Opinion | Bring Back the Tomboys


Everybody loved Jo. With her mane of brown hair and disdain for convention, the tomboy who spoke her mind and had no need for high society, she was adored by little girls across America.

You might think I speak of Jo March from “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel (recently adapted for the screen by Greta Gerwig), which has never been out of print. It rocked the literary landscape and elevated tomboys to the top of the heroine heap, as Jo March inspired generations of early feminists to be forthright and assertive, and to reject traditional, passive femininity.

But I’m not — the tomboy I refer to is Jo Polniaczek, from the 1980s sitcom “The Facts of Life.” That Jo was a working-class kid on scholarship at a fancy girls’ boarding school. Her signature hairstyle was two little ponytails that connected to a big one in the back. Her signature outfit was a leather jacket — once she even dressed up as Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider” for Halloween — and jeans. Her signature ride was a motorcycle — which she fixed herself. Like most fictional tomboys until then, Jo was a white, working-class brunette with a blond, rich girly-girl nemesis, Blair.

When Jo joined “The Facts of Life” in 1980 for its second season, she was among many tomboys on the big and small screen in that era. There was Addie Loggins in “Paper Moon” (1973) and Amanda Whurlitzer in “The Bad News Bears” (1976), both played by Tatum O’Neal. Laura Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie” and the short-haired drummer Watts in the 1987 romantic comedy “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Jodie Foster and Kristy McNichol tomboyed it up in almost any role they played.

They were outspoken, confident and indifferent to the silent or explicit rules of gender around them, often dressing and acting “like boys.” They stood in stark contrast to the ingénues and highly feminine characters girls and women were often restricted to. For me and many Gen X girls (and boys), the tomboys of the 1970s and ’80s expanded the possibilities of what girlhood could look like. I have met only one woman who liked Blair better than Jo.

These were often my favorite characters, living examples of the feminist zeitgeist that told me I did not have to be feminine to be female: I could, and maybe should, dress and act like boys and have access to their domains. In her book “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America,” the historian Jo B. Paoletti points to Sears catalogs in the 1970s that displayed size conversion charts so girls could shop more easily in the boys’ section. During that same period, Title IX mandated girls have parity with boys in all aspects of federally funded education.

But this kind of tomboy began to recede in the mid-1980s. Hostility to feminism emerged in that decade, with the rise of the New Right and shows like “Thirtysomething,” in which educated women were sent back to the domestic realm, as Susan Faludi charted in her book “Backlash.” This was followed by the pink-hued “Girl Power” of the 1990s, which moved away from the more masculine-presenting tomboy toward an image that seemed to comfort the male gaze. Jo gave way to Sporty Spice, Xena, Buffy — coifed, petal-lipped and sometimes baring midriff — with the message that one didn’t need to sacrifice femininity to have power.

It was an understandable counter to the somewhat limiting message of the earlier tomboy era, which implied that while masculinity was good for boys and girls, femininity was bad for both. But it also edged out a certain kind of acceptable masculinity in young girls, and came with its own confinements — namely the idea that girls could be strong, so long as they were also pretty.

Their inherent flaws aside, ideally, both identities should be able to coexist. But having spent the last year writing a book about the history, science and psychology of tomboys, I’m acutely aware of how modern girls who resemble the tomboys of my youth are now underrepresented.

In the years that followed the tomboy heyday, gender polarization effectively swallowed childhood. The combination of declining birthrates, prenatal sex testing, the phenomenon of gender-reveal parties and other cultural shifts helped cultivate the pink and blue divide that now colors most toys, games and clothes: pink and blue pens, bikes, snacks, toothbrushes! There has been a return to the pre-tomboy idea that femininity and females are conjoined, likely because companies found they could sell more of the same items if they came in pink and blue versions.

This extreme division has perpetuated gender stereotypes in children’s media. When I bought a kids’ edition of the Kindle Fire in 2017, it forced me to select a gender for my child, and then edited out almost anything “masculine” (apps, videos and books about sports or adventure) if I chose “girl,” and anything “feminine” (princesses, fairy tales, flowers) if I selected “boy.” A report revealed that females made up only 38 percent of main characters on American kids’ TV shows in 2017. While boys use physical power and STEM skills to solve problems on these shows, girls tend to use magic. Another study found that higher TV exposure for 4-year-olds contributed to a higher likelihood that they’ll believe men and boys are better than women and girls.

We do have laudable, modern young female characters. Nella the Princess Knight, Moana and Katniss Everdeen, among others, represent a certain kind of intra-feminine diversity, and far more racial diversity than that of 1970s and 1980s tomboys. The Canadian kids’ TV creator J.J. Johnson has many STEM-minded, less stereotypically feminine female characters on his shows, including “Annedroids” and “Dino Dana.”

We also have more diverse representations of gender identity, including the nonbinary actor Ellie Desautels playing the transgender student Michael Hallowell on NBC’s “Rise,” to the nonbinary character Syd on Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” reboot. GLAAD found that in 2017 and 2018, there were more representations of L.G.B.T.Q. characters than at any time before. These important additions to the cultural landscape are to be celebrated, and continued.

But we shouldn’t let the old-school tomboys in pop culture fade away in the process. The pop star Billie Eilish offers a refreshing twist: Through her affinity for oversize hoodies and pants and her confident, offbeat swagger, she provides girls an alternative to the overtly sexualized pop singer. I’d like to see even more of this — the return of Jo and her descendants, alongside the representations of strong, feminine girls and nonbinary and trans people. Girls who claim all the traditional traits of masculinity they want, girls who fix motorcycles or play drums or wear short hair.

I loved “The Facts of Life,” but I know it wasn’t a great show. While it tried to deal with class and race and gender, often, especially by today’s standards, it failed. (In the pilot episode, the housemother Mrs. Garrett has to assuage a different tomboy character’s insecurities by assuring her she’s not gay.) But Jo was an important character, even if, like many tomboys, including Jo March, she was often “tamed” — feminized and paired up with a man.

Let’s bring the tomboy back, without taming her. Let’s have feminine boys and masculine girls amid the varied depictions of gender identities and presentations. In today’s world of exponentially expanding media, and exponentially expanding understanding of the complexity of gender, we have room for all of them.

Lisa Selin Davis (@LisaSelinDavis) is the author of the forthcoming book “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.”

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