Posts Tagged ‘Tomboy’

Internets, a Thing is bugging me.

Growing up as a tomboy, people were always surprised when, past the age of about ten, I expressed any interest in girly persuits. Aided by the fact that a large number of my friends were boys who had little or no interest in such things to begin with, this lead to mockery, confusion, jokes and/or raised eyebrows whenever I did something like wear a dress or talk about ponies. My reaction was to try and detatch myself from girliness altogether, with varying degrees of success. Even when talking to other girls, I felt I had to be careful. They knew me as a tomboy, and the comforting everydayness of our friendships involved their acknolwdgement of this fact, such that I was counted on, if not expected, to make sarcastic remarks about pretty dresses and my unwillingness to wear them if the others brought it up. In hindsight, I can recognise that this was often a case of the lady protesting too much. I didn’t know how to reconcile my tomboyishness with my femininity, and so attempted – unsuccessfully – to choose between them. It’s taken me years to figure out that I never had to; that there was never a contradiction to begin with. Some days I wear boots and leather and listen to Audioslave, and some days I wear skirts and necklaces and listen to Taylor Swift. It’s all equally me, and I’m cool with that.

The other side of being a tomboy was – is – having more male friends than female, and spending more time with them. This has never meant, however, that I’m always the only girl in a given group of guys, nor that I’m automatically sceptical/resentful of any other girls who might  join in, feminine, tomboy or otherwise, or even that I have no female friends. I do. Girls and guys come in all different flavours. That’s just life.

Which leads me to the Annoying Thing of Annoyance, viz: the sudden preponderence of tough-girl, tomboy urban fantasy heroines who whinge about feminine things like dresses and high heels even as the story forces them to wear both, and always – crucially – under duress. And the villains they face? Are female villains identified as such by their love of pretty clothes, who want to be the only women in their respective roomfuls of men but Who Are Not Real Tomboys Because They Wear Pink And Are Therefore Evil Jezebels,  juxtaposed against the Noble Heroine Who Just Happens To Always Be The Lone Woman Surrounded By Men But Who Wears Pants And Jackets And Is Therefore Trustworthy. What makes me angriest about this trope is the fact that I’ve unconsciously perpetuated it in my own writing – and all because it’s based on a viewpoint that, once upon a time, I shared, and which is still a part of me, despite my efforts towards mental reprogramming.

Listen: I don’t find high heels practical or comfortable, but I still wear them on special occasions out of a desire to dress up. Nobody, not even my mother and not even in childhood, has ever waved a wand, held a gun to my head or otherwise strongarmed me into wearing so much as a scrap of damn clothing that I didn’t want to wear, and I say this as someone who once owned a fluro orange t-shirt and hot magenta overalls that were only ever worn together. I might still feel self-conscious in heels and dresses from time to time, but I also think I look nice like that, and if I ever had guilt about getting dolled up as a teenager, it was because deep down, I was afraid I couldn’t admit to enjoying myself without being laughed at or accused of social apostasy.

So when I read about tough-girl heroines being forced by circumstance to dress up for a party or wear a dress or somesuch and whinging about it non-stop, I get angry. I love me some badass chicks in literature, but I do not want the template for badass chicks to be deeply invested in the Pretty Dresses Are Wrong mindset. And I sure as hell don’t want the most defining characteristic of any and all female villains fought by said badass chicks to be that They Unapologetically Wear Pretty Dresses And Lipstick And Are Basically Evil Hollywood Cheerleaders With Magic.

GAH.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change my own manuscript so as to appear less like a total hypocrite and more…something less hypocritical.

Damn social programming.

Recently, I was drawn to this article by feminist writer Monica Dux, in which she discusses the phenomenon of little girls dressing as fairy princesses. As I read, I found myself nodding: there’s truth to the idea that garbing small girls exclusively in pink and lauding their beauty above all else can lead to problematic behaviour in adolescence – a bona fide Barbie mentality. And, like the writer, I was a tomboy at school: at seven, I was deeply obsessed with dinosaurs, loved soccer, could hold my own in a handball game with boys three years my senior, burned ants with a magnifying glass, built forts in the bush and played video games whenever possible. I wasn’t Pretty In Pink. 

But for all that, I can’t help feeling that Dux has cottoned on to a genuine concern and drawn a flawed conclusion – specifically, that forbidding pink and fairies is the answer. Like other parents mentioned in her article, mine certainly never encouraged the Fairy Fixation, but neither did they actively forbid it. As a consequence, My Little Ponies jostled in my schoolbag alongside Starscream of the Decepticons; I dressed up as the Man from Snowy River for my bookday parade, but also had a tutu in my wardrobe. (I’ll give you one guess what colour.) Diversity isn’t just forcibly steering a child away from the norm, but actively offering them a choice. And if you stint the dominant side for long enough, sooner or later, you end up creating a different kind of imbalance.

There’s nothing inherently sinful about the colour pink: refusing it on grounds of its association with princess-type deviance makes as much sense as declaring that lefhandedness is evil, a pahse I’d like to think this part of the world has grown out of. The problem isn’t the concept of fairies as loved by children, but how adults react to their use. Dux herself makes note of this – parents who praise their daughters as beautiful, pretty, sugar and spice when princessed up – and yet her solution is not for adults to change their own behaviour. Rather, she advocates that they regulate costume use in children. As an approach, this is virtually identical to telling teenage girls not to dress provocatively if they don’t want to be wolf-whistled, instead of, as makes more sense, trying to raise boys who don’t judge women by their clothes. Human weakness and pragmatism allows for some middle-ground, and there’s a case to be made that dolls like Bratz and Barbie capitalise on the colour pink to sell an unrealistic standard of beauty, but ultimately, girls should be free, in the gender-biased sense, to be girls. A truck-hungry tomboy does not lurk within every prepubescent glamour queen – nor should it.

Minus the adult overzealousness, there’s still a distinct bias in the way toys are offered to children. Underneath all the gendered marketing, the fact is (and Dux agrees) that boys and girls are different. What needs to be encouraged is the idea that different isn’t automatically bad – not just between boys and girls, but girls and girls, boys and boys, and that it’s OK to pick’n’mix your interests. Girls who want to play rugby should still be able to frock up in pink, just as boys who’re happy to play with dolls should still be allowed to like cars. It’s also a fact that children are cruel, and police difference within their small communities with a rigour and bias difficult in the politics-conscious adult world. That can’t be changed entirely, but I suspect it can be mitigated by parental behaviour.

Unless we’re talking about the singer, pink’s not my cup of tea (and even then, I have to be in the right mood). There’s a long road yet to travel before society stops marketing towards the biases children have for themselves and starts venturing into new territory; in video games, at least, there’s been some headway. Parental coddling has a lot to answer for, and given the kind of adult I’m turning out to be, I’m glad I never felt pressured to cling to pink and fairydust to win approval. Perhaps, to take a backwards leap, I’m turning into the adult I am precicely because I never felt that pressure. There’s also girls who’d feel similarly uncomfortable if forced towards tomboyishness – not that Dux advocates this, but it’s one potential consequence of her solution.

And the moral of this story? That girls (and boys) can be pretty in pink, or not. The important thing is choice.