issues at the heart of women’s equality” because it never told me it would. LeanIn.org describes the brand as “committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” As far as I can tell, it’s sort of doing that. Many young women are inspired by the Lean In campaigns and feel supported by their existence. The organization seeks to support women in specific ways, and so it does, it does not want to make material systemic change, and so it does not. I’m interested in a conversation about what it means for an organization of this kind to receive such national attention, the implications of these hegemonic messages and the nature of their palatability are ripe. I’m less interested in feeling betrayed by a project that made me no promises. That being said, the Ban Bossy campaign is a compelling one as a subject of feminist debate, and I think it can be interpreted in diverse ways that don’t hinge on privilege.

I suggest banning bossy might not just be about whether or not a woman’s “feelings are hurt” —  it might be about how the typified use of the word represents an aspect of how patriarchy threads itself into our everyday language and culture. Banning bossy might be about banning the idea that it has ever been appropriate to treat women who challenge and lead as juvenile, irrational creatures. In other words, banning bossy might be one legitimate way to highlight the relationship between language and oppression, and

Patriarchal logic informs the idea that a word’s power can be dismissed as a semantic eye-roll rather than as a symptom of sexist and misogynistic culture. There is a relationship between the language we use to ascribe meaning to the world and how we actually interpret the meaning of the world. When young women are told they’re being bossy, they’re being shown how the world will treat them differently than young men who behave in identical ways, they’re being shown that we have an entirely different catalog of words to describe what they mean to us, words that will usually hierarchically organize them just a little bit lower – over and over and over again. Now, there are plenty of women who completely reject the notion that bossy is bad, but their reclamations don’t preclude others from using bossy in hurtful, power-laden ways. And as long as there are people in positions of power using bossy to discourage girls from behaving brazenly, I have a way to support getting rid of such use of the word.

Overall, I don’t care that much about what the Lean In project is doing because its merit remains ambiguous to me, it ain’t the only initiative out there and as far as I can tell its goals haven’t ever included structural change. Why are we expecting Lean In to do things it never said it would? Why was anyone surprised or even disappointed when Lean In, a brand founded and directed by a woman who is deeply invested in online media, focused on an issue of representation in …online media (re: stock images of women in the workplace)? The feminist blogosphere was quick to point out how little that effort would do to address the institutionalization of sexism in our work economy, but …duh. I am not hurt by Lean In’s failure to address more material issues because that isn’t its intention, purpose, or perhaps even its possibility given how deeply embedded the whole premise is in capitalist economy. I mostly choose to disregard Lean In just as I do with a lot of mainstream fem-washed organizations. I keep my finger on the pulse, and the feminist blogosphere isn’t about to let me ignore Lean In completely, so when it comes to how I’d like to devote my energies I focus instead on supporting initiatives that enact my intersectional politics. I’m just not sure what we’re trying to accomplish by still caring so much about how Lean In fails as a feminist enterprise.

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