Tomboys are a great example of how American society has overlooked the true meaning of understands gender, race, class, and sexuality. There are already countless articles surrounding the cinema’s influence on society’s point of view. But what happens when films start to portray females outside of the traditional values of womanhood? Better yet, what assumptions does the public make surrounding tomboys? And are these portrayals usually ‘correct’ and if not why? These are some of the questions I attempt to answer within this blog post. In the end I hope to understanding how and why tomboys are portrayed in the media a certain way.
Identifying the Tomboy
Its always important to understand where and when an identity first showed its colors. The word ‘Tomboy’ has been around longer then we think; at least since the mid-16th century. Before the world underwent some changes in the early 19th-century, the word ‘tomboy’ was actually used to describe rambunctious young boys. Of course, just as time moves forward so does societies ideals. However, society has one major flaw in its design. This flaw is the very idea that every single person can fit into a category. What most people forget is that within these category there are other categories, and within those there are others. You see there are literally and figuratively limitless categories describing ones identity. It is to my belief that this is where the word ‘unique’ comes from.
Since the early 1920s, the term Tomboy was defined as—a girl who shows behavioral characteristics of that of a boy. They would consciously dress and act like a guy. Forcefully mimicking a guys behavior to make themselves standout among the traditional girls. In my opinion, that is a very broad definition. In a behavioral study done in 2002, the authors wrote “that individuals can be male-typical in some respects and female-typical in others” (Bailey 333). In other words, there is no such thing as an activity, or even a behavior, that is exclusive to males and or females. It is here that I would like to make an important note that throughout my time spent researching tomboys in the media, I have found that there is not just one type of tomboy. There are the ‘traditional’ tomboys—one who dresses and acts like a guy. Then there are ‘girl’ tomboys—someone who mixes both girl and guy attire and behaviors. And then theres the ‘social’ tomboy—where you dress like a girl and act masculine in public, but when you go home you put on your boxers and play video games.
Tomboy vs. LGBTQ
I kind of feel like the public is getting lazy at this point and doesn’t want to analysis tomboys. So as a result, they just stuffed them into the Queer category. The problem with this, is if a tomboy shows up on the big-screen, the first assumption people will make is that they are apart of the LGBTQ community when they’re really not. I think its safe to say that by the way the mass public perceived tomboys, they sort of assumed that the word tomboy was just another identity for someone who’s queer.
Coming from a personal experience, although I’m pretty sure a lot of people can relate, having short hair and dressing very masculine can get a little bit irritating and exhausting sometimes. The reason I say that is because people immediately make the assumption that because we look even the slightest like a guy, then we must be gay. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mistaken as a lesbian, based solely on my haircut and my clothes. I have met so many other girls like me. Where society thinks that they look like a lesbian but in fact they identify as a tomboy. Like I said before, it can get extremely irritating and exhausting to have to explain yourself to a complete stranger. Ley me make this perfectly clear. Being a lesbian is a choice of sexuality. Being a tomboy is not. I don’t have a problem with how many sexual identities there are, and I love that society is now taking the time to understand all of them. What I don’t like is all these assumptions are based on how one acts. Yes I understand that most of the time there are tomboys that might look like a lesbian, but it just might mean they like wearing the same clothes. I soul heartily believe that society needs to take a little bit more time when analyzing someone. Society is built upon judgment, especially within the realm of sexuality.
Below are some videos that are not only beautifully done, but are extremely beneficial when addressing the topic of gender or identity norms. The first one is a music video titled “Break Free”, featuring the beautiful Ruby Rose showing us was its like to come out of your own skin; and what that process may be or feel like to someone. The second one is a short danish film called “Boy”. It explains to us how confusing it can be to find your own identity. As well as how your decisions can influence or even effect those around you. I highly recommend watching both.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFjsSSDLl8w (“Break Free” Music Video)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwV7ENOTeek (“Boy” Short Film)
Tomboys in the Mass Media
Since the beginning of the narrative cinema in the early 1920s, the media has had certain standards or criteria about how females should be portrayed. This criteria was based upon societies ideals of the ‘traditional’ woman—who is attractive to look at, content and well mannered, desires the domestic life, and will do as she’s told. If for any reason a female character falls outside of these ideals, then she was labeled an outcast or an ‘untraditional’ woman. So with that said, what is a tomboy according to the media?
In American films, tomboys are usually just side characters with a label over their heads. Or maybe even a phase that the main girl was supposedly going through; like adolescence. My point is, tomboys today don’t really have central light focused on them in the mass media. They’re kind of just standing there in the background; untouched and un-relatable. However, society has recently become increasingly more educated when it comes to identities. People are starting to look more closely at the main message(s) of films. To the point where they’re changing their perceptions about the portrayal of females in both society and the mass media.
The Disney Tomboy
I came to the conclusion, that the best way to show examples of portrayals of tomboys in films was to look at films that have such a huge impact on female identities. From the minute we’re born we start building up our identity. Like most American girls, we look to Disney princesses to help us find our way. However, I noticed that as time has gone by, more Disney’s princesses are starting to show a tomboy personae. Disney touched on this idea back when they made Mulan (1998). By making Mulan, Disney proposed an idea that females don’t always have to be all girly and obsessed with marriage. Unfortunately, they quickly realized that society wasn’t really ready for this new persona. So they went back to their original topic in Disney films, true love. However in the past 20 years Disney has brought back their original idea, and we can see it being used in films like The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and their recent film Moana (2016). While I adore the films The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I argue that these films do not show their females portraying a tomboy persona. Rather, they show these princesses in a more tenacious sort of way. For instance, Tina and Rapunzel show some characteristics of having a very strong and determined personality, like a tomboy. On the flip side though, both of them are still acting within the confines of the ‘traditional woman’. In the end, making them not a tomboy.
Disney’s newest film Moana, is the first disney film to completely disregards anything that deals with disney’s old idea, about love and marriage. I’d like to mention that throughout the entire film, not once was it mentioned that Moana had to get married or even had the idea of love on her mind. Instead the film focuses on the message of determination and staying true to yourself, even if that means going against what other people want or say. I would agree that its films like Moana that cause the film industry to really question the idea of how females should be portrayed in films. That we can still have a great film filled with adventures, without having to add in the topic of love.
Too add some more light on the subject. I think Disney knows how much of an influence it can have on people; children especially. Little girls all over the world love to dress and act like their favorite princess. And I’d like to believe that the reason why they’re starting to show more masculine females, is because society (or the film industries) are starting to realizing that not every girl’s mind is fixated on gold diamond dresses and finding true love. That we can be strong determined females, and that there are girls that don’t care for makeup and dresses. And even though, disney doesn’t really have that many tomboy princesses, they still shows strong female characters that fight for themselves and don’t just sit around waiting for a fairy godmother to come and fix all their problems. In some respects, this is just one of the main reasons how the media can have a huge impact on a child’s identity.
We all know that the media can influence society just like a puppeteer can influence its puppet. In some respects, what I have written here are just some of the ways the media can have a huge impact on someone’s identity. Growing up with films like Mulan, I learned that it was okay for me to fight back. That I didn’t need to wear a dress and fall head over heals for every guy that looks my way. I grew up with two lesbian moms, that taught me that just because I’m a tomboy, doesn’t make me any lesser than any other girl. Times are changing; and for the better I may add. My hope is that one day the media will use their power to influence people’s assumptions of not just tomboys, but every person with a different identity or gender outside of society’s so called norms.
Abate, Michelle Ann. “Tomboys : A literary and Cultural History.” Philadelphia : Temple University Press. 2008.
Bailey, J. M.; Bechtold, K. T.; & Berenbaum, S. A. . “Who Are Tomboys and Why Should We Study Them?” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 31, No. 4. pp. 333–341. August 2002.
England, D. ; Descartes, L. ; Collier-Meek, M. “Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses” Sex Roles. Vol.64(7), pp.555-567. February 2011.
“If I was a Boy”. Performed by Beyoncé. Song. Released 2008.
King, Elizabeth. “A Short History of the Tomboy.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 05 Jan. 2017. Web.
“Moana”. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Co-Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. Walt Disney Animation Studio. (2016). Film.
“The Princess and the Frog”. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Animation Studio and Pictures. (2009). Film.
“Tomboy”. Directed by Céline Sciama. New Almaden, CA : Wolfe Video LLC. (2011). Film.
Womak, Finch . “Tomboys and Girly girls-The Portrayals of Femininity in Disney Princess Films.” Looking in the Popular Culture Mirror: Student Essays from University Studies 254. N.p., 14 Dec. 2016. Web.