Journalist Lisa Selin Davis rehabilitates a vanishing term for a certain type of girl
I was a tomboy. More of a “sometimes tomboy” by the definitions in Lisa Selin Davis’ new book, Tomboy. This means I generally eschewed girly things like dolls and dresses, preferring to wear pants and T-shirts so I could climb trees, ride my bike, get dirty. I was also happy to dress up in a frock for special occasions. The book refers to “always tomboys” as never wanting to wear traditionally feminine clothes nor wanting to associate much with other girls. What’s clear, after reading Selin Davis’s book, is that most girls of the 70s were tomboys of one kind or another. Our parents raised us during the height of second-wave feminism, during a time where the Sears catalog marketed many styles of clothes to both boys and girls. Those horrid horizontal striped shirts and Toughskin jeans were equal-opportunity garments.
The word tomboy has all but disappeared from our lexicon, and Selin Davis explores where it’s gone and why. Now girls that exhibit traditionally masculine traits are butch or trans or gender fluid, possibly a budding lesbian. Tomboy has become too vague and archaic. As it turns out, it is a very old term, having been coined in 1556 to describe an “extra-boisterous boy.” Within a century its meaning had shifted to describe boisterous girls, though it was not a favorable descriptor in either case. During the Victorian era the term took on more positive connotations, and that’s where it’s lived ever since: in the heroine worlds of Jo March and Scout Finch. But Selin Davis, raising a tomboy of her own, investigates if the erasure of the word tomboy isn’t also the erasure of a certain type of girl who is not currently encouraged to flourish.
Reflecting on my own tomboyism, I was never into dolls, but I had dozens and dozens of plush animals, and all of them had male names and identities. I was aware of this, but it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized that I assigned male gender to my “stuffies” because boys, with very few exceptions, were the stars of every book, film, and TV show. They modeled boys as positive and powerful. Girls were sidekicks, and I had no interest in being a sidekick. Selin Davis’s book showed me that making my pretend friends male was also about status. Though I couldn’t have verbalized it at the time, the world was bombarding me with messages about the power and superiority of men. I never thought, as a child, that such status was out of my reach, but I knew I couldn’t be too girly if I wanted it.
Until the 80s, society expected that tomboys shed their boyish ways, once puberty hit, and join the world of women. But with so many women entering the workforce in the 1980s, and their need to claim space, fashion followed with a masculinization of women that stretched beyond puberty: the pant and skirt suits with linebacker shoulder pads, the angular styles and bold colors, the hair so spiky it looked like a weapon. Sure, there were also plunging necklines and flare-hipped pants, but the clothing was like armor that women wore into the battlefield of unequal opportunity. And then the cultural pendulum swung the other way, as it always does.
Girl Power, not so powerful
As Selin Davis points out, nowhere is this pendulum swing more apparent than in the hyper-gendering of children’s clothes and toys in the 90s. This shift coincided with doctors’ ability to suss out the gender of a fetus with the ever-improving ultrasound and DNA technology. Suddenly parents were celebrating the child’s gender before it exited the womb, painting rooms pink or blue in anticipation. The clothing industry went wild. There was no need for gender-neutral clothing in this brave new world. This obsession with knowing, defining, putting children in a box crescendoed with gender-reveal parties that allowed everyone to celebrate the binary while the pesky child and their preferences were conveniently floating in amniotic goo. This ensured that every non-conforming kid would need loads of therapy come puberty, if not sooner.
The culture of girl power emerged during this time, ostensibly snuffing out the need for the tomboy label. But girl power celebrated girls being powerful within the binary. The Powerpuff Girls, icons of the girl power era, are fabulous, but the show also presents them in pastel dresses, and their cuteness is primary along with their fierceness. Girl power was a movement that, instead of saying women had to be more man-like to be powerful, said that femininity itself could be powerful. And while that’s a nice idea, it leaves no room for people born with female genitalia who never feel comfortable in the trappings of femininity.
In the void left by tomboy, a narrowing definition of “girl” emerged that was both discouraging and constricting. This was part of what led to our current revolution of gender expression.
The latter half of Selin Davis’ book explores the links between tomboyism, homosexuality, and transgender identity. It also looks at the newly minted world of non-binary identity. Selin Davis peppers the book with first-person accounts by people who identified as tomboys as children. Some are now cisgendered straight women, some are cis-gendered gay women, some are now trans men, and some are non-binary. These other voices reinforce Selin Davis’ thesis, and give us other perspectives beyond her straight, cis-gendered one. I found myself glad for these intimate breaks in the more reflective and academic style of Selin Davis’ writing.
I noticed two things missing from the book. Selin Davis points out there has never been a male corollary for “tomboy,” a positive word for boys that present in more traditionally feminine ways. She also indicates that the vast majority of non-binary identifying people were born with female physical attributes. From this, we can draw the conclusion that more non-binary people out there were born with male physical attributes, but the social stigma of being more feminine is still so great that those people aren’t expressing that gender identity. For the time being, it may not feel like being their authentic selves is worth the demotion in social status, much as it was for homosexual men and women in decades past.
The other oversight is about skirts. While Selin Davis talks a lot about the Pink Frilly Dress phenomenon and the way girls often embrace and then reject PFD, she never talks about the logistical dangers of the dress/skirt. Dresses on little girls make them easy targets for sexual molestation, and many girls switch to pants because it makes them safer. In the same way that some girls gain a lot of weight to protect themselves against sexual predation, some take on more masculine attributes to avoid the same.
These are minor problems, though, with a thought-provoking and enlightening read. I appreciate that Selin Davis started the book from a feminist perspective and it evolved into an exploration of sexuality and gender. Anyone who finds the new language of the non-binary and the current state of gender in our society confusing should read this book. Certainly anyone who has ever identified as a tomboy will find food for thought within its pages. The book left me hoping that gender-as-a-spectrum might soon be as accepted as sexuality-as-a-spectrum is now, and it also left me with the idea that the “tomboy” may disappear for good because of that spectrum. And then there’s the deep sadness that boys never had a suitable and safe counter-word to explore the feminine side of the binary. If we want to know why toxic masculinity exists, we need not look any further. But that’s another book.
(Hachette, August 11, 2020)