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The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different
By Lisa Selin Davis
In “Tomboy,” the author Lisa Selin Davis leverages a familiar term to take a comprehensive look at gender performance in girls. As for who counts as a tomboy, Davis includes anyone who is seen (or who sees herself) as moving off the narrow path of conventional femininity. Under Davis’s big umbrella we find girls who reject dolls, dresses and sparkles in favor of athletics, sportswear and dirt; those who embrace both the stereotypically girlish and boyish; and some for whom tomboyism is an early expression of what will evolve into a lesbian, trans or gender-nonconforming identity.
The consideration of gender scripts for girls is a well-worn topic. Davis takes the reader in a fresh direction by illuminating the forces behind the shifting regard in which tomboys have been held. We learn that in the late 19th century, thanks to a parade of spirited literary heroines led by Louisa May Alcott’s indomitable Jo March, approval of “feisty” girls ran high. Tomboy acceptance sank in the 1950s, when Rosie the Riveter and her daughters were returned to a hyper-feminine domestic sphere in order to secure men’s place in the work world. Mainstream tomboyism rose again in the 1960s and ’70s, as second-wave feminists brought up girls of their own. Then it was sidelined by the “commercial gender essentialism” of the 1980s and its drive to create distinct, hand-me-down-thwarting markets: pastels and Care Bears for girls, primary colors and He-Men for boys. According to Davis, “as money flowed into the economy and the middle classes surged later in the 20th century, more items were gendered. This served two purposes: to sell twice as much stuff, and to push women back into their places.”
Given Davis’s thoughtful consideration of how money and power have shaped our ever-changing view of tomboys, I would have welcomed more from her about the sexual objectification of girls in the media they consume. In recent decades, we have traveled from Jodie Foster’s unisex 1970s “Freaky Friday” style to Sporty Spice’s 1990s sexy jock to today’s ultra-curvy Kardashians. I was left wondering if the increasingly sexualized standard for girls could be entirely explained by the levers of money and power that Davis considers — sex sells and objectification degrades its object — or if she thought there was more to it.
Though keeping her focus on girls and women, Davis touches on the fact that the classic male analogue for “tomboy” is “sissy”: a term that is always leveled as a slur, and one meant to suggest homosexuality. While tomboys enjoy “sanctuary, a safe passageway over the line,” boys risk being policed by their peers if they stray even slightly from macho extremes. Here, Davis may remind us of a fact that is easy to forget: Girls’ latitude in the performance of girlhood is a rare example in which the gender deck is stacked in their favor.
Davis cites several studies showing that a large percentage of women recall being tomboys as children, and notes that “legions of famous and important women have heralded their tomboy pasts.” Such memories may say little about what actually happened (psychologists don’t put much stock in the accuracy of retrospective accounts), but probably say a great deal about adult women’s nostalgia for a time of life when confidence and comfortable shoes came at a lower cost.
“Tomboy” brings us up to the current moment and its starkly polarized takes on gender. On the one hand, we embrace a vastly more fluid understanding than ever before. According to Davis, “one poll found that half of millennials see gender more as a spectrum than a binary.” On the other hand, gender reveal parties are now a thing. While Davis does not seek to explain or reconcile these extremes, she offers excellent, overarching guidance on how to approach the entire subject: “The only way to do gender wrong, I’ve come to believe, is to tell someone else that they’re doing it wrong.” Amen to that.
‘Tomboy’ Looks at Gender Roles, and Role-Playing, Through the Ages – The New York Times