When her six-year-old daughter first called herself a “tomboy”, Lisa Selin Davis had to ask herself what that word meant. Davis launched a deep exploration of gender and gender nonconformity, and discovered the tomboy label is both empowering for some and problematic for others.
Also featuring Youtube creators Kjones and Elohm’s Eye.
This episode has been sponsored by LetsGetChecked. Go to www.trylgc.com/btnewberg and use code “history” to get 20% off your purchase.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Animation by Maxeem Konrardy. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
Find Davis on Twitter as @lisaselindavis.
Davis, Lisa Selin. Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare To Be Different. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020.
Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod
Akansa, Shaayerana. “Yes, I Am a Tomboy.” Youtube. 2019, Oct 20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yk88xj_WYcI
chEA (Erica Anderson). “10 Signs You Are a Tomboy & Act Like One of the Guys.” Youtube. 2016, Mar 24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQFG3BHyfhI
DR Official. “VOCÊ É TOMBOY? TOMBOYS CANSADAS DE OUVIR ft GRILADA.” Youtube. 2020, Aug 13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUtBj5klYfA
Elohm’s Eye. “5 Tomboy Struggles.” Youtube. 2017, Apr 24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbtdRIDo8Yc
Hasbro. “Jem and the Holograms Theme Song.” Youtube. 2014, Mar 12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkQE5wuBFeY
Kjones (Kelsey Jones). “Childhood Gender Roles as an Adult (Being a “Tomboy” as a Kid).” Youtube. 2018, Feb 18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izywAMzSKZc
McLeod, Kevin. “Big Rock.” Youtube. 2012, Feb 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vQ7XQBOu-s
2 thoughts on “The History of Tomboys: An Interview with Lisa Selin Davis”
This was a really enlightening discussion of the term “tomboy.” I had never considered the term at all, much less in terms of gender norms and enforcing it. I hope you do more podcasts on specific terms. It really opened my eyes in a way I wasn’t expecting.
I do, however, want to push back on one of the things Lisa said in the episode. This was about the early 20th century and how control over women became less overt and more subtle. The way Lisa presents it makes it sound like there was some cabal of gender enforcers out there going “hmm, now that we can no longer control women by making them wear corsets, we shall have to do it more…subtly…with *advertising.*” You can practically hear the mustache being twirled. I think it’s really problematic to view culture this way, with some dominant group plotting in smoke-filled rooms how to keep down the masses. The elites are just as much a part of the culture as everyone else. Culture is self-reinforcing, not something that was passed down from on high. This adversarial view of course places the speaker in the role of the plucky underdog fighting against the forces of darkness, but that’s just not how things actually work. Culture is an evolving process, and while elites certainly have an outsize influence, they don’t just make rules the rest of us follow.
I think this is where discussions on toxic masculinity come in, and how women are also a part of creating and enforcing gender norms. Regarding toxic masculinity, that there is not a similar term for boys hurts those who would want to enjoy things coded for girls, like playing with dolls (I had a baby doll as little boy myself, and think it might be a good idea to encourage nurturing as a male trait, too).
Regarding women enforcing gender norms, there are many reasons why this could be. Some women do legitimately feel that there should be separate male and female spheres for whatever reason. The idea of such spheres isn’t some kind of Western only imposed by the Victorians on all those poor indigenous people everywhere. I am aware of no culture that does not create separate spaces for male and female, even if it also has mechanisms for crossing that divide, like the Albanian sworn virgins or the eunuchs in the Byzantine court. We do a disservice to those who like gender norms, find them comfortable, and who may enforce them out of a sense of moral right if we paint them all as dupes of the “masculine” system, trapped by Stockholm syndrome or some sort of power bribe, a la the racial bribe (as referenced in “The New Jim Crow”).
Everyone likes to think that it’s them against the world, that they have truth in hand and will go forth and slay the dragons. But the world is just more complicated than that, and people do and believe things that may not be what we believe, even if someone else doesn’t agree with those things.
Hi Ira. Glad you enjoyed the episode. You make some great points. I think you’re 100% right that there’s no cabal behind such changes in gender norms. Businesspeople, like most of us, do tend to look for ways to maximize their self-interest, but how gender moves as a whole is more like a flock of starlings making shapes in the sky – each bird has an influence but there’s no secret plan. I don’t think Lisa intended to suggest there was, though perhaps she could have worded things differently. Ditto with separate male and female spheres. Lisa is herself cisgender and presents in a pretty straightforwardly feminine way, so I doubt she would want to get rid of femininity per se. She probably intended more that such norms could be looser and thus less contrictive on those who don’t fit so well. In other words, an “all of the above” approach with gray areas between categories instead of hard dividers. That is my take on it anyway. 🙂