For being one of the oldest terms related to gender nonconformity on the books, the concept of ‘tomboy’ is surprisingly slippery. Cara did a deep dive on it five years ago, finding that while it had initially described “boyish” boisterous behavior in general, it later came to signify boyish behavior as practiced by girls, specifically. Culturally, it’s come to speak to behavior — “tomboys, when they sat still long enough to be described, were pinned as “wild and romping,” “ramping, frolicsome, and rude,” and (my personal favorite) “a girle or wench who leaps up and down like a boy” — and as a subset of that, presentation and dress.
Part of the reason why ‘tomboy’ is so hard to pin down is that in many ways, especially as linked to a sort of oncoming adolescence, is that it felt less in lived experience like a discrete identity and more like a refusal to comply. Cara writes that “Charlotte Perkins Gilman called tomboys “the most normal girl… a healthy young creature, who is human through and through; not feminine till it is time to be.” The idea put forth, then, is that a tomboy is a kid who gets to be a kid instead of a ~girl~ — something which in practice often looks to adults like a girl rejecting femininity or being aggressively ‘boyish.’ Figuring out how to “do” one’s assigned gender is a part of growing up for pretty much everyone, but in both fiction and real life, tomboys get the sense that everyone else is having a much easier time navigating it. In “Reading Like a Tomboy,” Miranda Pennington talks about reading books with female protagonists in part to figure out “how to “girl” properly,” and finding some hope in the characters who also didn’t quite have a handle on this at the same time as she clung to the characters who did, desperate for instruction.
Reading was a great tomboy activity — it didn’t require groups of friends, and was a way to indulge in unrealistically ambitious tomboy hobbies (sword fighting! space exploration!) from the comfort of the backseat of a car. Maybe for this reason I remember, somehow, a body of literature rich in girls and women who loved doing things with their hands and having mildly ill-advised adventures, and who didn’t hate dresses and hair barrettes so much as feel a baffled disinterest. Upon trying to unearth that literature, though, it turned out to in fact be very spotty! So many of the texts I thought I remembered as tomboy lit now felt more like just stories of girls navigating outsider status or sexism, and that I had maybe projected onto more than I realized. Others that were more explicitly about non-normative girlhood now read more as being explicitly about queerness, masculinity or butchness — experiences which are not at all mutually exclusive with tomboyhood, but which seem to imply a certain active identification rather than the borderless, culturally undefined space for possibility that feels like tomboyishness.
Cara describes in her investigation “a ‘12-point tomboyism index’ that included such items as “engaging in loud or boisterous play with others” and “participating in traditionally male sports.” Meant to describe real children, it’s nonetheless a suggestion toward how we might recognize tomboyhood in its various iterations in books — characters are sometimes intimated to be queer or lack an appropriate interest in boys, but not always; they often reject dresses, makeup, bows or the like but might just be less enthusiastic about them than other girls, or less adept; they might have an interest in physical activity or “boys’ hobbies.” They’re often young; the question of what happens to tomboys when they grow up is, culturally, a difficult one. Whereas female protagonists are usually “feisty” or “spunky” — protagonists are always supposed to feel special and different — tomboys in books as in life are often read by others as “difficult,” “surly,” “improper,” or otherwise actually badly behaved.
In the end, the definitely incomplete and scattershot survey of tomboys in literature ends up reaching in a few different directions — older works from the early to mid 1900s which still resonate today because difficulty with “doing girl” were a primary conflict (maybe because in a pre-girl-power world the importance of doing girl correctly was a more explicit expectation), fantasy and sci fi where spunky girls pick up swords and lightsabers, and the more contemporary depictions, with some fictional explorations and the burgeoning genre of memoir on the topic. This isn’t even getting into nonfiction studies on the topic, like Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History, Tomboys!: Tales of Dyke Derring-Do, American Tomboys 1850-1915, or Sissies and Tomboys: Gender Nonconformity and Homosexual Childhoods. (Also without getting into the category of straight “tomboy” romance fiction, which seems fascinating.)
This list is very incomplete and highly subjective! But seems like it speaks to a persistent need; in researching any writing about tomboyhood, the interest in the literary figure keeps recurring, in Reading Like a Tomboy, The Tomboy in Literature, and concern about the Death of the Literary Tomboy. It’s a need that speaks to wanting to see ourselves as children, but also possible futures for ourselves as adults; as Miranda Pennington writes:
“While there was plenty I could learn from Anne Shirley or Harriet the Spy, I always longed to read about an actual tomboy like me – no long braids, no puffed sleeves, no growing up into a swan after an ugly duckling childhood. Finding a story like that would have given me one way to understand and explain who I was, and perhaps spared me a great deal of trouble.”
Marlys: Eight-year-old Marlys is the star of Lynda Barry’s classic Ernie Pook’s Comeek, and while Barry doesn’t necessarily describe her as a tomboy, she’s become a bespectacled, boisterous icon.
Please add to this admittedly incomplete listling in the comments! What are your favorite tomboy reads?