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'Tomboy': Lisa Selin Davis Explores The Complex Evolution Of Tomboyism And Gender Nonconformity

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When Lisa Selin Davis’ daughter first called herself a “tomboy” at the age of 6, Davis was reluctant to accept it as the concept she had observed throughout her own life — as an innocuous way to self-identify for a kind who rejected pink-clad princesses and were instead sweatpants sporty. For Davis, “tomboy” seemed outdated. Why was the word “boy” in it. Had the definition changed? Is there a new denotation with its own connotations to consider today?

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In "Tomboy," journalist Lisa Selin Davis explores the evolution of tomboyism from the Victorian era to a 21st century fashion statement. The book is a comprehensive deep-dive into the word, the concept, what it implies and doesn’t. We learn about those who defy traditional gender boundaries — to be themselves.

Highlights from the Interview with Lisa Selin Davis

On the word “tomboy”

Well, I think one of the most interesting things about the word and maybe about these arguments we're having about language in general is how much the meaning of the word has changed. And the attitude toward the word has changed. And it seems to be in America, it seems pretty universally reviled… Certain people feel like it's offensive to call a girl a “tomboy,” because it's saying that all these qualities that we think of as making a girl, a tomboy, being sporty and brave and independent, that those are actually boy things. And then other people feel offended by it either because they want the term “gender nonconforming,” or they feel like it's offensive to trans people in some way, or sometimes trans people are told they're not trans, they're just tomboys, and the word is, is weaponized in that way.

On the ways “tomboys” were depicted on television during decades past.

I think it was always important in media representations of tomboys to reassure the audience that they were not lesbians. And what's funny about The Facts of Life, which was a show I grew up on, and everyone remembers and loves this character, Jo, who was the tomboy character from it, who fixed her own motorcycle and wore a leather jacket and talked tough and was like a working class kid from… I feel like maybe she was supposed to be from the Bronx or maybe Queens. But when I went back to look at the show, there was a different tomboy in the first episode, a blonde girl, not, not a tough girl, just a girl who liked wearing sporty outfits. And she gets worried because Blair, the mean girly girl, tells her that she's probably a lesbian and she gets scared. Mrs. Garrett has to reassure her.

On toys that are gendered

So at the same time that they started gendering clothes for kids about a hundred years ago, they started gendering their toys and encoding messages in the toys about how to be a man and a woman. So that's the beginning of mops and broom sets for girls and erector sets for boys and really, really emphasizing the development of different skillsets and toys… So these toys, as I mentioned, developed different skill sets and girls' toys tend to emphasize relationships and nurturing and communication, which are all good things. And boys’ toys tend to emphasize spatial relations and construction and problem solving, which are all really good things. And the problem is that we don't want, to have a deficit of any of those things, right?

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.