The Word TOMBOY; Can We Come Up With Something Better?

by julie swanson


“Tomboy. Alright, call me a tomboy. Tomboys get gold medals, tomboys can fly, and oh yeah, tomboys aren’t boys.” Julie Foudy

I’m not sure I would’ve liked this quote as a kid, particularly the “…and oh yeah, tomboys aren’t boys” part. I wanted people thought to think I was a boy then.

But I like the quote now. Because now I see that a large part of what made me so anti-girl, well, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the word tomboy. Why do we have to define a strong, independent-minded girl in terms of ‘boy?’ Boys don’t own the qualities that make a girl a tomboy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the word tomboy. As I wrote on my ‘About’ page, there’s a certain nostaglia in it for me. I took pride in being called a tomboy, having people recognize that I was different than most other girls, typical girls, normal girls. Whatever that is. But in my mind I thought I knew. I had a definite idea of what a normal girl was. She was weak, a sissy, she occupied herself with frivolous things. She was touchy, giddy… But I see now, as an adult finally, the error in my thinking, the twisted conceit. There’s a paradox in thinking that you’re better than all other girls, when your whole reason for feeling that way is because you think your gender is so inherently inferior that you want to dis-identify with being a girl altogether. I mean it’s like you feel so inferior as that, that you pretend you’re not that, and that you’re better than those who are (and are at least honest enough to own up to and accept who they are, what they were born as!). You’re feeling superior because deep down inside you feel inferior. You turn your back on your own kind and say, Yeah, you’re right, Guys, girls (other girls, not me, I’m different) they aren’t anywhere near as good as you, …or me, because I’m like you. Anyway, I see now that part of the whole problem, part of what got me hating being a girl way back when, was that I felt I had to deny that I was a girl, that I had to define myself in terms of a boy. And the word ‘tomboy’ perpetuates that. So I see what’s wrong with it. And it would be great to find another term to replace it.

Words are important. And the origin of the word tomboy makes little sense. The meaning of the word is not at all clear. Well, the boy part is pretty clear, but Tom, tom+boy? Seems some combination of girl and boy  would be more appropriate– like suzyboy or sallyboy.

Steve suggests Strong Girl, but that doesn’t sit right with me because it brings up the image of a tough Amazon-woman type girl flexing her biceps for the camera. Not all tomboys are physically strong or tough. There are frail nature-girls who aren’t afraid to get dirty and muck around in nature looking for frogs and toads and snakes and crayfish, tender-hearted critter-loving tomboys who tend to birds with broken wings and orphaned baby mice. Girls who aren’t afraid to touch a worm but can’t stand to put the hook through the worm or the minnow’s back when fishing. There are athletic tomboys who are great at sports and enjoy them and are aggressive on the field or court, but who also love painting their nails and dressing up and looking feminine when they’re not competing. There are wee little girl explorers, and, yes, there are tomboys who wouldn’t be caught dead in pink and want to look as boyish as they can. And there’s everything in between. There are as many different kind of tomboys as there are anything else.

A tomboy could be aggressive, or simply assertive, or shy but determined. She might be hyper, fiesty, dramatic, calm and stoic, meek and mild, seemingly confident, cocky or insecure. Temperament varies widely. The only way that all tomboys are the same is that, in some way, they consistently exhibit  behavior(s) that are more the cultural norm for boys. Given the great variance in these girls, and this one general way that all tomboys are the same, it’s perhaps understandable  that the only term we’ve come up with to describe them includes the word boy! But can we not at least put some girl word in there? Girlboy? Boygirl?

I also think most tomboys are rather independent, because in order to be tomboys, they have to rebel a bit against the cultural norms. Rebelgirl? Wildgirl? There are many rebellious girls who are not at all tomboyish, though…

And terms such as Tree-climber, Nature-girl, and Sporty-girl, they’re too specific. We need a blanket term to replace tomboy, something girl-power-ish, but the whole notion of Girl Power always kind of turned me off, too, sounded too much like we were being cheerleaders for ourselves. It sounds puffed-up and braggy to me, makes me think girls-against-the-boys, girls-are-better-than-boys, and that isn’t true either.

I kind of like Wildgirl but it has the same problem as Rebelgirl… How about Wildergirl? Wondergirl. Freespirit, Freespirette. Freefilly. Indylass. SheKid…

Any ideas, anyone?