Every word has a history. The tomboys of today need our help.

My sister and I are four years apart and, to the amusement of my parents, could not be more different. If we got splashed with mud by a passing driver, she would cry whilst I would laugh excitedly and ask if he could do it again. ‘What colour dress do you want?’, she would ask me whilst shopping with my mother, only to be met with a dismissive shrug — I was too busy jumping between roller-coasters with my father. Mortified, she commanded me to brush my hair and act more ‘ladylike’.


Growing pains

Growing up, I was the personification of the ‘feminine tomboy’. Yes, I played football for years, but did so with my hair braided into two pigtails and my pink cleats on. Merida, Pocahontas, and Moana are my favourite Disney princesses, but I find space for all princesses in my heart. With my long hair and excessive jewellery collection as two of my most prized possessions, you might not see my boyish side until you get to know me. However, it’s still there, still big, and I still love it.

Which is why it saddens me so much that tomboys seem to be a rarer and rarer species.

Actually, let me rephrase that.

There are still a lot of tomboys, only it is not acceptable to describe us as ‘tomboys’ anymore, and the most genuine ones — the short-haired, trouser-wearing girls who trade their Barbies for action figures — are often told they are boys instead.

So, is ‘tomboy’ really a thing of the past? And are we ready to leave it there?

In 2020, ‘tomboy’ is a dirty word

Advocates of the harmful consequences of describing adventurous, sporty girls as tomboys argue that such labels entrench gender stereotypes by inevitably suggesting that certain characteristics are uniquely male. When associating girls who behave in a certain way to boys, we decide that there are certain female traits. My position is that girls who like to scrape their knees and climb trees should still be called girls — period.

This is an argument I considered carefully. I would never want to attach gender stereotypes to little girls who act as I did by calling them tomboys, even if I were to do it in a loving way. But is this what actually happens?

Gender stereotypes have had centuries to mature. Once, they were common currency. Today, not so much.

Girls excel at sports, girls go into STEM fields, girls become politicians and CEOs. Thankfully, these girls are no longer the exception, but the rule. Thousands of powerful women prove to us everyday that girls can do whatever boys can. 

So whilst the noun ‘tom-boy’ has associations to boys, I believe that our society is progressive enough to employ it towards a girl without reducing her to the male sex.

Essentially, I believe it’s a matter of perception. We can of course choose to interpret the word literally. Or perhaps, we can embrace societal advancement and argue that girls who like to climb trees and get muddy should no longer be viewed as quasi-boys under the ‘tomboy’ reference.

And this progress deserves to be celebrated. The word ‘tomboy’ has a complex but important history which we stand to forget if we render it obsolete. 

The history of the ‘Tomboy’

During the 19th century, when abolition loomed, there was a growing concern that the white race would become a minority. White women at the time suffered from diminishing physical health due to restrictive clothing and a lack of exercise. Long story short, ‘tomboyish’ was created: a way of life which emphasised appropriate nutrition and outdoorsy activities as a means of preparing women for their maternal and spousal roles in life, to ensure   the continuity of the race.

In the 20th century, that definition evolved. Represented on the big screen by characters like Jo in Facts of Life and Watts in Some Kind Of Wonderful, tomboys were, to millions of little girls, the much-needed confirmation that you don’t need to be feminine to be female. Confident, outspoken, and refreshingly comfortable in their own skins, these beloved characters signalled the expansion of gender expectations and the idea of girlhood.

Although the word ‘tomboy’ is inextricable from its racist and sexist roots, it is also inextricable from its modern perception. And this evolution has heaps to teach us about the historical progression of race and gender relations. 

Tomboy has a history we must remember. I don’t believe that in our contemporary context it has the same power it once did to reinforce gender stereotypes. What does reinforce gender stereotypes, however, is the increasingly upheld gender-identity theory which claims that tomboy-girls are, in fact, boys.

Which brings me to my next point.

Why assuming tomboy-girls are transgender is problematic

I was first introduced to this concept when I stumbled across the article: ‘The New Little Women Basically Proves Jo March is Queer’. Fearless, loud, and wonderfully herself, Jo March is my all-time favourite literary character because of her disregard for the gender roles attempting to trap her. Her power resides in her being a girl who — by viewing herself equal to boys at a time when the world told her otherwise — shows other girls that they can be whoever they want to be.

But now, she’s being called a boy — an assumption which solidifies the gender stereotypes we should be dismantling.

By turning Jo into a transgender character based on her dislike of dresses, polite society and the idea of marriage, we necessarily suggest that girls are meant to like dresses, polite society, and the idea of marriage. In wanting to become more progressive in how we view and accept gender, we’ve actually ended up less so. 

In 2017, an angry Twitter mob accused Lisa Selin Davis of preventing her child from being her true self after she wrote a New York Times article explaining how her tomboy daughter wasn’t transgender. Last September, The Department for Education and Skills had to issue a statement instructing teachers not to tell girls who act tomboyish that their gender is male. This practice has transcended fiction, and it threatens to do exactly what it aims to prevent: entrapping children in bodies which are not theirs. Misgendering girls who are tomboys becomes even more bizarre when we consider all the gender-unrelated reasons for girls being tomboyish. These may include, wanting male privilege, having had weak female role models at home, or it simply being who they are. 

Since the people diagnosing children with gender dysmorphia are often the same people who would agree that gender is a social construct, it is worth noting the contradiction in this argument. ‘Born-females like dresses and makeup and born-males like arms and sports because society has told them to like those things. Gender is not connected to sex’, they claim. But then a girl comes along who likes arms and sports, and suddenly gender is connected to sex, and she becomes a boy.

Personally, I don’t cling to the label ‘tomboy’ as much as I used to. Part of me, I think, has outgrown it. Sure I still barely wear make-up, and I’m an aggressive sports player, but I have incorporated these things into my femininity which make me the woman I am today.

But more than that. With time, I lost the necessity to be labelled anything. Growing up and deciding who we are is one of the hardest things we have to do. ‘Tomboy’ was my easy way out of that. It was nice to be known as something. To be cleanly categorised according to a popular label. This way, I wouldn’t have to explain who I was and consequently, wouldn’t have to think about it either. ‘She’s the girl who plays all of those sports’, ‘She’s the adventurer; the go-getter’. It felt nice.

Whilst I thank ‘tomboy’ for this assurance, I also leave it in my past. I am a go-getter who plays a lot of sports and loves adventures, but that’s not all that I am. I now have bigger aspirations, bigger things that I want to define me — bigger things I need to be.