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Essay: Tomboys

Barbara Miner
Lake Effect contributor and self-described tomboy, Barbara Miner as a child.

Lake Effect contributor and self-described tomboy Barbara Miner shares her thoughts about a New York Times opinion piece, Bring Back the Tomboys.

One of my most vivid memories of second grade was when I wrestled the class bully. In my version, I was the winner. He stopped only because he didn’t want to get pinned by a girl.

Yes, I was a classic tomboy.

I never thought much about being labelled a tomboy. If anything, I was proud — proud that I could throw a football further and climb a tree higher than most boys I knew. And yes, out-wrestle the class bully.

I don’t remember the term being highly sexualized. Mostly, it meant you were spirited, adventurous and full of energy — like Jo in Little Women, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Nor did it bother my parents. With six kids, they had a lot more on their minds than a daughter who hated dresses and never demanded a barbie doll.

That was all decades ago. I haven’t thought much about the word tomboy since then. The word, like my childhood, seems a relic of the 1950s.

But then I read a recent New York Times opinion with the headline Bring Back the Tomboys, written from a feminist perspective, the author argued that tomboys undermine stereotypes on how girls should behave.

My first reaction was, why not? And if it gets rid of the ridiculous pink versus blue aisles of clothing and toys, by all means, go for it.

But my husband asked an interesting question. What’s the equivalent term for a boy who acts like a girl — a Sally Girl? We laughed. But only for a moment.

Even as he said it, we realized that the comparable term was derogatory, offensive and downright hurtful. Because a boy who acts like a girl is a sissy.

Curious, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary. The word tomboy dates back to 1556, and the modern definition refers to a girl who acts in a boyish way, and who likes energetic activities usually associated with boys. As an example, the dictionary quotes author Willa Cather. In her classic novel My Antonia, she describes her character Sally as a tomboy with short hair who was uncannily clever at boys’ sports.

The definition and example weren’t all that derogatory. I could live with them.

The definition for “sissy” — except when referring to a sister — is not so kind. The word is labelled as “depreciative” and refers to a boy or man whose behavior, demeanor or appearance is considered in some ways to be effeminate or “lacking in manliness.

One doesn’t have to be an English major to realize that, in its polite way, the Oxford English Dictionary is making it clear that the word really shouldn’t be used, unless you’re pretending you live in the 19th Century and are referring to your sister.

I did some more Google searching. David Zirin, a political sports columnist, had some good insight. He explains that the word was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt more than 100 years ago, describing young men who did not want to play tackle football, at a time when the sport was even more dangerous than now. As Zirin notes, “It was a toxic slur then and it’s a toxic slur now.”

Which brings me back to tomboy. Clearly, there’s no way you can invite tomboy into the 21st Century without her effeminate little brother tagging along. And why would you do that? Why resuscitate the homophobic terms and culture of the 1950s?

Sorry New York Times, I was a tomboy, but the word should remain buried in the past, where it belongs.