The Tomboy, 1873 painting by John George Brown
The Tomboy, 1873 painting by John George Brown

A tomboy is a girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviors considered typical of a boy.[1][2] Common characteristics include wearing masculine clothing and engaging in games and activities that are physical in nature and are considered in some cultures to be unfeminine, or the domain of boys.[2]


Tomboy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was originally used to refer to, "brash, boisterous, or self-assured youth."[3] The OED dates the first printed use of the term to[3] Ralph Roister Doister, published in 1567.

Society and culture

History and sexual orientation

Author Michelle Ann Abate stated that, in 19th-century American culture, the usage of the word tomboy came to refer to a specific code of conduct that permitted young girls to exercise, wear "sensible clothing", and to eat a "wholesome diet". Because of the emphasis on a healthier lifestyle, tomboyism quickly grew in popularity during this time period as an alternative to the dominant feminine code of conduct that had limited women's physical movement. Abate stated that this mode of behavior was planned to enhance the power and durability of the country's coming brides and child-bearers and the progeny that they birthed. She explained that tomboyism was more than a new fostering method or gender statement for the country's young women; it was also a way to improve the genetic quality of the human population.[4]

In her 1898 book Women and Economics, feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman lauds the health benefits of being a tomboy as well as the freedom for gender exploration: "not feminine till it is time to be".[5]

Joseph Lee, a playground advocate, wrote in 1915 that the tomboy phase was crucial to physical development between the ages of 8 and 13.[6] Tomboyism remained popular through World War I and World War II in society, literature, and then film.

During the 20th century, Freudian psychology and backlash against LGBT social movements resulted in societal fears about the sexualities of tomboys, and this caused some to question if tomboyism leads to lesbianism.[4] Throughout history, there has been a perceived correlation between tomboyishness and lesbianism.[3][7] For instance, Hollywood films would stereotype the adult tomboy as a "predatory butch dyke".[7] Lynne Yamaguchi and Karen Barber, editors of Tomboys! Tales of Dyke Derring-Do, argue that "tomboyhood is much more than a phase for many lesbians"; it "seems to remain a part of the foundation of who we are as adults".[3][8] Many contributors to Tomboys! linked their self-identification as tomboys and lesbians to both labels positioning them outside "cultural and gender boundaries".[3] Psychoanalyst Dianne Elise's essay reported that more lesbians noted being a tomboy than straight women.[9] However, while some tomboys later reveal a lesbian identity in their adolescent or adult years, behavior typical of boys but displayed by girls is not a true indicator of one's sexual orientation.[10]

Gender roles and stereotypes

Tomboy girl riding a skateboard
Tomboy girl riding a skateboard
Women playing rugby
Women playing rugby

The idea that there are girl activities and clothing, and that there are boy activities and clothing, is often reinforced by the tomboy concept. Tomboyism can be seen as both refusing gender roles and traditional gender conventions, but also conforming to gender stereotypes.[7] The concept may be considered outdated or looked at from a positive viewpoint.[11] Feminine traits are often devalued and unwanted, and tomboys often respond this viewpoint, especially toward girly girls. This can be due in part to an environment that desires and only values masculinity. Idealized male masculinity is atop the hegemony and sets the traditional standard, and is often upheld and spread by young children, especially through children playing with one another. Tomboys may view femininity as having been pushed on them, which result in negative feelings toward femininity and those that embrace it. In this case, masculinity may be seen as a defense mechanism against the harsh push toward femininity, and a reclaiming of agency that is often lost due to sexist ideas of what girls are and are not able to do.[12]

Tomboys are expected in some cultures to one day cease their masculine behavior. In those cultures, usually, during or right before puberty, they will return to feminine behavior, and are expected to embrace heteronormativity. Tomboys who do not do such are occasionally stigmatized, usually due to homophobia. Creed argues that the tomboy's "image undermines patriarchal gender boundaries that separate the sexes", and thus is a "threatening figure".[13] This "threat" affects and challenges the idea of what a family must look like, generally nuclear independent heterosexual couplings with two children.[14]

Gender scholar Jack (also known as Judith) Halberstam argues that while the defying of gender roles is often tolerated in young girls, adolescent girls who show masculine traits are often repressed or punished.[7] However, the ubiquity of traditionally female clothing such as skirts and dresses has declined in the Western world since the 1960s, where it is generally no longer considered a male trait for girls and women not to wear such clothing. An increase in the popularity of women's sporting events (see Title IX) and other activities that were traditionally male-dominated has broadened tolerance and lessened the impact of tomboy as a pejorative term.[2] As sociologist Barrie Thorne suggested, some "adult women tell with a hint of pride as if to suggest: I was (and am) independent and active; I held (and hold) my own with boys and men and have earned their respect and friendship; I resisted (and continue to resist) gender stereotypes".[15]

In the Philippines, tomboys are masculine-presenting women who have relations with other women, with the other women tending to be more feminine, although not exclusively, or transmasculine people who have relationships with women; the former appears more common than the latter.[16] Women who engage in romantic relationships with other women, but who are not masculine, are often still deemed heterosexual. This leads to more invisibility for those that are lesbian and feminine.[17] Scholar Kale Bantigue Fajardo argues for the similarity between "tomboy" in the Philippines and "tombois in Indonesia", and "toms in Thailand" all as various forms of female masculinity.[16]


Main article: List of tomboys in fiction

Tomboys in fictional stories are often used to contrast a more girly and traditionally feminine character. These characters are also often the ones that undergo a makeover scene in which they learn to be feminine, often under the goal of getting a male partner. Usually with the help of the more girly character, they transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, ignoring past objectives and often framed in a way that they have become their best self.[13] Doris Day's character in Calamity Jane is one example of this;[18] Allison from The Breakfast Club is another.[19] Tomboy figures who do not eventually go on to conform to feminine and heterosexual expectations often simply remain in their childhood tomboy state, eternally ambiguous. The stage of life where tomboyism is acceptable is very short and rarely are tomboys allowed to peacefully and happily age out of it without changing and without giving up their tomboyness.[18]

Tomboyism in fiction often symbolizes new types of family dynamics, often following a death or another form of disruption to the nuclear family unit, leading families of choice rather than a descent. This provides a further challenge to the family unit, including often critiques of socially who is allowed to be a family – including critiques of class and often a women's role in a family. Tomboyism can be argued to even begin to normalize and encourage the inclusion of other marginalized groups and types of families in fiction including, LGBT families or racialized groups. This is all due to the challenging of gender roles, and assumptions of maternity and motherhood that tomboys inhabit.[18]

Tomboys are also used in patriotic stories, in which the female character wishes to serve in a war, for a multitude of reasons. One reason is patriotism and wanting to be on the front lines. This often ignores the many other ways women were able to participate in war efforts and instead retells only one way of serving by using one's body. This type of story often follows the trope of the tomboy being discovered after being injured, and plays with the particular ways bodies get revealed, policed and categorized. This type of story is also often nationalistic, and the tomboy is usually presented as the hero that more female characters should look up to, although they still often shed some of their more extreme ways after the war.[18]


There have been few studies of the causality of women's behavior and interests when they do not match the female gender role. One report from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children suggests that preschool girls engaging in masculine-typical gender-role behavior, such as playing with toys typically preferred by boys, is influenced by genetic and prenatal factors.[20] Tomboys have also been noted to demonstrate a stronger interest in science and technology.[2]

See also


  1. ^ Tomboy Archived 2007-10-12 at the Wayback Machine in the Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^ a b c d Who Are Tomboys and Why Should We Study Them?, SpringerLink, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 31, Number 4
  3. ^ a b c d e Brown, Jayne Relaford (1999). "Tomboy". In B. Zimmerman (ed.). Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Routledge. pp. 771–772. ISBN 0815319207. Archived from the original on 8 September 2017. Retrieved 21 August 2012. The word [tomboy] also has a history of sexual, even lesbian, connotations. [ ... ] The connection between tomboyism and lesbianism continued, in a more positive way, as a frequent theme in twentieth-century lesbian literature and nonfiction coming out stories.
  4. ^ a b Abate, Michelle Ann (2008). Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-59213-722-0.
  5. ^ Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1898). Women and Economics. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. p. 56.
  6. ^ Lee, Joseph (1915). Play in Education. pp. 392–393.
  7. ^ a b c d Halberstam, Judith (1998). Female Masculinity. Duke University Press. pp. 193–196. ISBN 0822322439. Archived from the original on 2018-04-29. Retrieved 2019-12-18. Hollywood film offers us a vision of the adult tomboy as the predatory butch dyke: in this particular category, we find some of the best and worst of Hollywood stereotyping.
  8. ^ Yamaguchi, Lynne and Karen Barber, ed. (1995). Tomboys! Tales of Dyke Derring-Do. Los Angeles: Alysson.
  9. ^ King, Elizabeth (2017-01-05). "A Short History of the Tomboy". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 2017-01-08. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
  10. ^ Gabriel Phillips & Ray Over (1995). "Differences between heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian women in recalled childhood experiences". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 24 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1007/BF01541985. PMID 7733801. S2CID 23296942.
  11. ^ Halberstam, Judith (1988). Female Masculinity. doi:10.1215/9780822378112. ISBN 978-0-8223-2226-9. Archived from the original on 2018-04-29. Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  12. ^ Harris, Adrienne (2000-07-15). "Gender as a Sort Assembly Tomboys' Stories". Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 1 (3): 223–250. doi:10.1080/15240650109349157. ISSN 1524-0657. S2CID 144985570.
  13. ^ a b Creed, Barbara (2017-09-25), "Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarst", Feminist Theory and the Body, Routledge, pp. 111–124, doi:10.4324/9781315094106-13, ISBN 978-1-315-09410-6
  14. ^ Proehl, Kristen Beth, 1980-. Battling girlhood : sympathy, race and the tomboy narrative in American literature. OCLC 724578046.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Thorne, Barrie (1993). Gender play: boys and girls in school. Rutgers University Press. p. 114. ISBN 0-8135-1923-3.
  16. ^ a b Fajardo, K. B. (2008-01-01). "TRANSPORTATION: Translating Filipino and Filipino American Tomboy Masculinities through Global Migration and Seafaring". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 14 (2–3): 403–424. doi:10.1215/10642684-2007-039. ISSN 1064-2684. S2CID 142268960.
  17. ^ Nadal, Kevin L.; Corpus, Melissa J. H. (September 2013). ""Tomboys" and "baklas": Experiences of lesbian and gay Filipino Americans". Asian American Journal of Psychology. 4 (3): 166–175. doi:10.1037/a0030168. ISSN 1948-1993.
  18. ^ a b c d Proehl, Kristen Beth, 1980–. Battling girlhood : sympathy, race and the tomboy narrative in American literature. OCLC 724578046.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  19. ^ "She's Not All That: A Brief History of Rags-to-Princess Makeovers in Movies". KQED. 2017-08-24. Archived from the original on 2020-02-27. Retrieved 2019-11-24.
  20. ^ Hines, Melissa; Golombok, Susan; Rust, John; Johnston, Katie J.; Golding, Jean; Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study Team (1 November 2002). "Testosterone during Pregnancy and Gender Role Behavior of Preschool Children: A Longitudinal, Population Study". Child Development. 73 (6): 1678–1687. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00498. JSTOR 3696409. PMID 12487486.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)