Tomboy is a sexist term, and other language news

// 3 March 2008

Shameless has beaten me to this one. But I was reading a supplement to the New York Times the other day, and came across an interesting letter objecting to the use of the term “tomboy” as sexist (in an article in a previous issue). I am inclined to agree.

Indeed, this is the flip side of what I was trying to get at when I wrote about my return to ballet classes last year.

As Shameless points out:

It’s a point of pride for femme-y celebrities like Charlize Theron and Keira Knightley to claim they are really “tomboys” at heart. There seems to be a certain amount of street cred that comes with likening oneself to a guy. It has a grounding force to it.

Meanwhile, Hoyden About Town links to an interesting project to post excerpts of Creative Commons novels with the gender of the main character reversed. The exercise is tried out for the first time on a Cory Doctorow dystopian story about Google, to interesting effect.

The idea behind this is to help provide an understanding of gender construction in fiction and to an extent in everyday life. It is also expected to have the added benefit of increasing the stories available with female protagonists and background characters.

And finally, as we’re talking about language, see also Melissa at Shakesville on the annoying use of the word ‘females’ as a noun.

Comments From You

Wendy // Posted 4 March 2008 at 6:04 am

I’ve been telling people tomboy is a sexist term since I was a kid. Thanks to my ahead of her time mom who answered people who called me a “tomboy” by saying “No she’s a kid, and like all kids she plays”

They didn’t mean anything by it they claimed, and my mom answered “Of course you did, what’s the label for my other daughters?” (That would be my 2 older siblings who no doubt were busy with their barbies and giant pink plastic campers while I had planet of the apes action figures who invaded barbie camp for prisoners)

I’m lucky I had a mom like mine.. to this day I face people who wonder why I don’t like “women’s” things… and to this day I wonder why they think shopping and shoes are proof of my womanhood? Is it because they were told as children that girls don’t play with cars?

Anna Lansley // Posted 25 March 2010 at 6:09 pm

I agree with Wendy. The word ‘tomboy’ implies that the girl in question is trying to be a boy, or that her preferred activities belong to boys; an example of the all pervasive male bias. A girl who loves running around pretending to be an airplane, for example, is simply living life to the full. It troubles me to think that many girls are denied a proper childhood because they are encouraged to refrain from boisterous activity.

Like Wendy, I was lucky to have feminist parents who never showed disapproval when I made mud cakes in the garden, raced around on my bike pretending to be a bus, and played with my toy sword. However, I also enjoyed playing with dolls. I do not recall that I conformed to any gender role, and it was only when I became an adolescent that I became aware of gender stereotyping. At first I tried to explore and enact the ‘feminine’ role, but I have come out the other end a radical feminist, who knows that ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ are damaging myths. Live and let live is my motto.

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