Last year Zest Books and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published “Tomboy,” a graphic memoir for young adults by Liz Prince, 33, about her experience growing up preferring rough-and-tumble games and the jeans and sweatshirts that enable them.
“If you’re in high school and still dressing like that, people think you’re definitely a lesbian,” Prince said. “But I wanted to wear boys’ clothes and make out with them, too.”
The book was a critical success. But the word used for its title — and the phase of female life it denotes, even the idea that it is a phase at all — is increasingly falling out of fashion in an era when Caitlyn Jenner is more likely to be a topic of conversation on the playground than Caddie Woodlawn (the frontier tomboy of Carol Ryrie Brink’s imagination).
Indeed, the children’s fiction of yesteryear positively teemed with tomboys: Jo March of “Little Women,” Mattie Ross of “True Grit,” Alexandra Bergson from “O Pioneers!” Harriet from “Harriet the Spy,” Scout Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Peppermint Patty and Pippi Longstocking. Reading such stories, and perhaps enacting the adventures they described (or just imagining doing so) was once a treasured rite of female passage.
But such heroines are far harder to find, at least identified as such, in the literature of 2015.
“No one brings us these stories,” said Jennifer Baumgardner, the publisher of the Feminist Press, adding: “Tomboy doesn’t feel present tense to me at all. It feels retro, this affirmative way of talking about a girl who likes boy things, as if boy things were better.”
These days, at least in liberal enclaves, a girl who likes baseball or wants her hair cut short is more likely to be called “gender-nonconformist” or “gender-expansive,” with any suggestion she’ll grow out of such behaviors suspect as evidence of condemning rather than honoring them.
She may be applauded for transcending another paradigm (the dread princess, with her ballgowns, glitter and wands) or monitored closely for signs to her adult orientation.
Prince, the author of “Tomboy,” spoke with annoyance about late 1990s movies like “Clueless” and “She’s All That,” in which “there’s this tomboyish character that gets a makeover and strictly conforms to gender roles and becomes more popular,” she said. “That was a really annoying narrative to me.”
But some two decades later, Ingrid Bowman, 43, an engineer who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, is in no rush to nudge her 11-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who has worn her older brother’s clothes and hung out with boys her whole life, into rustling taffeta frocks — even if other adults are.
“They’d drop comments like, ‘You know we’re having a dress event, would Alexandra ever wear a dress?'” Bowman said. “I’d say, ‘I don’t know, are you going to wear a dress? She’ll wear whatever she wants to wear. She looks awesome.'”
Christine, a sociologist in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco, has identical twin daughters, Charlotte and Stella, who at age 8 have passed the princess phase. At least Charlotte, a former champion of tiaras who now prefers leggings and athletic gear, has; Stella, who now wears short hair and boxer briefs from the boy’s department, never had one.
“People would call her a tomboy or assume she’s a boy. I don’t correct them — it’s not that important,” said Christine, also honoring her girls’ request that their last name not be used, and who with her husband, Matt, is also raising two sons, Jude, 10, and Jackson, 13. “We don’t use ‘tomboy’ in our family. It suggests there’s a regular way to be a girl, and this is another way to be a girl. I’m just listening and letting Stella say who she is.”
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt also appear to be letting their daughter Shiloh say who she is: reportedly someone named “John,” who judging from paparazzi photos regularly wears boys’ clothes.
And, hey, just who said those are boys’ clothes anyway?
Late this summer, Gap announced a partnership with Ellen DeGeneres’ new lifestyle brand, ED, which is producing a line for GapKids of graphic tees with empowering quotes (“and though she be but little she is fierce,” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), baseball hats printed with conversation bubbles and striped leggings.
True to DeGeneres’ pared-down aesthetic, the clothes come in colors such as mint green, gray and indigo. The nonprofessional models wearing them — girls ages 7 to 12 with names like Alexey, Relz, Ryann, Bellatreas, Torrae and Asia — were chosen for their skills, such as skateboarding, drumming and building robotic hands.
“We wanted to shine a light on real girls doing incredible things to encourage girls (and boys) everywhere to be themselves, follow their passions and feel pride in what makes them unique,” Grace Wong, Gap’s vice president for marketing, wrote in an email. The clothing line, she wrote, “celebrates girls being exactly who they are; strong and confident; fun and fabulous; weird and wonderful; pink, blue or green; in jeans, a dress or anything in between.”
The new acceptance is being felt outside of the clothing aisles as well. In early August, Target announced it would cease dividing signs by gender in departments including toys, home and entertainment. Purple Easy-Bake Ovens are no longer relegated to the girls’ area and Lego Star Wars Death Stars have been liberated from the boys’ section.
A company news release said “in the toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves.”
The more than 3,000 comments on the announcement online included notes of outrage (“I will never shop at target again!!”), but far more support.
“Perhaps if girls feel more accepted playing with toy trucks and Legos we’ll see more women in STEM,” one person wrote, referring to the common acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Perhaps if boys feel more accepted playing with baby dolls, we’ll see more men taking an active role in child rearing.”
That battle has arguably already been won, ever since the 1972 album “Free to Be … You and Me,” in which William sang about wanting a doll. The word “sissy,” formerly applied to boys who preferred traditional markers of femininity, has since fallen by the wayside in American culture.
Wendy McClure, a senior editor at Albert Whitman & Co. in Park Ridge, Illinois, said children’s literature is now replete with even more adventurous Williams (perhaps well on their way to making a fully supported transition to Wilhelmina, with some doctors now prescribing puberty suppression hormones, a subject of some controversy, to give children more time to figure out their identity).
“If you’re reading about a gender-nonconforming character these days, it’s more likely to be a boy,” than a girl, McClure said, mentioning one popular book she edited called “Jacob’s New Dress.”
It is possible in all of this, while embracing the new gender-neutral bathrooms and zero tolerance for bullying, to feel a whiff of nostalgia for tomboyhood.
Lynn Shelton, 50, a movie director and actress, remembered her experience of it as a kind of “Reviving Ophelia” golden era, “all about pants and T-shirts worn thin,” she said. “I have this vision of myself at 9 or 10 being way taller than the boys in my class, dragging five on each arm across the playground and running really fast, being so powerful.”
Romping through the woods, renouncing frills and solving mysteries, the tomboy was once celebrated as a proto-feminist.
“The tomboy is a girl who flouts the unwritten rules of girlhood and femininity, who seems to have an unnatural level of unself-consciousness in the face of powerful gender norms, who freely and bravely take on challenges and experiences and venture into places girls don’t go,” said Rachel Simmons, the author of “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence” (2009).
But Melissa Atkins Wardy, the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, From Birth to Tween” (2014), believes that “tomboy is an unhelpful word that suggests if girls are brave or athletic or strong, they’re tomboys, and being the opposite of those things is girlie,” she said in an interview.
“It’s a way we box in and teach these kids to perform gender roles,” she said. “Your gender identity should not assign who you are or who you are taught to be in the world.”