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When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a fan letter to Alex Mack. Perhaps only ’90s kids will remember exactly who that is. She was the protagonist of Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack, a show about a preteen (played by Larisa Oleynik) who — after being doused with a top-secret chemical called GC-161 — could move things with her mind, shoot electricity from her fingertips, and morph into an iridescent puddle of water.
All I wanted at age 11 was to be her.
But it wasn’t just the puddle powers. (Who even knows what the long-term effects of GC-161 were.) If I couldn’t be Alex Mack, I would’ve taken smart girl Clarissa Darling from Clarissa Explains It All, or maybe eternally curious Harriet M. Welsch from Harriet the Spy, or flannel-wearing Tai Frasier from Clueless (you know, pre-makeover). I would have worn baggy soccer jerseys and sports bras like Jess and Jules from 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham; played guitar like Josie from Josie and the Pussycats; shared dark secrets like Christina Ricci and Anna Chlumsky did in Gold Diggers. To me, these girls represented freedom.
I have no idea what I said to Mack in my letter. I was big on writing impassioned letters at the time—I also wrote to JanSport asking them to please design scoliosis-preventing backpacks. (I did not have scoliosis, and they never wrote me back.) But I do remember that the letter I wrote was specifically addressed to Alex Mack, not Larisa Oleynik, because even though Mack was a fictional character on a fictional TV show, she felt very real to me. She wore dirty overalls and a backwards hat, and she had a boy best friend, but most important: Her entire body was mutable; it could be destroyed and reformed at her command. The most alluring thing to a quickly maturing prepubescent fifth-grader who has just learned that, at some point in their lives, all girls become irreversibly visible is a girl who — by some blessed scientific accident — is able to just disappear.
Around the time I was busy sending all these letters, I got some unexpected deliveries of my own. Boobs first, my period right after. Fifth grade felt way too soon for either of these things to happen (further confirmed by how my girlfriends reacted—with cruel giggling and whispers), and when my grandmom called to “welcome me” to womanhood, I was confused. If “womanhood,” as she put it, was all about getting ridiculed for not wearing a bra when your friends say you “should” or suddenly becoming a demeaning topic of conversation for preteen boys, then this “womanhood” thing was trash. No, thank you, I thought to myself. I vowed to seek out other options.
Around this age, girls become a different species without our own permission. We’re vaulted into womanhood whether we’re ready for it or not, which is why I admired characters like Mack, who were rebels of the form, and who, at the time, were the only mainstream models I had to understand my resistance to femininity. I wasn’t a tomboy in the traditional sense, but being hugely ambivalent to gender made me envy these girls. Sometimes I wanted to be like a girl. Sometimes I wanted to be like a boy. Mostly I resented the fact that I was being asked to choose.
I didn’t want to be a boy. In my imagination, what I wanted was something nebulous that I had trouble defining, something that gave me a chance to express the full spectrum of my gender identity without restraint. I wasn’t digging in dirt or playing football, but I was frequently insolent and outspoken and aggressive — things I had learned that girls were not and should not be.
Mainstream culture is finally catching up to the need for a full and unlimited spectrum of gender. With progress can come a liberated shedding (or, sometimes, a proud reclaiming) of old labels. So-called tomboy characters like Mack. Little Giants’ lead quarterback Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, Disney’s female warrior Mulan, or even Anna Chlumsky’s spunky Vada from My Girl seem in many ways quaint and retrograde now. These days, the tomboy trope pops up less and less, which is a sign that we’re able to understand, acknowledge, and accept the fluidity of gender. We stand to gain a lot with the slow disappearance of the tomboy. But is there anything we stand to lose?
There have long been acceptable and unacceptable kinds of tomboys. “The feminine tomboy is the girl with the long hair pulled up into a ponytail who plays softball. That kind of tomboy is applauded. ‘My girl can do anything a boy can do! She’s tough! She’s strong! She’s a go-getter. She’s going to be a leader,’” Michelle Ann Abate, an associate professor of literature for children and young adults at Ohio State University and author of Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History, told me by phone in April. “Then, the masculine tomboy with a crew cut who plays baseball with the boys and maybe even goes by a masculine nickname, that tomboy is usually the one that is stigmatized or pathologized or at least seen as cause for alarm, because it might be a sign of protolesbian or trans identity.” These masculine tomboys encroach on male power and privilege, and that kind of threat will not be tolerated.
After asking friends about the tomboy, more than one has suggested that the word is now a taboo, a relic of a time before ideas like gender fluidity and identifications like nonbinary began to be accepted and then embraced. Employing the term “tomboy” now can raise a litany of complicated questions, some that writer Lisa Selin Davis attempted to tackle in a recent op-ed for the New York Times titled, “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.”
“I want trans kids to feel free and safe enough to be who they are,” Davis wrote. “I also want adults to have a fluid enough idea of gender roles that a seven-year-old girl can dress like ‘a boy’ and not be asked — by people who know her, not strangers — whether she is one.”
The piece caused many to ask: Why should we replace one binary with another? Why employ more limiting labels when we’d rather have fewer? “We tend to think of tomboyism as this very positive and almost innocent, wholly productive cultural force,” Abate told me. “Girl power and expanding notions of girlhood, taking down the patriarchy, empowering women, and giving agency to girls. And it is that! But when it was founded, it had another purpose.”
Abate was doing research for her oral exam in graduate school when she stumbled upon information about tomboys that she found startling: “The phenomenon of tomboy characters being racialized started jumping off the pages to me.” This inspired Abate to look for more primary texts — even just a general history — on tomboys to see if anyone was looking more deeply into how tomboyism intersected with race. To her surprise, there was hardly anything at all.
She decided to do the work herself. “If you look back to the origins and the evolution of tomboyism, it was serving a very different and much more problematic cultural purpose: The trope was intended to shore up the health of white women as a means to essentially ensure the continuation of the white race,” Abate said. “White women would give birth to strong white babies, and that would ensure that the white race would remain strong and in power. It’s just that simple.”
Abate’s research dug up examples of this connection time and time again, as well as pictures of the liminal space that the trope of the tomboy occupied: somewhere between boy and girl, white and black, straight and gay. In exploring texts like Little Women, E.D.E.N., and The Member of the Wedding, as well as pop culture in the late 20th century, Abate identified how whiteness pervaded and perpetuated the tomboy trope and excused it by giving white tomboys flexible identities to embody.
“Girls who had to labor in fields, they weren’t seen as tomboys—they just grew up in farming families,” Abate said. “That was the reality of living in a rural place. The same went for working-class girls — they didn’t have the luxury, because of their socioeconomic status, to be too delicate. They did all the heavy washing and the scrubbing of the floors. They were never too frail or too weak. It wasn’t an option for them. The same thing goes for nonwhite women and girls. [They] were never seen as too delicate. On the contrary, they needed to be strong, because they were expected to perform heavy labor.”
By the 20th century, the image of the pallid, incapable white woman had faded as the heightened popularity of the tomboy rose. But the cultural imperative for women to embrace male behaviors was only a passing trend. “When sexologists like Freud came onto the scene, tomboyism began getting linked with lesbianism because it was seen as a sign of gender inversion,” Abate explained. “‘You’ve got a man trapped in a woman’s body.’ It’s how the early psychologists talked about homosexuality. The stigma that gets attached to tomboyism, or at least the alarm and concern, it took several generations for that to happen.” By the time second-wave feminism had arrived in postwar America, a girl wanting to be like a boy was a phenomenon that began to be stigmatized again.
The characters that I saw in pop culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s seemed free to me, but what I didn’t and couldn’t have known then is that they were still being forced to choose one path over another. I didn’t know the sinister history they represented. I didn’t understand that, when truly distilled, my childhood heroes were actually close facsimiles of masculine white boys. That the idolatry I internalized was, in many ways, working to confuse instead of clarify my acceptance of myself. I envied their freedom, but only into adulthood have I come to realize at what cost that freedom came.
“I think that if you would go on the playground at recess at pretty much any school and ask a kid what a tomboy was, they would know,” Abate said. “Despite all of the gender-creative, gender-fluid, gender-queer kids and embracing of gender-neutral pronouns, you walk into Target today and everything is still so gender bifurcated.”
We’re a long way from destroying the poles that the tomboy represents. And while I needed her when I was younger, I’ve been learning to let her go. In a 2016 essay for Medium, Catherine Connors, co-founder of Project Maverick, wrote that she would never call her daughter 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. I told her that there was a long history in the world of ‘girl things’ being treated as less important than ‘boy things,’ and that that was a problem for everyone, and not just girls.” Selin Davis’ Times op-ed received backlash for reinforcing this binary. But, like Abate said, the issue is much greater than just striking one word from our vocabularies.
Maybe for now we can at least try to reclaim what the tomboy meant to us. On her mixtape 1992, 25-year-old Bronx rapper Princess Nokia confidently chooses to embrace the word. “Who that is, ho? That girl is a tomboy! That girl is a tomboy!” she shouts. Nokia admires her own “little titties and fat belly,” her ability to attract anyone regardless of what she’s wearing or how she’s acting — whether she is identifiable as boy or a girl. The tone of the song is arrogant; it almost has to be. As Nokia told the Guardian in 2017, when she was young, she was “not a typical clean-cut young lady, always a bit rough around the edges, always a bit messy.” A tomboy through and through.
“I remember at school one day there was a vocabulary list on the chalkboard, and the word ‘nonconformist’ was on there, and it said, ‘Someone that doesn’t appeal to society, someone who doesn’t fit in.’” Nokia said. “We had this whole conversation about it, and I realized it cohered to the punk-rock world that I was into. It was more than the clothes, although I loved the fashion. It was rooted in this beautiful socioeconomic awareness and identity, and just saying, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to be loud and express ourselves.’”
Seeing tomboy characters on screen and in books when I was young and impressionable and pained by my body made me feel powerful, too. I could choose what hobby to embrace, when to be traditionally feminine and when not, what spaces to occupy. Into adulthood, I’ve rarely felt comfortable in feminine clothing, but I’ve learned to approach femininity with a certain coyness. Growing up with more “boy-like” girls as role models offered reassurance that it was okay to be myself. Tomboys in pop culture showed me two limited sides of a spectrum, but I’ve taken from both the behaviors and feelings that make me most comfortable.
The tomboy trope was ultimately founded in the assumption that there is something inherently terrifying about femininity, and that a total rejection of typical woman-like things is the only option to wearing a skirt even once. “If we truly had a notion of girls can play whatever sport they want, we wouldn’t need tomboyism,” Abate said of her hopes for the disappearance of the term from our cultural lexicon. “But right now there are so many things that have to change. We’re talking hundreds of years of patriarchy.”