The old saying goes that girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, and boys? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails. But some kids prefer to be somewhere in the middle, and hence the word “tomboy” was born. “Tomboy” was once a popular and not entirely positive label for girls who strayed from the script of traditional female gender roles. Acacia O’Connor looks at what that term means today.
In the kitchen of her Park Slope apartment, Lisa Selin Davis is telling me about her 8-year-old.
Davis: She’s really strong, and she’s very sporty. She’s pretty into baseball right now and she’s learning how to pitch.
Not long ago, Davis’ daughter came home and called herself a tomboy. Davis never used the term herself. But from an early age, it seemed to fit her daughter.
Davis: I think my daughter might have been 2 and a half when she came home And said she wanted a tie for Christmas. // We weren’t even sure we celebrated Christmas number one and my husband never wears a tie.
In an essay last month in The New York Times, Davis wrote that people often think her daughter is a boy. Davis says she likes correcting them.
DAVIS: We start this gender differentiation so young, we start it at birth. We put little pink headbands on babies. …
DAVIS: Do you have anything to say? Would you like to come in?
While Davis is talking, her younger daughter Birdie peeks into the kitchen. She’s wearing a pink hoodie and pink socks. Davis says her two daughters dress very differently.
DAVIS: Do you have anything to say about how Enna dresses?
BIRDIE: Boy clothes.
DAVIS: What do you think of it?
DAVIS: Do you know what a tomboy is?
DAVIS: Just curious.
Birdie is only 4 and she doesn’t know the word tomboy. It’s not a word that is used in her house. But there was a time, a long time, where the word was very much in use.
O’CONNER: The term tom boy started being used to mean a rude boisterous or forward boy. The earliest use in writing is from 1553.
Patricia O’Conner is a grammarian and author. She says the word “tom” in the English language, has long meant a male, the everyman. Think Tom Dick and Harry.
O’CONNER: As far as the word ‘tom’ it had such a wide meaning. At one time all sorts of animals were called toms, there were tom-rabbits, tom-hedgehogs, tom-chickens.
Tom was used to emphasize tons of words.
O’CONNER: Tom of all Trades. Tom Farthing, Tom Tailor. Tom Fool. Tom Pepper was a liar, I don’t know why pepper, but
Tom Toe was your big toe. You get the idea.
Sometime in the late 1500s the word got gender swapped. It started meaning an immodest woman. And then, around 1600, became girl who acts like a spirited or boistrous boy.
O’CONNER: This was not a nice term, it wasn’t a fond or affectionate term.
That basic meaning and its connotations have stayed with us. About 150 years ago, the tomboy became a really popular trope in American culture. Take Jo March from Little Women. In the very first page of that book, Jo is yelled at by her sisters for being unladylike.
LITTLE WOMEN TAPE
Don’t Jo it’s so Boyish
Jo: That’s why I do it. Its bad enough to be a girl anyway when i like boys manners and games.
The next century was full of tomboys who didn’t want to be prim and proper.
Like Penny, a character in the 1950s tv show Annie Oakley. Penny likes horseback riding and frogs. In an episode called “The Tomboy,” she stands up for her friend Tagg in a very… unladylike way: by socking a bully in the nose. The boys are shocked.
ANNIE OAKLEY CLIP.
In books and movies, being tomboy is portrayed as a passing phase. You grow out of it…particularly when tomboy meets… an actual boy. … Like the title character in this 1985 movie.
TOMBOY MOVIE She was born a tomboy, but now she’s growing up…She’s captivating, independent, sexy.
But times are changing. For today’s spirited girls, “tomboy” is no longer pejorative.
ROLLER DERBY AMBI
Every Tuesdays and Thursdays in Bushwick the Gotham Girls Juniors roller derby team has. These girls are between 8 and 16 years old. On their helmets in neon green duct tape they’ve got their roller derby names. Malice in Wonderland. Hermoine Danger. And then there’s one 10-year-old with long hair under her gold helmet. Her roller derby name is Vivicious.
O’CONNOR: Did you come up with that on your own?
Vivian: Yeah but I was thinking, my mom was talking about the musician like sid vicious and I was like oh that’s a good name.
Vivicious’s real name is Vivian. She says she gets called a tomboy a lot.
VIVIAN: I usually hang out with the boys a lot, because they’re nicer than girls al lot of the time, they’re so dramatic the girls are.
And that’s why they call me a tomboy.
Malice in Wonderland: Yeah same with me.
That was Malice in Wonderland, real name Charlie. The girls all agree, being a tomboy isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just another way of being a girl. Here’s Sally, nome de guerre Fountains of Pain.
SALLY: What makes a girl a girl is what you want it to be. Nothing defines a girl really, a girl is a person and whatever you want to be a girl is a girl I guess.
VIVIAN: Yeah because a girl is just a name, a name doesn’t describe who you are.
The three girls, Vivicious, Malice in Wonderland and Fountains of Pain skate off. They’re happy being tomboys. The 500 year history of that label doesn’t matter to them at all. The word tomboy still means the same thing. That hasn’t changed. But we have.
Acacia O’Connor, Columbia Radio News