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The Tomboy Trope, Explained

The Tomboy. She loves traditionally masculine activities and would rather wear baggy clothes instead of dresses or skirts. Confident with the tendency to be headstrong or impulsive, she doesn’t cave to the pressure to conform, which has made her a strong role model for women and girls who feel like they don’t fit in. But is our culture outgrowing this character? In this video, we unpack the Tomboy in film and TV and why this trope might soon become irrelevant today.

TRANSCRIPT

Meg: “Jo, that’s so boyish!” Jo: “That’s why I do it.” - Little Women (2019)

The tomboy: for centuries, she’s broken all the rules, captivating audiences with her nonconformist spirit and strong sense of self. Looking at this character across her many appearances in film, TV, and literature, we can identify some of her common traits. The tomboy loves traditionally masculine activities and interests, like cars or sports. She often has an open disdain for anything overly feminine. She usually prefers boys’ clothing, baggy shirts, or athletic wear instead of dresses and skirts.

The tomboy might rather be friends with the boys, too, and have difficulty relating to other girls. She’s adventurous and confident—sometimes even impulsive and headstrong. Crucially, she doesn’t cave to the pressure to conform. The tomboy marches to the beat of her own drum, which has made her a strong role model for women and girls who feel like they don’t fit in. But she also tends to be treated as an anomaly by her community and possibly be her story, which can reinforce the idea that a tomboy personality is abnormal. Often, her story presents being a tomboy as just a phase, one she’s expected to grow out of.

Cody: “Zack kissed a girl!”

Zack: “It wasn’t a girl, it was Max!” - The Suite Life of Zack and Cody 1x22

More recently, it seems like even we as a culture have outgrown the tomboy, and some have questioned whether the trope is still compatible with our more modern ideas about gender identity. Here’s our take on the Tomboy: the liberation she represents, the limitations of this characterization, and whether there’s a place for her in our future.

A Brief History of the Onscreen Tomboy

The word “tomboy” originated in the 16th century to describe “brash, boisterous or self-assured” young boys. But it soon shifted to girls who behaved immodestly—in other words, like a boy would. There is an inherent judgment to the word “tomboy,” implying she’s acting in a way that girls shouldn’t. But this is exactly what makes her such a popular character: she defies restrictions, becoming a fun, rebellious role model for other not-so-girly-girls.

Randy: “Careful tomboy, you get all that grease washed off you might discover you’re a girl after all.” - Tomboy (1985)

One of the first and most enduring examples of the tomboy is Jo, the fiercely independent protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women, who’s more interested in books than marriage. In the first of many film adaptations in 1933, Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn—a famous tomboy herself. Jo provided a powerful example for women by being unapologetic about her career ambitions. In the wake of World War II—for which American women had volunteered in record numbers—the 1949 version of Little Women emphasized Jo’s own desire to serve, in the Civil War of her period.

Jo: “Look at me dying to go and fight by father’s side and here I am sitting and knitting.” - Little Women (1949)

And more modern Jos in Little Women’s iconic 1994 and 2019 adaptations still carry an edge in their refusal to bow to society’s expectations for women.

In 1960, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird gave us Scout, a 6-year-old tomboy who’s defined not just by her confidence, but also by her curiosity. As the 1962 film version arrived at the dawn of the civil rights movement, Scout’s scrappy nonconformity helps her see the deep flaws and injustices in her society.

While Jo and Scout offered models of ambition and fortitude, the ‘70s tomboy was tough, loved sports and junk food, and was often just as lazy and rude as the boys. As played by actors like Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears and Paper Moon, and Jodie Foster in Candleshoe and Freaky Friday, the ‘70s tomboy was free-spirited in a way that mirrored the rising women’s liberation movement, and her fearless swagger would become one of the tomboy’s defining traits.

As the ‘80s gave rise to shopping-and-makeup-obsessed “Material Girls” and “Valley Girls,” the tomboy’s rebelliousness became part of an implicit class war. Working-class, motorcycle-riding, Jo on the NBC sitcom The Facts of Life was a thorn in the side of posh, perfect Blair. In Some Kind of Wonderful, Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts is a leather jacket-wearing, punk-rock drummer who takes no guff from the rich kids.

Girl: “I’ve just never seen a girl wearing boys underpants before.”

Watts: “Have you ever seen a girl with a drumstick shoved up her nose?” - Some Kind of Wonderful

And Punky Brewster’s thrown-together tomboy reflected her hardscrabble home life as an orphan—a stark contrast to her snobby classmates. For Punky, like for many of these young women, being a tomboy was a statement of fierce, empowering individuality.

Punky: “I use Punky Power.”

Louise: “What’s that?”

Punky: “It’s believing in myself, it’s never giving up. But most of all, it’s knowing that I can do anything I want if I really try.” - Punky Brewster 3x3

By the ‘90s and early 2000s, tomboys could be all of these things: adventure-seeker, athlete, intellectual, or even just a smartass. But even though many of these tomboys were positive role models, they were still portrayed as oddities: outcasts, antagonized by their peers. Meanwhile, by making this character aspirational through associating her with typically male qualities, these stories could end up suggesting that the feminine, “girly traits” the tomboy rejected were inherently inferior or undesirable, a bias that’s still a problem today.

The Limits of the Tomboy

Brittanica: “Lose the tomboy thing, and grow up.” - Terry the Tomboy

A recurring feature of the tomboy’s story is the expectation that she’ll eventually grow out of it. For My Girl’s Vada, getting her first period signals the beginning of her transition into womanhood. It’s not long before she’s wearing dresses, and hanging out with the girls she once shunned.

Freaky Friday’s Annabelle isn’t interested in getting her hair or nails done until she switches bodies with her mother, and this brush with womanhood convinces her that conventionally feminine interests aren’t so bad after all.

Even Punky Brewster begins dressing more stereotypically girly after developing a crush on an older boy. Again and again, we’re told that growing up means putting aside that tomboy playfulness and embracing a more feminine side.

Amanda: “I’m almost 12 and I’ll—I’ll be getting a bra soon… Well, maybe in a year or so. I can’t be playing no dumb baseball.” - Bad News Bears (1976)

This idea has historical roots in the wake of the American Civil War when young white women were encouraged to behave as tomboys—to engage in greater physical activity, so they would be hearty enough to bear strong children. Still, they were expected to become ladylike wives and mothers once they married.

In our modern era, this pressure to grow out of it is especially explicit in stories about older tomboys. Miss Congeniality’s Gracie is a lifelong tomboy, yet she can’t be truly happy until she gets a beauty-pageant makeover, attracts the attention of a handsome guy, and finds some female friends.

Boy: “You calling me a girl?”

Gracie: “You called me one.” - Miss Congeniality

Like Gracie, Kat in 10 Things About You has failed to transition into proper womanhood during adolescence. She begins as a blunt, aggressive, and outspoken high-school athlete, who shows little interest in—or even tolerance for—boys.

Ms. Perky: “People perceive you as somewhat…”

Kat: “Tempestuous.”

Ms. Perky: “Heinous Bitch is the term used most often.” - 10 Things I Hate About You

But rather than fully applauding her feminist, independent streak, the film reveals this personality to be more or less a posture—an armor she uses to protect herself from the harsh social environment of high school, and in the end (like the heroine of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew she’s based on) Kat’s happy ending is to be tamed through falling for a boy and putting away these childish things to become more traditionally feminine.

It’s a common trope for a female character who starts out as unpopular or maladjusted to put on a pretty dress and some makeup as a symbolic expression of her coming of age, opening themselves up to others, and really finding themselves. This plot device doesn’t just rule out the idea that a woman might like to continue dressing and acting in whatever unconventional way suits her; it also limits who gets to be tomboy in the first place.

Women of color have historically been excluded from markers of conventionally “proper” femininity. Black women, in particular, have long been stereotyped as “nonfeminine.” Thus, most on-screen tomboys who have the privilege of rebelling against the expectation to be “ladylike” are white girls. Notably, the few non-white tomboys we’ve seen tend to face even greater pressure from their families to be more feminine. The parents of these characters often express an anxiety steeped in a fear of their confirming racial stereotypes.

Compounding this anxiety is the fact that tomboys have also long been associated with being queer. On-screen, tomboys are often presumed to be lesbians by their peers. Society has long conflated gender expression with sexuality, leading to the heteronormative assumption that lesbians present themselves as more masculine. Homophobia also contributes to the general unease around tomboys who don’t grow out of it as they transition into the adult bodies that will then become sexualized.

Mrs. Bhamra: “No boy’s gonna wanna go out with a girl who’s got bigger muscles than him.” - Bend It Like Beckham

By presenting as more masculine, the tomboy denies the male gaze the right to sexualize her. And the historical discomfort around tomboys speaks to the fact that, for centuries, a woman’s value has been defined as her potential to be a mate for men.

Even the stories that ostensibly celebrate the tomboy tend to neutralize any potential threat the tomboy might represent to social norms by almost inevitably pairing her off with a man. Even if not all of these tomboys are queer, allowing some of them to remain single would be more true to their characters.

Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women expresses this frustrating false choice, naturally through Jo March.

Jo: “I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” - Little Women (2019)

While author Louisa May Alcott was pressured into marrying Jo off and later regretted not letting her protagonist end up a “literary spinster” like she considered herself, Gerwig gives Jo a more ambiguous ending that focuses instead on her achieving artistic consummation.

Greta Gerwig: “It’s the book! The happy ending is the book. I don’t think there are enough movie romances between women and their books.”

While some have interpreted this ending as suggesting Jo is queer, the director sees Jo as more fluid than that: “I didn’t want to give her some sort of label,” Gerwig told The Advocate. “I just wanted to live with the kind of openness of it.” In doing so, Gerwig brings one of our most enduring tomboys into a more complex present, where the “tomboy” label has become increasingly reductive.

Where Has the Tomboy Gone?

So why does this character—who was once considered such a positive role model for individualism and self-expression—seem to be disappearing? One reason is that it’s become less taboo—or remarkable—for women to be interested in traditionally masculine pursuits.

As women continue to excel at STEM studies, run big corporations, take political leadership, and dominate sports, there are increasingly few arenas that are still viewed as explicitly male. Calling girls “tomboys” only reinforces this outmoded idea that having certain skills or interests makes one more like a boy or a girl.

As Melissa Atkins Wardy, the author of Redefining Girly, writes, “tomboy” has become “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.” Thus, letting go of the tomboy trope may be a necessary step toward normalizing these characteristics and interests as universal.

More recently, the conversation has shifted toward gender being expressed along a spectrum, rather than as a dichotomy. The transgender rights movement has brought increased visibility for gender-nonconforming people, and we’ve seen a number of celebrities who identify as genderqueer or gender non-binary.

King Princess: “There’s so many ways that I feel like I have the opportunity to express myself now especially visually providing this kind of weird genderqueer bending representation.

This neutrality is starting to trickle down to the smaller details of our lives: in 2015, Target announced that it would remove gender-based labels, seeing no need to designate toys or bedding as strictly for boys or for girls.

This shift has been reflected on TV and film, in characters like Sadie in Good Girls and Theo in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina—both of whom were assigned a female gender at birth, but who later came out as trans boys.

Rosalind: “You did it Suze! No way Coach Craven doesn’t let you on the team now!”

Theo: “Uh, actually guys, it’s Theo now.” - The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 2x1

Across movies and TV, we’re now seeing a variety of nuanced portrayals of gender-nonconformance in characters who express themselves however they want, without this becoming their entire personalities.

Amy: “I don’t even know if she’s into girls. I’m good.”

Molly: “She wore a polo shirt to prom.”

Amy: “Well, that’s just her gender performance. It’s different from her sexual orientation.” - Booksmart

Although some of these characters still resemble the tomboys of the past, they speak to the cultural progress of our present moment, in which gender-bending characters are no longer defined as anomalies, or as the opposite of their girlier peers.

Arguably, many of today’s onscreen narratives and media conversations realize the future that past tomboys envisioned: a world in which confidence, ambition, and adventurousness are no longer seen as the slightest bit unusual in girls, just as beauty, sensitivity, and gentleness are perfectly normal for boys.

Ultimately, the best fate for the “tomboy” trope is to fade completely out of existence, outdated by a world in which this label doesn’t need to exist and doesn’t even make sense, because there’s no longer an oppressive binary dictating which traits are seen as female or male.

Emma Watson: “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals”

Despite our many steps forward, this is still very much not the world that many of us confront in our daily lives. So until we get there, we can continue to channel the tomboy’s fearlessness: to defy the rules that don’t feel right to us, never give in to society’s expectations, and embrace our own individuality, however, we choose to define it.

Toph: “I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. I know who I am.” - Avatar the Last Airbender 2x15