A gender pioneering badge of honour or just plain outdated?
George from The Famous Five, Jo from Little Women, Mel C from the Spice Girls — what do they all have in common?
They’re some of the most famous tomboy role models in the world!
In fact, some of the most seemingly feminine actresses have been listed on a very strange ‘Tomboy Actresses’ list on IMDb. It’s here you’ll find the likes of Keira Knightley, Angelina Jolie, Mila Kunis and Miley Cyrus. Even though these women are Hollywood-feminine in style and looks, they all share a common trait…playing the ‘powerful woman’, ‘gross-out humour’ or ‘action woman’ roles.
Kristen Stewart played Joan Jett in The Runaways, Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and Lizzy Caplan played Janice in Mean Girls.
So what does the word tomboy mean today? Does it still mean a girl simply likes to dress in ‘boy’s’ clothes or is it more than that?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of ‘tomboy’ is
- “a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys.”
If that isn’t enough, Oxford Dictionary’s ‘example sentences’ aren’t much better…
Why does Betty have to ‘admit’ being a tomboy? Surely it isn’t a thing to feel guilty about? But at least it isn’t as bad as the person in the second quote…they’re in denial altogether!
Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary claims that the word tomboy was first used in the UK in the 14th century. At first it carried a similar definition, ‘rude boisterous boy,’ to ‘tomcat’ or an un-neutered and territorial cat.
At the end of the 14th century people started to use tomboy to describe ‘wild, romping girl’ or, even more controversially, a ‘strumpet, bold or immodest woman.’
One of the first times the word tomboy appears in print is in a book called Funebria Floræ by Thomas Hall…in the year 1661:
“Yea, Gentiles of the female kinde[…]
Themselves sometimes will lead the dance
And Tomboy-like will leap and prance”
At this moment in time, the term tomboy was used a simile to describe women rather than used as a direct word.
It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that tomboy was used as a direct way to describe women who don’t follow society’s gender expectations. This was a not-so-subtle dig at first-wave feminists and women’s suffrage.
However, around this time tomboy literary characters were very much an ‘in’ thing. Which later gave way to characters such as Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking.
These characters certainly helped the ‘tomboy’ personality snowball into mainstream movies and television. By the 90s and early 00s there were a whole host of tomboy characters such as Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, Becky “The Icebox” O’Shea from Little Giants and Jess from Bend it Like Beckham.
I spoke to a few women who were called ‘tomboy’ or considered themselves a tomboy. I found it fascinating to learn that some people associate the word with negative connotations, while others celebrate the word.
Dr Pragya Agarwal (Twitter: @hedgehogprints), a TEDx speaker and a writer for Forbes and Huffington Post, has an interesting approach to the term tomboy and considers it a regressive word:
“I was called a tomboy until I hit puberty, and I used to feel proud but now been thinking of the negative connotations of the term, considering it was used to describe an ‘immodest woman’ in the 1500s and often denotes ‘unfeminine’. It tells girls that there is a certain way to be a girl.”
Lynn Anderton, (Twitter@LynnAnderton) a mentor and life coach, takes some positivity from the word tomboy. She acknowledges that girls don’t necessarily have to be feminine most, if not all, of the time: “I considered myself a bit of a tomboy when I was young, I loved dolls but climbing trees was also the norm, I would say it’s an affectionate term that’s clear that a girl is not always girly but likes to do male-orientated activities too…”
There seems to be a pattern where women say people would call them a tomboy up until their early teens. So what happens when these children become fully grown women? Does the term tomboy become obsolete? Is there a reason we use the term tomboy for children more than adults?
Rebecca Escott, (Twitter: @RCLEscott) a writer and adoption worker, believes that being called a tomboy can act as a cushion for children in school:
“I like the term tomboy because sometimes kids can pick on other kids just for being different. If a girl wants to dress in sporty clothes or trousers or trainers or whatever…it’s a more acceptable word. It’s always said in an endearing way like “oh yeah she’s a proper tomboy” rather than “she’s dressed like a boy” or “is that a boy or girl” — which can be harmful in the long run. When women are tomboys they’re more likely to be called androgynous, even though they may still identify as a tomboy.”
Ariel C, a London student, makes a very good point in that it depends on who is calling someone a tomboy and what their intentions are: “I was often called a tomboy from the time I was a toddler to my early teens. In my experience it’s usually a mix of positive and negative.
The context and attitude of the speaker help determine if intent is meant to be affectionate, neutral descriptive or casual criticism.”
Tomboy usage can provoke strong emotions — some mothers lament the use of the word for their daughters because they feel like defines what it is to be a girl in such a limited way.
Catherine Connors writes: “I hate that word, because it implies that a girl (or woman, for that matter) who does not conform to girl-coded cultural stereotypes is not only not really a girl, but somehow a kind of a boy. It tells girls (and boys, and women, and men) that there is a right way of being a girl, and a wrong way of being a girl, and if you’re the “wrong’” kind of girl, then actually you’re more of a boy. That’s messed up, when you think about it. And that is why I told her that I would never call her a tomboy. I told her that I would never call her a “tomboy” because I didn’t like comparing her to boys. I told her that I didn’t like thinking of things as “boy things” and “girl things” and that I certainly didn’t like any suggestion that “boy things” were somehow better.”
However, women of all ethnicities are embracing the word ‘tomboy.’ For example, the clothing company Tom-Boi specialises in clothing for women who ‘go against the grain.’
The whole idea behind the brand is that tomboy is widely used for girls who don’t care about what others think of them. In fact, Tom-Boi proudly states:
“When you’re a kid, you just — BE. You don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you, or what you wear, or who you hang out with or have a crush on, or what books you like to read; you don’t care who you offend with your music tastes and dancing skills; you just BE. We can’t really think of a good reason why that as grown ups, we should care about any of that stuff either. So we don’t.”
Tom-Boi has adopted the word ‘tomboy’ as a way for girls and women to be ‘fearless, progressive and empowered.’
But does the word tomboy devalue gender-queer and non binary people? The people who are afraid of progression are more likely to say “she’s just a tomboy” rather than using correct pronouns or even acknowledging that girls and women can take part in activities traditionally reserved for men and boys.
So it could be argued that the word tomboy is simply a stopgap between our suffragette sisters and breaking gender expectations today. If you like being called a tomboy then by all means call yourself one and own the hell out of it. But don’t be afraid to correct people if you’d prefer not to be called one. It is your choice and you should be proud of whatever choice you make. At the moment, tomboy as it stands, doesn’t necessarily have to be an archaic term….women can make it their own.
After all, only you can do ‘you’.