Why The ‘Tomboy’ Stereotype Is Harmful

by Amber Leventry

When little girls choose pants or dirt or rough play over skirts and neatness and docile behavior, they are quickly labeled a tomboy. Our brains are, in part, manufactured products of what we see every day, so when it comes to people, we tend to provide labels for what we see portrayed most often in our society. The majority is seen as the norm and is what is represented in film, television, books, and magazines.

The trouble is “normal” is often portrayed as straight people and couples—usually white—with genders that follow stereotypes and old assumptions of gender roles. This is called the heteronormative, an assumption that the world is a straight, cisgender one, full of people who are either male or female and who are attracted to the opposite sex. People who fit the binary.

When anyone behaves in a manner inconsistent with these one-or-the-other roles, people need to put a label on that behavior so they can understand it. Tomboy is one of those labels.

It might seem harmless, even though it is a backhanded compliment for an expressive and strong girl or individual, but it’s not.

When girls are referred to as tomboys, they are no longer seen as girls expressing femininity through what are considered to be masculine traits. Instead, the focus becomes male-centered. The term “tomboy” strips the ability for a girl to be her version of what it means to be female. A girl is allowed to be different than the norm because she is emulating a boy.

But masculinity is not owned by males, nor do boys and men hold the keys to any domain. A girl can express herself any way she wants, and with time, we as a society have bolstered the idea that girls are brave and strong and fearless. Yet we still want to slap a term on her that indicates her fierceness—what makes her awesome—is a product of being male. We feel the need to gender her traits.

And this is bullshit.

An article I read on Quartzy reminded me of why I clung to this term as a kid. Being a tomboy made it acceptable for me to play ball, to wear jeans, to do “boy” stuff. It allowed me to express myself in most of the ways I wanted without being shamed. I was just a tomboy. While it should have been accepted then, and still should be today, to do those things as a girl, I was more than just a girl. I now know I have always been part male too. I am gender-fluid. So the idea of being called a tomboy was nice because I got to associate with the word boy, but it also discounted who I was as a female. No matter what I did, I had to choose a gender based on what I liked or chose to wear.

Tomboy stirs people’s opinions about sexuality too. Clothes, colors, and mannerisms do not determine one’s sexual orientation, but there is an assumption that tomboys—especially the masculine presenting ones—are or will be lesbians. This is true too with boys who like to wear makeup or dresses or sparkles. Those boys are called sissies, pussies, and faggots. On the surface, tomboy doesn’t seem so offensive. But boys are insulted and degraded when they are comfortable enough to express their feminine side; they are harassed because of female comparisons. And of course a boy must be gay if he likes to play house or wear heals. Because homophobia.

Look, I get it. Stereotypes exist because there is some truth behind assumptions. We categorize people based on what we see every day; our perceptions are often based in reality. But gender identity and expression are not the same as sexuality. Gender is determined between the ears, not between the legs—that is sex. Sexual anatomy is just that. Gender expression is how one shows the world who they are through style and comfort. Sexuality is how one falls in love. Yet when we label a girl a tomboy some of us are also labeling her as gay. There is nothing wrong with being gay, of course, but there is a lot wrong with deciding prerequisites for love.

What’s more, the term tomboy assumes gender yet does not allow for gender diversity; it doesn’t allow for a child to be transgender or non-binary. Tomboy both covers up and assumes a child’s identity, and does so without the child’s input.

How about we just let kids be who they are and not label them? Let’s provide inclusive language, which is gender neutral and offers conversations about all types of identities, families, and sexualities. Let’s offer unconditional support to our kids when they deviate from what most think is “normal.” In doing so, we will allow them to confidently own gender identities and expressions that fall beyond the expectations of binary stereotypes.

It leaves room for the transgender kids and non-binary kids to express themselves too. Perhaps a girl is not a tomboy but a boy, a transgender boy who wants to be seen as the gender he knows he is despite the anatomy he was born with. Perhaps a girl is not a tomboy but a kid who feels like both a boy and girl or neither, a kid who can’t and doesn’t have to choose.

Our kids often know exactly who they are. They don’t need or want us to push a label on them. But they do need us to validate the labels they give themselves. Kids don’t need to be boxed in as male or female, and they certainly don’t need unwanted attention or terms to explain away or justify being themselves.

The term tomboy is dated, but asking a kid, specifically an assigned girl, how they would like to be defined is pretty up with the times. We need to assume, unless told otherwise, that she is a girl and doesn’t need to associate herself with a boy to be considered strong and acceptable and accepted as is.

A girl’s masculinity does not erase her femininity; getting get rid of the harmful tomboy stereotype will help to erase years of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and gender stereotypes that make girls feel less-than if they choose to be more or different than what society has determined they are supposed to be.