Isn't it about time we scrapped the label 'Tomboy'? / by Katherine Cecil


Recently I spent the weekend with my six-year-old nephew, Sam. I enjoy our time together, and I know he feels the same. We build dens, shoot nerf guns, climb trees, fill water balloons, have midnight feasts and play Mario cart until we fall asleep on the sofa. 

It was during a gaming session, that Sam suddenly paused the T.V and turned to me (with such seriousness, that I felt a bit awkward) and said:

     “You’re not a real girl, are you Auntie Katherine?” I was, as you can imagine, quite shocked by the statement. It’s not often that I have my femininity called into question by a six year old, and I wasn’t entirely prepared with an answer. 

     “What do you mean?” 

     “Well,” he said, “you skateboard, and wear baseball caps. You can kick and throw a ball and you have a boy’s bike.” 

     “But I am a girl” I said, “and a girl can do all those thing and more.” Sam found this statement hilarious and snorted:

     “No! Girls can’t, but tomboys can!” He then turned back to the video game and continued with Zen like concentration. 

The term Tomboy is a particular irritant of mine. Linguistically, it places a subset of girls active in society in the position of ‘other’ as opposed to allowing them the freedom to express their femininity in whatever way they choose. Growing up the label was ascribed to me long before I used it as a means to describe myself. It remains a stock piece of terminology employed by parents to describe their children. “Liz likes army trousers, she’s a tomboy," “Julia climbs trees, she’s a tomboy," "Becky likes blue, she's a tomboy," “I know Raquel plays rough, but she’s a tomboy”. Both parent and daughter use the term as a way of explaining why a girl is presenting socially masculine behaviour.

Gender is a social construct, and it is pressed on children as soon as they enter the social space. Neither a girl or a boy under the age of 3 recognises the affect that their gender will play on their life, they simply exist, learn and play. Society influences their development in that area, which in turn suggests that children of both sexes will suffer from a lack of experience in some respect (a girl will be treated by society in a typically feminine way, a boy a typically masculine) even the most gender conscious parent cannot control the stimuli aimed at the child based on their sex by the outside world. This results in a high percentage of girls experiencing “pink frilly dress syndrome," a thesis coined by Professor Carrie Paechter, head of department for educational studies at Goldsmiths College. Paecher uses the term to describe the conflict a girl faces when she wants to play in the mud, climb trees, etc., but opts instead to wear the pink dress so as to conform to both herself, and the other girls around her. The girl wants to prove to her peers that she is in fact a girl. As she develops she is faced with a decision: what role will make her happiest? One girl might choose to never wear a dress, a second girl might force herself into a dress until the age of 6-7 and then realise that she is unable to change her gender, and thus choose to act in the way that will make her happiest, and a third girl might choose the dress because a) she decides it makes her happy or b) she is afraid of what society will think of her if she swops the dress for jeans. Each girl picks a path, a path that is governed by where she will fit into society. Will she be a socially typical girl or will she be an ‘other’ — a tomboy. 

For a time (at least during primary education) society allows tomboys to have a place, this is largely because these are prepubescent years. At this age, what children consider ‘cool’ is based not on sex but on shared interests and hierarchy. Tomboys are generally more competitive than socially typical girls, therefore much of their play revolves around the idea of winning and losing. In imagination based games, the losers take the form of an enemy or an obstacle to overcome. Socially typical girls are generally quiet but bossy (according to Sam), are more inclined towards games based around nature, and their imaginary games lie in the realm of fairy tale fantasies. Research undertaken by psychologists Pat Plumb and Gloria Cowan, noted that tomboys are equally as compassionate as socially typical girls “but are more assertive, and less judgmental”. At this age, the tomboys place in the social group is high because she is able to keep up with the boys, which earns her respect. 

Problems begin to occur with the social notion of ‘tomboyness’ post puberty, when boys begin to recognise the aesthetics of girls, and form a socially constructed idea of the type of women they want to engage with sexually. The idea of what is and isn’t masculine or feminine behaviour becomes clearly defined and the sense of competition begins to shift. Boys become wary of the girl who can beat them at the things that they are supposed to excel at. Socially typical girls begin to focus their attention on aesthetic values and are suspicious of girls who do not also consider this to be an essential feature of what it is to be a girl. The tomboys position in the social group slips, because as opposed to when she was younger and accepted by both groups for combining feminine and masculine traits, she is now ostracised for it. 

Sociologists Scraton et al. article on elite female footballers in Europe highlight the burden that comes with the label ‘tomboy’. During the interviews, it was noted that there was a pattern amongst the women in which they continuously referred to themselves as 'other' when talking about the female or feminine. Scraton et al. stated ‘the women are relationally constructing a self via what they consider themselves not to be — that is, girls.’ This reinforcement of gender norms is dangerous because it has the potential to a) leave the tomboy feeling insecure and isolated in regard to her own position in society and b) force the tomboy to adopt a misogynistic idea of the females place in society more generally. 

As for the science, well, scientists love to look at brains, especially when it comes to ‘figuring out’ gender (do women and men have different brains? [Another irritant of mine] has consistently been a hot topic.) Increasingly investigations concerning the tomboy are becoming more common place — specifically — what makes a tomboy? Majority of this research draws harsh distinctions between a socially typical girl, and a tomboy without recognising that both are female. An article published by Science Daily on research conducted by ‘the centre for the advancement of health’ titled their findings: Study Suggests That Tomboys May Be Born, Not Made. The wording here is interesting, because it pushes the girl who is more inclined towards socially masculine behaviour into the role the ‘other’. The research itself focuses on the amount of testosterone the female child is exposed to in the womb. This is an interesting topic, however because the headline uses ‘tomboy’ as a hook, the research shifts its tone to something more objectifying i.e. why are these girls not typical? Instead of recognising the fact that a female is multifaceted. The language takes a hard and fast approach: you are either a girl, or you not — the not will result in the label tomboy — and the term tomboy lays itself open for other social attacks and assumptions, such as: If you are a tomboy then you must be gay, if you are a tomboy then you want to be male, if you are a tomboy you hate women. The list is as contradictory as it is vast. Also there is no clear signifier to when a socially typical girl becomes a tomboy, or vice-versa. When and what is societies tipping point on the subject? How many jeans must a girl own? How many sports must she play? How competitive must she be? At what point does the girl get the label? 

A few days after our conversation, I picked Sam up from school. He was excited that his Auntie was collecting him, because Auntie = sweets and a trip to the swimming pool. He and several of his friends marched over. Sam had been wanting to introduce me to his gang (the super hero smash club) for quite some time, and obviously saw this as a good opportunity. For a beat they stood awkwardly in front of me, and then suddenly broke into a chaotic kung foo montage (which apparently signified that they were a gang). In the middle of the fray was a long haired figure, she wore a baseball cap on back to front, baggie mud stained trousers and a watch that looked so full of gadgets it could have belonged to MI5, also her kicks were a significant amount higher than the boys. She looked strong, and confident and force to be reckoned with. She looked like a girl being a girl. Nothing more, nothing less, no labels, no tag-lines, no enforced definitions, simply a girl. And being a girl is pretty cool.