Tomboy and gender expression
The maturity of uncertainty.
To talk about the Tomboy phenomenon, we have to talk about gender expression. We all have gender expression. And in most cases, the first time we stumble upon the gender is at birth (or ultrasound scan.) When they see our genitals, they assume that we express it. We say hello, I am a female! Hello, I am a male! But it is understood something different. It’s a girl! It’s a boy! (When we are intersex, we are not understood at all). At that moment, everything supposed that is to be a man or a woman and what will be at any time and place sticks to us like a second skin. From that moment on, we will build and express our gender, which will be observed, analyzed, monitored and corrected by society and also by each of us.
To put it in plain language, gender expression is our appearance, who others think we are based on our appearance, and the expression of our gender/sex and identity. It is the way of expressing ourselves, our tastes, and the expected behavior that society imposes to us, and that we impose on ourselves.
Things are changing, but in earlier times, the stupid psycho-biological determinism (she has a vulva, thus, she is a woman and must behave as such) worked very well and made boys do manly things, and girls do girlish things. And if you did something not corresponding to what you had between your legs, you had a lot to fear. It was from this gender vigilance that the word Tomboy was born, together with the Tomboy label, category, stereotype, and phenomenon.
Tomboy: the word.
Is common to find the word Tomboy explained as a young masculine lesbian. However, this is not correct, since Tomboy does not refer to sexual orientation, but to gender expression, an issue that is quite evident since the appearance of the term.
Origin of the word
Common to all its meanings, the first known written reference of the word Tomboy is found in the 16th century. It was first used to name especially masculine, rough and lively boys (1550). Then it was used with the meaning of an immoral woman, prostitute, etc. (1570), for the simple reason that a woman who does not behave as expected is suspicious of the worst. Thirdly, and related to the use that concerns us today, people used it to name young girls who preferred boy activities, appearance, and attitude to the alleged feminine ones (1590), the meaning that has reached our days, deriving from the first.
In the 19th century, in American culture, the term Tomboy and its abstract Tomboyism enjoyed much popularity because they were related to a healthy lifestyle, as opposed to the code of conduct socially imposed on women at the time. A healthy lifestyle needed clothing that allowed freedom of movement for physical exercise. Bear mind that women at that time were considered lesser beings, stripped of sexuality, abilities, and away from any kind of activity reserved for men. So, helped by healthy life, assumed as positive by society, tomboyism permitted the success of alternatives to the corseted female code. Ones that went beyond the purely athletic lifestyle, vindicating the equality of women to men.
The gender vigilance, binarism, and psycho-biological determinism.
Although tomboyism does not talk about sexual orientation, people always related the term tomboy with lesbianism. Here, gender expression also works, not without error, as a predictor of sexual orientation, simplistically reasoned as if a girl does boyish things, maybe she likes girls. Therefore, although during childhood, a girl was allowed to show some supposed boy behavior, later in her youth, a less feminine girl was and is punished and repressed by the omnipresent gender vigilance.
Gender vigilance and binarism
Gender vigilance is a social tool that tries to suppress or modify any gender expression that does not correspond to the gender assigned at birth, and that tends to reinforce the so-called gender binarism.
Gender binarism establishes two exclusive categories, male and female, masculine and feminine, in which all people should classify, or be classified. It also establishes the characteristics that define each category in each historical moment. When someone shows some distinct features, gender vigilance appears and attempts to correct those deviations.
The “divine or natural” determinism
This gender binarism comes from a simplistic and strict psycho-biological determinism that links the male with the man and masculine and female with woman and feminine. Doing that without even considering for a moment that the characteristics of man and woman, of masculine and feminine, vary over time and space, thus being social constructions and not divine or natural determinisms.
So, the fact that a young girl prefers boy activities, appearance, and attitude to those belonging to the alleged feminine clashes with the psycho-biological determinism and its binarism. Then, the gender vigilance of her environment will attempt to correct and despise her by naming Tomboy to her, and all the world around her will think she is a lesbian.
Gender changes are accepted when is convenient.
When a girl shows masculinity or a guy shows femininity, all evils unleash. It can’t be. It is something awful, nasty, disgusting, and will destroy the world! Blah, blah, blah. But as is always the case with people, things are wrong except when they are convenient.
In Albania, women are allowed to change their gender expression to be the patriarch of a family and keep their heritage. They are the Sworn Virgins of Albania (or Burrnesha), who dress and behave like men and give up their sex life. In Afghanistan, the gender expression of girls can change to enable them to attend school. In Iran the court forces gay men a sex reassignment if insisting on being gay; the argument is simple if a man likes men, it is because he is like a woman, so authorities offer two options, sex change or jail.
The Tomboy phenomenon in Thailand
In Thailand and other parts of Asia, we find the paradigmatic case of Tomboys or Toms, which we already talk about in the publication of the article for our blog, Kesser Vater – Papi Chula. In these societies, the word lesbian is rejected even by those involved because it is strongly related to mental illness. So much so that they have created new terms and new identities, Tom and Dee.
Generally, in the field of youth, Tom is a girl who feels neither lesbian nor transgender, who dresses like a guy, who acts like a boy and performs boy activities, in the more conventional sense of the term. Toms are attracted to Dees, who are ultra-feminine girls. The relationship established between them is also ultra-conventional and subjected to a strict code of conduct: toms should have a flat chest, they must be able to defend their girl and pay all expenses.
To their own eyes and the eyes of others, they are a boy and a girl in love. Everybody is happy because they are not lesbians. The odd thing is that even if they changed their gender to be lesbians, a fantastic and spectacular Tomboy movement has been developed in Thailand that draws crowds. They participate in contests, have television series, and have competitions, not only in big cities but also in less populated rural areas. Fascinating. Girls who look like boys, in gyms, lifting weights, showing off abundant and notorious hairy armpits. Wow!
Tomboy in the 21st century.
Gender surveillance for centuries, the binary and excluding conception of sexuality, and the repression have just achieved the opposite goal. By the progressive human rights development, sexual diversity opens its path with authority and solvency, showing the naturalness of plastic sexuality that relativizes the ideals of man and woman. So, what that yokel society, that wanted to keep feminine girls and masculine boys, has achieved is a Cambrian explosion of Tom identities that, despite being labels, categories and stereotypes, show us how fluid is what seemed so rigid and immovable.
And so, the Tomboy movement has gained strength and naturalization, developing a unique universe all over the world, in which different types are distinguished:
1) Girl Tomboy: dresses like a girl, does boy activities and behaves like a boy.
2) Girly Tomboy: dresses like a boy, looks like a boy and behaves like a girl.
3) Boy Tomboy: dresses like a boy, behaves like a boy and does boy things. This type is usually called Tomboy.
4) Neutral Tomboy: may have an almost androgynous aesthetic, combines masculine with feminine clothes, has male and female behaviors and does male and female activities.
As you can see, Tomboy is a term and a phenomenon that focuses on gender expression and not on sexual orientation. Tomboy shows us that the allegedly masculine characteristics are not exclusive to men, and likewise, the allegedly feminine characteristics are not exclusive to women.
Yes, it gets tricky. It is no longer as easy as before to classify people from a distance. Is a man or a woman? Is it straight or homo? Am I interested or not? Till now, you could answer all these questions without getting too close. But not anymore. Tomboy is the vanguard of what is about to come.
Determinism does not work with Tomboy anymore, but Schrödinger’s uncertainty does. It no longer helps to see what clothes the person is wearing or what he/she is doing to infer that person’s sex, identity, or orientation. Welcome to adulthood, where you must know the person first. Get ready! Maybe you will enjoy it so much more!Tag :Dictionary, Sexual Diversity, Sexual Plasticity
Something to say?
Tell us what you think of this article. If it’s good or bad, if you think we are idiots, or if you see us in hell. Even if you are a few words person, you can do something to improve people’s lives, helping us to spread it.
Share it in your networks!