By Leslie Lindsay
A thorough and engrossing sociological, historical, and psychological examination and the antiquated term ‘tomboy,’ an imagined future for children who defy categories, and so much more.
~BookS on MondaY|Always with a Book~
TOMBOY: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different (Hachette Books, August 11 2020) first came to my attention this past spring and I knew I had read it. As a ‘soccer mom,’ I often hear this on the pitch, “Oh, she’s just a Tomboy” or something of similar ilk. I started thinking about why we use this term and if there really was such a thing. And then I read Lisa Selin Davis’s insightful and daring new book and felt we were cut from the same cloth.
Here’s thing: I don’t really think ‘Tomboys’ exist. People do. And we need to stop with the labels and marketing that supports (or doesn’t support) this divide.
Davis takes us deep into the history of the term ‘tomboy’ and provides stunning examples of how advertising and marketing have played to the stereotypes of gender, gender roles, expectations, sex, and more. Here, we investigate what a ‘tomboy’ was like in the early days, how they are different now. In the last decade+ we have seen a surge in changes on the gender continuum, LBGTQ+ and more, and so how are parents supposed to negotiate, guide and advise children?
In TOMBOY, Davis discusses societal expectations based on gender, bringing forth current media and social events, the idea that perhaps we ought to just have courage to live as we are.
This is a highly and well-researched narrative nonfiction and the author’s passion for her subject is palpable. TOMBOY is an important read that will be eye-opening and life-changing for many.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Lisa Davis to the author interview series:
Lisa, welcome! I am always intrigued about what impassions us enough to want to spend so much time with a particular topic, enough to write a book about it? I think for TOMBOY it was your daughter, and also the op-ed piece you wrote for the NYT. Can you talk more about your jumping off point, please?
Thank you so much, Leslie, for your interest in and enthusiasm for my project. I truly appreciate it.
I didn’t intend to write a book about tomboys. I had written an essay for Parenting [magazine] when my daughter was four, about all the ways she wasn’t conforming and my conflicting feelings—mostly pride and anxiety—around that. Then, three years later, I wrote about other people’s conflicting feelings about how she wasn’t conforming, and the assumption from those open-minded, liberal people that a girl who likes short hair and sweatpants must be trans. That piece, an op-ed in The New York Times, inspired such an enormous response, both positive and negative, that I knew I had hit on something—a nerve, an exposed and yet under-explored tension. Clearly there was a book in it somewhere, but it took me a long time to figure out what that book should be.
I was struck and stunned by some of the advertising pieces you found and included in TOMBOY. That side-by-side image of “Girls Life” and Boys Life?” OMG! And that was 2016! I’ve also been interested in this marketing to gender, of gender. We could spend all day on this topic, but what might you want to touch on here?
I think many people, especially those raised in the 1970s and ‘80s, assume we’ve reached gender equality and that kids are more or less raised the same way. They don’t realize that in fact the way we market not just things but childhood itself to kids has gotten narrower since then, with more of kids’ material and psychic worlds divided into pink and blue. Nor are they aware of the psychological implications of that division.
We are telling girls that what matters about them is kindness and prettiness and boys that what matters is achievement and toughness. And because marketing is so much smarter and more insidious, this division has leaked into all aspects of childhood, including our parenting, the way we speak to kids, the assumptions we make, what we sign them up for, what we buy them. We have achieved so much in the post-Title IX world, with more girls in sports and STEM, but we have much further to go.
“Lisa Selin Davis uses TOMBOY
as a launch pad for a thought-provoking and enlightening exploration of the
troubled pink and blue waters of gender categories-and the words that can be
life rafts to help us float above them or stones pulling us in deeper.”
Raising children has become increasing complex in the last few years—decade or so—and that doesn’t even include COVID! Can you give us a little tutorial on what these newer acronyms translate to? For example, a trans-girl would be…and cis-, binary? I kind of feel I need a glossary.
There are many good places to go to learn definitions related to gender, and it’s important to know that some of those definitions are in evolution. And that many people have different definitions for the same words. But here are a few definitions of gender-related words as I see them:
Sex: the biological components that make up male, female or intersex: chromosomes, hormones, body parts. Around 99% of people divide equally into male and female categories at birth, but how they will identify later is something else.
Gender: the social meaning of sex; the assumptions and stereotypes we associate with males and females (this could also be thought of as masculine/feminine)
Gender identity: Who you feel yourself to be, how you identify: as a man, woman, non-binary (neither man nor woman), etc.
Trans: having a gender identity that doesn’t align typically with your sex.
Cis: having a gender identity that aligns typically with sex.
Genderqueer, non-binary, etc: Identifying not exclusively as a man or a woman.
Here’s what really bugs me, “Oh, she’s just a Tomboy.” Can’t we just say, “No, she’s a person.” What might we say to these folks…aside from hanging them a copy of TOMBOY? Also, how about when someone compares their children, usually sisters, with this comment, “____ is a Girly-girl and ___ is a ‘Tomboy.” I think you mention this idea of sibling differentiation in TOMBOY. Can you touch on that a bit, too?
People have been objecting to the word tomboy since the late 1800s, asserting that it is sexist to call a girl who loves climbing trees and being feisty anything other than a girl. And especially using a word with boy in it? That implies that those things—independence and fortitude and sportiness—really do belong to the biological category of males. The truth is, when we have given girls more freedom to explore what’s on the boy side of the line, they’ve usually gone over there and liked it. And some are so drawn there that they’ll defy the cultural pressure to avoid it. By assuming that it’s natural and part of girlhood to want short hair or basketball shorts or to play with boys, we don’t need to name it.
But that’s not the assumption, and thus the need to classify someone who defies borders and boundaries remains. Today we use words like gender nonconforming, which is gender-neutral. But—and this is the tension I hit on with my op-ed—a term like that still implies that a girl who does those things or looks that way isn’t a girl. To some, it’s liberating. To others, it’s still trafficking in stereotypes.
Very often, if you have several children of the same sex, some will be more stereotypically feminine and some more masculine, as a way to carve out their own territory.
One thing I was really looking for in TOMBOY was the idea of ADHD. I have a daughter who had a speech disorder as a child and also ADHD. She didn’t want to communicate and do fine-motor things (often typical of her biological sex), she wanted to be loud with grunts and squawks, run and jump and that often meant playing with the little boys in the neighborhood. She didn’t care about what she wore and so would go back and forth between ‘girl’ attire of dresses and sparkly things, but also wore pants and shorts and climbed trees. Did you find any connection between tomboys and ADHD?
I didn’t, but I also didn’t look for it. And the truth is, we only have answers to questions we ask. We only have data for what we look for. There is, however, some data on the connection between autism spectrum disorder and gender dysphoria.
I think what you’re getting at is that the behaviors associated with ADHD—the boisterousness and difficulty paying attention—are also associated with boys. But the other thing you’re talking about—your daughter becoming flexible in what she wore, for instance—has to do with cognitive development.
When kids are very young, starting around preschool age, they can become very rigid about wearing boy and girl “costumes,” and hewing to stereotypes, no matter how much we try to present them with alternatives. They’ve been told which category they belong to and most try to master it, and weed out those who don’t; they learn early to gender-police one another.
As they get older, some girls who were whole hog into princess-wear will decide, around ages 6 to 8, that they don’t like dresses anymore, and start rejecting them. That’s because they’ve learned that it’s not what you wear that makes you a girl or boy; you don’t need to embrace stereotypical femininity to embrace girlhood.
But boys don’t go through such a phase. They don’t turn 6 and feel free to experiment with dresses and pink sparkles, even though their cognitive development hews to a similar path. And that’s because the culture tells them they shouldn’t. It tells them that what’s feminine is bad, and both girls and boys learn to internalize this message. That’s why girls may go through an I-hate-pink phase, and boys many never get over that phase.
I could probably ask questions all day, but I won’t. What do you hope others ask?
I really hope they will ask themselves why they think that certain haircuts or color or clothes or toys or activities are just for boys or girls, and how much they have participated in this pink/blue divide. We can change the culture—we have, many times. We can do it again!
Lisa, thank you! This has been so thought-provoking.
Thanks so much for the great questions!
Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her community on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook.
For more information, to connect with Lisa Selin Davis, or to purchase a copy of TOMBOY: The Surprising History and Future of Girls who Dare to be Different, please visit:
You might like this article,penned by Lisa and appearing in Salon, about how researching tomboys helped navigate the pandemic.
I found some similarities between TOMBOY and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS (Richard Louv) meets the writing style and rigor of Alexandra Robbins meets Ada Calhoun’s WHY WE CAN’T SLEEP.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ABOUT YOUR HOST: Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
~Updated, 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming this fall from Woodbine House~
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Hachette Book Group/Dewey Decimal Media and used with permission. Author image cred: Marc Goldberg. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her community on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook]