I’m on a new crusade against the word Tomboy. If I get my way, I’ll cut it out of every dictionary. It’s all because of my own parenting challenge with my teenage children.
Breaking Gender Roles
My oldest child is artistic, creative and sensitive (and still cries when upset or angry). Child 1 has spent the last six months illustrating a comic strip with a friend, and last summer dragged me around half a dozen art galleries between New York and Washington DC. My firstborn is imaginative and loves role-playing. When Child 1 comes home from school and I ask ‘how was your day?’ I get told what the teacher said and what they did during recess. Child 1 is not athletic, but cares a lot about their friends, and spends time discussing the best way to help a friend who was being bullied at school. As far as Child 1 is concerned, everything that can possibly be red should be red, since it’s their favorite color.
My youngest child is athletic, scientific, and very competitive. Child 2 is on the school’s basketball team, goes jogging a few times each week with a friend, and wants to train for a long-distance swimming challenge this summer. Child 2 doesn’t care what color anything is as long as it’s not pink, excels at math, and is always there asking to help drill the holes or learn how to wire a plug whenever my husband is fixing something around the house. My second kid is neither imaginative nor creative, despite quite enjoying messing around with paint or clay. When my youngest comes home from school and I ask ‘how was your day?’ I receive a shrug and the standard ‘Fine’.
Can you see my challenge? I’ll tell you: Child 1 is a boy. Child 2 is a tomboy; or as I prefer to say, a girl. I have lucked out and got both a son AND a daughter who defy their traditional gender expectations.
The Gender Divide In School
I face the gender divide Every. Single. Day. I know things could be worse. I do regularly thank God that my children were born into the 21st century, but don’t think for a moment that in an era of trans-gender bathrooms, every gender issue has been solved. It’s not.
My children attend the brother and sister schools of the same educational foundation – essentially, two single-sex halves of the same school. There are some significant differences between the two halves. My son and my daughter get roughly equal hours of sports time in school, but Daughter has probably had twenty times as many arts and crafts sessions than Son, who has maybe had two in the last four years. It’s a shame, because Son is creative and would have loved to have spent a bit more school time making things.
Meanwhile, the boys’ school site has roughly five times as much outdoor space as the girls’ school, including a basketball court, a football field, two table-tennis tables, and a paved courtyard area. The girls have one tiered amphitheatre and one paved courtyard, so Daughter sometimes struggles to find space to play basketball with her friends at recess.
Men Lead But Women Are Bossy
We have come a long way towards allowing girls to work in traditionally ‘male’ roles and to take up traditionally ‘male’ pursuits, but not far enough. And we have not done anywhere near as well at ‘permitting’ boys to take on traditionally ‘female’ interests and behaviors. It’s hard for my son to be emotional and sensitive, imaginative and artistic, in a society which still suspects such men of being gay (and pillories them for it).
It’s easier for my daughter to be sporty, competitive, and into STEM, but she still faces that old accusation leveled at any woman with determination and authority: She’s too bossy. With Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of the UK, better known for her kitten heels than her successful stint as Home Secretary, it’s clear that Western society has a long way to go before we leave harmful gender stereotypes behind us.
When A Step Up For Girls Is A Step Down For Boys
We need to champion boys’ rights to step out of the traditional masculine box as much as we enable girls to reach beyond their traditional gender roles. Today, if a girl takes on boyish behaviors, it’s a step up. If a boy takes on ‘girlish’ behaviors, it’s a step down. Little girls can play with cars and trains, but little boys who, like my son, hold a pretend wedding for their My Little Ponies are wimps and wusses.
Professor Christopher Bell expressed it perfectly in this excellent TED talk. The poor boy mentioned, who committed suicide after being teased for liking My Little Ponies, is just one of many casualties of the way that we view ‘girliness’. You can easily buy ‘boyfriend’ shirts and boy-style underwear for girls, but I have yet to see one ‘girlfriend’ bag or girl-style socks for boys. Girls adopting boyish styles are cool; boys adopting girly styles are pathetic. It’s a message that is harmful to both boys and girls: For boys, it restricts their options, and it tells girls that we do not value ‘girly’ things.
Tomboys and … Metrosexuals?
One of my biggest pet peeves is with the term tomboy. Every time someone calls Daughter a tomboy, I wince twice. Once because it tells girls that it’s cool to be boyish, but not to be girlish, and a second time because there is no parallel positive (or even neutral) phrase for boys who step out of their traditional gender profile. The nearest we have today is ‘metrosexual’, and imagine saying that about an eleven-year-old!
Why ‘Tomboy’ Isn’t Good Enough
Being a tomboy is limiting. People often think that ‘tomboy’ is a compliment, but it’s actually telling a girl that being good at math or enjoying sports is for boys, and she’s just borrowing that behavior from them. I loved that fabulous ad campaign by Always with the #LikeAGirl hashtag, because it reclaimed being a girl as something positive. I loved the first ad for Goldiblox for the same reason – the girls in their ad used ‘girly’ toys for their engineering projects. They didn’t need soccer balls or racing cars to be engineers; they did it with dolly strollers and pink feather boas.
Because Daughter is sporty and not very interested in fashion and makeup, many friends were surprised when she chose the full fancy gown and to have her hair ‘done’ for her batmitzvah. There was the unspoken (and sometimes spoken!) assumption that a girl who’s good at math and sports wouldn’t want to dress up for special occasions, as though tomboys sacrifice all right to an expression of femininity.
Being #LikeAGirl should be able to include being sporty AND enjoying choosing earrings. Female scientists and athletes can also be emotional, into fashion, or love all things pink. We should not be forcing girls to be boys in order to allow them to participate in any traditionally ‘boyish’ activity, and we shouldn’t be forcing boys to be ‘girly’ or ‘gay’ before we allow them to enjoy the arts or to express their emotions.
Stepping Out Of Stepping Out The Box
Both boys and girls should be able to be whoever they want to be at the time. We, the adults who model grown-up roles for them, need to permit our children to be into art AND football, into math AND makeup.
Let’s stop forcing children to take on extra gendered baggage along with emotional sensitivity or a competitive spirit. It’s beyond time to make space for footballers (male and female) who cry, and for scientists (male and female) who love jewelry, and to serve it all up as a smorgasbord of personas for our children to taste, test, and try out.