This article is the first in a series about “tomboy” and was originally posted as a blog on Straight Out Of Crompton. Use the #tomboy to follow and join the discussion on Twitter.
Over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of “tomboy”. It started as a dinner conversation with some girlfriends, each of us discussing what we were like as kids. All of us admitted that we were quite tomboyish, but would still do some girly things. I then took it further and asked if any of them would still consider themselves tomboys? All of them thought for a moment, then conceded that possibly, in some ways, yeah, they were, but we’re all older now so it’s different.
This got me thinking, because I would still very much call myself a tomboy. If I had to be handed a label, that is what I’d want mine to be and I’d wear it with pride, but is it weird for someone in their (late) twenties to call themselves a tomboy? Conjure up an image of a tomboy and usually you imagine a grubby-faced little girl in boy-like clothes. It’s very much a term reserved for younger people.
Even the OED (2006) describes the term as: ‘a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys’. Use of the term ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ further supports that connotation of it being a label belonging to the young and as every ‘girl’ grows into a woman, so she grows out of what we ideologically think being a tomboy is.
It could be (strongly) argued that because ‘boy’ is used in the word, that this is why it’s reserved for the young and I can see the rationale in that. As much as I’d like to coin and claim the term “tomman” for us older tomboys, I just don’t think it sends the right message. Plus it sounds like a Geordie simply calling for his mate Tom.
Perhaps to further prove my point about it being an age-related idea, I was made aware of a segment on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which included a 10 minute discussion on tomboy, made relevant by the re-release/UK release of a French film titled ‘Tomboy’. Again, this film is about a 10 year old girl, that spends the summer pretending to be a boy. After I’ve watched it, this may warrant a blog post of it’s own, as the trailer suggests this is a story about a character struggling with their assigned gender and denies being a girl. This is not, what I believe, to be tomboy, but I shall expand on this after watching the film and discuss cis and non-cis gendering in relation to tomboy.
The guests on Radio 4 included Helen Moss, a children’s author that has included a tomboy-esque character in her latest series and psychologist Claire Halsey. The discussion opened with a passage from The Famous Five, when Georgina makes it clear she’d rather be called George. Moss then discusses the child figure in her book and Halsey makes comment on the psychological behaviour of young girls wanting to act like boys and young people and “gender difficulties”.
All of the points of reference in literature, or anecdotal, only referred to pre-teen girls behaving in a tomboyish manner. Well, what about being a ‘post-teen tomboy’? Is it assumed that women, because they don’t tear around the block on their bikes (or maybe not as often as when we were younger), or climb as many trees, or make mud pies that they stop being a tomboy? Or is it that they’ve become more comfortable with wearing skirts and dresses and owning a handbag and therefore the label “tomboy” becomes moot, because they’ve shown some level of femininity?
If it is, then I don’t agree with it. Trying to tackle clearly what tomboy is once you’re past the age of six gets difficult, but I will try to unpick it across several blog posts. I know it definitely isn’t pink and frilly though. That still stands for any self-proclaimed tomboy no matter how old you are. It’s not just about fashion, or how grubby you get, or even how macho you try to be. Taking a hunt around the internet, I think Tomboy Tarts over in the States is about as close as I can find to a relevant post-teen tomboy definition right now, but I wouldn’t fully agree with everything they put on their manifesto either.
Whenever asked to clarify what I mean by calling myself a “tomboy” now, I always respond with, “well, I’m not a girly-girl,” and an adult girly-girl seems easier for people to picture, so they quickly get some idea of what the opposite entails. I guess, somehow, that’s a good starting point for defining the Post-Teen Tomboy.