Dec 8, 2015 · 8 minutes

Try to control me boy you get dismissed
Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills

- Destiny's Child, "Independent Women"

According to Twitter, several democrats began their Monday morning with this weird email:

The “Drew” in question, I’m told, is actress and producer Drew Barrymore.  

A lot of discussion on Twitter had to do with the use of “girlboss” to describe the 68-year-old potential first female president of the United States. There’s a lot of debate generally about women using pejorative terms to “own” them in business. NastyGal founder Sophia Amoruso’s bestselling book “#Girlboss” was the most high profile recent example of a philosophy that making the debate less serious and more approachable makes more younger women feel part of the movement.

I don’t have an issue with the phrase generally, and enjoyed Amoruso’s book even though I felt like it was definitely written for a different demographic than 40-year-old me. When I was younger I used to attend “Girls in Tech” events and liked the less huffy branding of them.

But let’s be clear: Being electing the first female President of the United States isn’t something we should all take less seriously. Electing any president isn’t. (Insert comment about most recent absurd thing Donald Trump has said and his polling numbers here.) “Girlboss” is about easing women into a movement of taking control of their own power. Once you’re ascendant and leading the movement, another phrase might be more appropriate.

But the worrying thing with this email is less the use of “Girlboss”-- jarring as that is. It’s what follows the word “Girlboss”: Some of the least empowering language of describing a “girlboss” you can imagine. Not only that but language that specifically reinforces one of the biggest issues holding women back: An inability to stand up and take credit for great work done. An inability to take credit for being a leader.

To Barrymore, being a “girlboss” is primarily about having “humility” and being an “empowered woman” who can only do “anything”...when part of a team.

Huh? First off, “humility” is hardly the word that comes to mind first when I think if Hillary Clinton… and I mean that as a compliment.

The “#Girlboss” in Amoruso’s book is at least an independent woman who refused to conform to society or businesses norms, who was fiercely independent leaving high school and her home earlier than most, and raising venture capital far later than most. She was someone who solidly kept control of her vision, and saw herself as the guiding force of the company, regardless of contributions of others. Her message was very much about being a leader, having a defiant, different voice.

When I see “girl” invoked in terms of women’s power, it’s not usually in the same breath as saying we need more “humility” as women. One is about reclaiming a pejorative word, and the other is about assimilating. That’s uncomfortably close to “seen but not heard” or “you really need a male cofounder to make this happen” or calling out women who are “too ambitious.” If this is meant as part of the #Girlboss zeitgeist, it’s very not what that book was all about.

Women in business generally don’t need more “humility.” If anything, we need less.

In Shonda Rhimes' excellent book, “The Year of Yes,” she recounts an awards dinner hosted by Elle Magazine. She noted that each recipient did one of three things when the editor-in-chief Robbie Myers described their accomplishments:

  • “shook her head and looked away, waving off the words”
  • “Ducked her head, embarrassed look on her face”
  • laughed in a “mortified, embarrassed, stunned” way

Rhimes said she did #2. And it struck her, saying to Myers just after, “Did you notice not a single woman in this room can handle being told she is awesome?”

She writes about the need for women to learn to take compliments especially for their achievements. More than that: To own their achievements as theirs. She writes:

Someone says, “I love your show.”

You know what I say back?

I say, “Oh my God, I’m just so lucky. Really fortunate. It’s not me, it’s everyone who works with me.”

Okay. Look.

Everyone who works with me? They are AMAZING. I am truly surrounded by people-- actors, line producers, directors, set decorators, costume designers, assistant directors, grips, craft service people. Teamsters, writers, so many people-- who are incredibly talented and without whom Shondaland would literally not exist. There are a bunch of cool people at ABC who are pretty essential too. My agent, Chris. My lawyer, Michael. A lot of people make Shondaland the creative, happy and successful place that it is.

So it IS everyone who works with me.

But why am I running around saying it’s NOT me?

Because it is.

It’s me.

It’s me and it’s them.

It’s US.

And what the hell is up with the “I’m just so lucky” line?

I’m not merely lucky.

No one who succeeds is merely lucky.

Not in the “she tripped and fell right onto a television ratings chart” way.

Lucky implies I didn’t do anything. Lucky implies something was given to me. Lucky implies that I was handed something I did not near, that I did not work hard for. . . .

. . . Don’t call me lucky.

Call me a badass

And then Rhimes spends a chapter detailing how hard it was to live that kind of swagger whenever anyone gave her a compliment. Even how hard it was to write in her own book.

In my view: This is learned behavior from society, the same that Sheryl Sandberg describes in Lean In with girls not wanting to appear smart lest they not be invited to prom. I don’t care how much of a badass you are. When you live decades-- one meeting at a time-- being told you are too ambitious, too mouthy, not accommodating enough. Being told to just “take it down a notch.” Having to learn the kind of woman meeting speak that Jennifer Lawrence described when she wrote:

A few weeks ago at work I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, ‘Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!’ As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive. 

No matter if you think you are defiant to that gender pressure or not, like hate comments on the Internet, that voice of the world starts to creep into your head. And you start to think things like, “I really need to just thank everyone so that people don’t think I did this all myself… just to avoid the hassle”

Or you know, assimilate.

Just after the bit I quoted above, Rhimes says she has a hard time not deleting what she just wrote about her own contributions to her owning Thursday nights. Why?

“You cannot say that out loud! People will think you believe that you are…”

That I’m what?

Into myself.

Cocky. Immodest. Brazen.

In love with myself.

That I think I’m special.

Wait.

Isn’t that the GOAL? Don’t people pay money to licensed therapists to get into themselves, to fall in love with themselves, to think they are special?

What is the opposite of a cocky, immodest, brazen woman?

Anyone?

A meek, caste, timid woman.

Who in the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Queen Bey wants to be a meek, chaste, timid woman?!

Do YOU? Because I sure as hell don’t.”

She added this:

Men do it all the time. Take the compliment and run. They don’t make themselves smaller. They don’t apologize for being powerful. They don’t downplay their accomplishments. 

This may all seem like semantics but words matter greatly when it comes to how a nation that gave birth to the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim Trump movement processes the potential for a female president.

Studies have shown that “raising awareness” of gender issues and diversity programs and even unconscious bias training can do more harm than good if they are seen as sufficient or even if the wrong words are used. Specifically, research found when there is language to suggest cliches and stereotypes of women are “common” even if we are saying they are negative, it was enough to tilt the scale against women. If it’s common it can’t be so bad right?

From Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s New York Times series about women at work:  

In another study, Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt told managers that stereotypes were common or rare. Then, they asked managers to read a transcript from a job interview of a candidate described as either female or male. At the end of the interview, the candidate asked for higher compensation and a nonstandard bonus. When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28 percent less interested in hiring the female candidate. They also judged her as 27 percent less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates. 

How we talk about things matter, not just that we talk about them. And what we call our first female President-- whether it’s Clinton or someone else-- will matter for setting a tone of respect around the world and admiration of little girls everywhere.