From Shakespeare to Enid Blyton, fiction about girls who defy ‘feminine’ stereotypes has itself been pretty stereotypical. But that may be changing
Last modified on Wed 21 Aug 2019 13.01 BST
“I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl. I won’t be. I don’t like doing the things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do.”
These lines in Five on Treasure Island introduce George Kirrin, one of the most famous tomboys in fiction. Enid Blyton’s novel, opening the bestselling Famous Five series, was published in 1942, when expectations of how women should behave were clear-cut and constricting. With her short hair, love of sailing and climbing and insistence on being addressed as “Master George”, she was the opposite of her doll-loving cousin, Anne – whose brother’s description of her as “a very good little housekeeper” in Five Go Off in a Caravan is a source of personal pride.
The word “tomboy” in the sense we understand it now – “girl who acts like a spirited boy” – was first used in 1592. Before that, it was a pejorative label for a “bold or immodest woman”. Earlier still, it described a “rude, boisterous boy”. In the 21st century, it’s a word that seems to be slipping out of fashion – and fiction.
Characters who do not behave in a stereotypically feminine manner have cropped up in fiction from its earliest days. There are characters who cross-dress out of desire or necessity, like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and Viola from Twelfth Night. There are others, like George, who resist the societal expectations of their time by presenting themselves as male – Little Women’s Jo March is another. (“You must be contented with making your name boyish, and playing brother to us girls”.) There are the likes of Game of Thrones’s Arya Stark, mistaken for boys because of their appearance and behaviour. Then there are the likes of Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness. Stephen – a name intended for a son – is described as physically masculine and uninterested in the womanly pursuits of her era. Radclyffe Hall – controversially for modern readers – presents her lesbianism as intertwined with her masculinity.
All could be classed as tomboys – but they are not all the same. The tomboy, as an idea, has slipped out of use as research and discourse around gender has progressed; as a term, it is too vague and limited. There are numerous reasons why someone assigned female at birth would not adhere to conservative gender roles. The idea of a tomboy fails to take into account the more contemporary idea of gender as a spectrum rather than a rigid binary. It also fails to acknowledge that for some, presenting as masculine is a fashion choice or a phase while for others it is the expression of their gender identity.
In Five on a Treasure Island, Anne explains to George why she likes being a girl: “I do like pretty frocks – and I love my dolls – and you can’t do that if you’re a boy.” Nowadays, such assumptions are widely and rightfully challenged. George’s contrasting love for outdoor activities is not strictly masculine by modern standards; neither is short hair. A few years after reading The Well of Loneliness, I began to wonder if Radclyffe Hall had imagined Stephen as transgender, but lacked the vocabulary to express this in 1928. (“I must be a boy, ‘cause I feel exactly like one.”) As language around gender has become more precise and nuanced, the tomboy seems more and more outdated.
But the tomboy has not vanished from literature. It was the precursor to a new archetype: the Strong Female Character. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games embodies this: a self-reliant hunter-gatherer who learned from her father, provides for her family, has trouble discussing her emotions and despairs at having to become “a silly girl spinning in a sparkling dress” to soften her appearance and increase her appeal.
A couple of decades ago, my own character Paige in The Bone Season novels might have been called a tomboy. She loves the outdoors, is scrappy and assertive, and rarely wears dresses – yet it isn’t a word I’ve ever wanted to apply to her, because I see none of those traits as exclusively or innately masculine. In some areas of young adult writing, the Strong Female Character has been held up as the new norm, while characters like Twilight’s Bella Swan are disparaged for their traditionally feminine pursuits, like marriage and children.
The tomboy may stay dead; here’s hoping that one day, we can discuss female characters as individuals rather than stereotypes. I hope the Strong Female Character will also fade away, as we begin normalising the idea of women who are strong in myriad ways, not just masculine ones. But perhaps this very disdain of femininity proves that the tomboy is actually alive – it’s just been repackaged.