Women and Masculine Traits in Movies and Television

I am a girl. I spent my childhood watching action cartoons and playing on my game boy. My disdain for the color pink and toys targeting girls was legendary in my family. In media and in real life a person like this would be called a “tomboy” which I never grew out of. Is there a name for women who are similar to this when they grow up? Do women like that even exist after growing up? After puberty I see something happens and for some reason the spectrum of women with masculine interests in the 18-25 age range has taken a new turn. Instead of looking tomboyish, adult female characters display these traits to look more exciting.

In fiction such as books movies or TV a tomboy character is often the token female in the trio of main characters to the story. The obvious reason she is a tomboy is usually that if she was not, she would not want to hang out with boys that much. Sometimes a tomboy character is not just a female best friend. In a group of young female main characters there will be a token girl who acts more tough and rugged; childhood cartoons like “The Powerpuff Girls” come to mind with such examples. In such a cast these tomboyish girls are not just to appeal to the tomboyish girls who watch, it is meant to appeal to the young boys. Some of them have their male interest further distinct from the other girls by showing a disdain for girly activities. I myself share this trait but it is not as common as it looks. A study shows a group of girls where a good amount of the tomboys observed claimed to enjoy girly things just as much as games targeted for boys. (Arch Sex Behav)

As the aging process takes its toll we see a cliché that I do not like: growing out of it. With the phase of puberty comes the dilemma of romantic awkwardness. Apparently the tomboy might have to be more feminine looking or lady-like to be suitable for appeal to boys. Either that or it is a part of an attempt to fit in with her peers during the awkward pressures of high school. The true rebels never grow out of it and just join some edgy clique. Ultimately coming of age is the center of character development for these kids. This cliché may actually have a bit of roots in real life. A study on a group of girls in college has shown a good number of girls who were tomboys as kids actually report growing out of it as they got older. Out of fifty three surveyed, eleven grew out of it before puberty, twenty two during, and eighteen after. (College Student Journal)

Adults are different. Not all of them have a backstory that shows how they transitioned from a child to a teen to their current selves. Audiences may never know if the woman who drinks and punches like a man was always like that. Characters like her are not presented in the story as the best friend of the protagonist usually either. Since as an adult she would have a good sense of identity, character development involves whatever drama would happen in the story rather than gender roles. Instead of love interests their roles might be to add a little action to the scene with her violent and boisterous attitude. She might show up to create of completely new atmosphere to the show and shake things up with her violent tendencies. Sometimes a supposedly typical woman is given a bit of an aggressive attitude or physical prowess to spice up her characterization.

“The Big Bang Theory” does not feature women with masculine interests at first. It is a show about geeks and physics clashing with awkwardness around a hot girl as a friend. Until later seasons when this girl, named Penny, suddenly has a tough side to her and she is instantly a source of more comedy. She is capable of breaking men’s noses and knows how to gut a fish. Penny was not as much like that in the first seasons. She exhibited dozens of stereotypes regarding young adult blonde women. She acts very emotional and comes off as ditzy. On top of that her speech patterns resemble a less annoying version of a valley girl. The purpose of this was to open up the two introverted and nearly autistic protagonists to an alluring and alien world to them: the world of femininity and people of average intelligence. So why make Penny tough? A world of manliness and football is also alien to the two geeks. This extra piece of contrast could have been added with another male character that Penny hangs out with as well. In a less cliché route one of the main boys could suddenly take a liking to more powerful activities. But with Penny there’s more hilarity value with two grown men having to ask their blonde woman neighbor for help with gutting a fish. Thus Penny’s character can have both masculine and feminine traits for contrast and be funnier as a bonus.

The opposite end of this spectrum is a woman whose personality is one hundred percent badass. Characters like this obviously are a must for more violent or adventurous stories. Aside from its well written female protagonist, the movie “Aliens” also contains the archetype of a combat female who acts exactly like any other eager male in a military setting. The film features a squad of marines to help investigate a mysterious infestation of man eating monsters that no one knows about on a colonist planet. The only woman in that squad that really matters is Vasquez. She’s a trigger happy big talker with a lot of respect from her comrades. The jarring contrast between her gender and personality make her a much more interesting person to watch than the others who die in the movie. She is so masculine that her character introduction involved her giving a witty comeback to an insult addressing the social boundaries for how much is too masculine for women to be so that the audience can move on. In all honesty she is not a relatable character. This happens in violent movies either science fiction, fantasy, or just something with lots of guns and gangs and cops. She is a character that I want to be like.

A male character in such a film often has a similar role of audience surrogacy. It also creates and cements more of the traits needed for women to be actually considered “manly”. This is mainly physical strength and bravado. Heroic traits in women have evolved over the years to become almost expected of women in media, which often tweaks the archetype a bit, as Kerry Fine mentions, “In creating female characters who wield heroic power, the masculine nature of heroism is called into question, and the socially constructed terms of who is permitted to exercise that power are redefined.”

The inclusion of women for the place of the idealized hero in media does not match what happens in real life. Among all the male things that I have wanted to get into as I got older, I have received the most discouragement from physical strength training and aggressive behavior. General sports and whatnot seem to be fine but often sports for women involving agility are just dumbed down versions of a male sport. Thus the hype about female characters such as Vasquez might be the opposite of the reception they may get as people in real life. I think there is a huge amount of escapism in characters like Vasquez when I get sick of people telling me I cannot wrestle with a guy or something.

There are a few female characters that I can relate to when it comes to having a male interest or personality. I am fond of an NBC show called “30 Rock”. The protagonist is played by Tina Fey, who is also producing the show. Her name is Liz Lemon and working as a head writer she has to put up with crazy coworkers, from the lazy, to the weird, to the airheaded celebrities. This pushes her over the edge several times.

Liz possesses a slack personality that people have deep down beneath the need to act professional in public. Masculine qualities show the most in that aspect of her character. She has a soft spot for food and goes on a rampage if someone comes between her and her lunch. She is confrontational and possesses a need to be in the right. When no one is looking she will sometimes exhibit gross habits. Her tone of voice is deep and even growls sometimes. She has a vocabulary that is either random or aggressive. Flashbacks in some episodes will show her in and archetypal nerdy getup that implies enough about what she was like in the past. She also is a Star Wars fan. In short these are the mannerisms characteristic of a tomboy who grew up. Because of this I can relate to this character the most. Combined with her sloppy body language and the fact that she acts like a klutz these create a very humanistic look at Liz’s character. Among those are the pressures to act lady like that I think a lot of girls who identify with more masculine traits try to abandon. She is both entertaining and relatable.

In the end masculine traits on females in fiction land is usually shown to be a good thing. Because of the fact that giving a few masculine qualities to a female character can make her more entertaining, this can cement a few negative stereotypes about women and femininity. I thought Penny’s apparent stupidity and overly emotional attitude to a bunch of at the time strangers was a bit annoying. Many other traits seen as exclusively feminine tend to irritate me not because they themselves are annoying but because they might be intentionally delivered that way. It is easy for an emotional person to look benevolent with a supportive or empathetic personality but that is not always popular with portrayals of feminine women.

Works Cited


Cameron, James, dir. Aliens. Prod. Gale Anne Hurd. 20th Century Fox, 1986. Film. 9 Mar 2014.

Fey, Tina, dir. Prod. Lorne Micheals. 30 Rock. NBC: . Television.

Lorre, Chuck, dir. Dir. Bill Prady. The Big Bang Theory. CBS: . Television.


Fine, Kerry. “She Hits Like a Man, but She Kisses Like a Girl: TV Heroines, Femininity, Violence, and Intimacy.” University of Nebraska Press. 47.2 (2012): 152-173. Print.

Martin, Carol Lynn, and Lisa M. Dinella . “Congruence Between Gender Stereotypes and Activity Preference in Self-Identified Tomboys and Non-Tomboys.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. (2010): n. page. Print.