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social sciences

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Carr uses "tomboy narratives" to study the influence of individual "agency" ("the power to intervene in a course of events or state of affairs") on the development of gender identification. She cites passages from 14 interviews and concludes that the former tomboys in her study were not merely "impressionable receptors" of socialization, but made significant choices regarding their degree of conformance.

Carr's study is also useful for its overview of previous research and hypotheses about tomboys, her consideration of masculinity and , and her cognizance of the influence of normative judgments on the part of researchers (including feminists) on their analysis.

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Bailey, Bechtold, and Berenbaum have begun a longitudinal study of girls identified by their parents as tomboys, to be followed through adolescence along with their siblings. Their critique of prior research on tomboys points out a number of limitations that they hope to address through a long-term, prospective approach.

They have developed a "Tomboy Composite" scale as a means to characterize objectively the degree to which tomboys differ from their gender-conforming siblings. They anticipate that the data they collect can provide insight on sex differences. For example, if boys' greater degree of "visio-spatial" ability results from play activity, testing tomboy girls for this ability can provide useful comparisons.

Of ironically humorous note is Green's comment that when he and his associates sought funding from the National Institute of Mental Health in 1982 for a study similar to that by Bailey, Bechtold, and Berenbaum, they were turned down by a psychiatrist who considered the term "tomboy" to be pejorative.

Overshadowing all these studies are changing social attitudes about gender roles. Determining femininity from "expressive" qualities (such as compassion and sensitivity) and masculinity from "instrumental" ones (assertiveness or self-reliance), still begs the question of culturally determined influences on child-rearing practices. Moreover, formerly male-dominated spheres such as sports and the trades have seen significant increases in female participation since the 1970s and are less associated nowadays with "boyish" girls or "mannish" women.

Indeed, whether or not "tomboy" will continue to be a meaningful designation as sex and gender roles evolve remains to be seen.

Tomboys in Popular Culture

When asked to name tomboy characters from literature, most people immediately recall Jo March from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. That fact inspired the title of an engaging anthology, Jo's Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit, and Real Life (1997). In her introduction, editor Christian McEwen surveys spunky female protagonists in children's and adult literature from the 1800s to the present, and has taken pains to carry her search beyond white, North American sources. The result is a collection of fiction, memoir, and essays from noted and lesser-known women writers. McEwen's bibliography lists scores of related titles.

Recent short fiction, poetry, and imagery celebrating tomboys "who grew up to be lesbians" are compiled in Yamaguchi and Barber's Tomboys! Tales of Dyke Derring-do (1995). Acknowledging their own rambunctious girlhoods, the editors have assembled many perspectives on the relationship of a tomboy past to adult lesbian identity.

Halberstam carries the discussion of gender identity from eighteenth-century "peripheral sexualities" into the post-modern territory of drag king performance. En route she examines the tomboy in film history as a precursor to later cinematic butch archetypes. Olson provides another survey of tomboy movies as part of a wider look at butch and female-to-male identities in Burana and Due's anthology Dagger: On Butch Women.

Throughout their history, tomboys have had to contend with the stigma of presumed lesbianism or the accusation of wanting to be male. Both assumptions were categorically refuted by twentieth-century psychology, which established the normalcy of the tomboy experience among girls of all identities. However, for many, the tomboy stage is the first manifestation of a gender-fluid life journey.

Ruth M. Pettis

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Bailey, J. Michael, Kathleen T. Bechtold, and Sheri A. Berenbaum. "Who are Tomboys and Why Should We Study Them?" Archives of Sexual Behavior 31.4 (August 2002): 333-41.

Burn, Shawn Meghan, A. Kathleen O'Neil, and Shirley Nederend. "Childhood Tomboyism and Adult Androgyny." Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 34.5-6 (March 1996): 419-28.

Carr, C. Lynn. "Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory." Gender & Society 12.5 (October 1998): 528-53.

Ehrhardt, A. A., G. Grisanti, and E. A. McCauley. "Female-to-male Transsexuals Compared to Lesbians: Behavioral Patterns of Childhood and Adolescent Development." Archives of Sexual Behavior 8 (1979): 481-90.

Green, Richard. "The "T" word." (Letter to the Editor). Archives of Sexual Behavior 32.1 (February 2003): 1.

Grellert, E. A., M. D. Newcomb, and P. M. Bentler. "Childhood Play Activities of Male and Female Homosexuals and Heterosexuals." Archives of Sexual Behavior 11 (1982): 451-78.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Hilgenkamp, Kathryn D., and Mary Margaret Livingston. "Tomboys, Masculine Characteristics, and Self-Ratings of Confidence in Career Success." Psychological Reports 90.3 (June 2002): 743-49.

Hyde, J. S., B. G. Rosenberg, and J. A. Behrman. "Tomboyism." Psychology of Women Quarterly 2 (1977): 73-75.

Kennedy, E. L., and M. D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

McEwen, Christian, ed. Jo's Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit, and Real Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Morgan, Betsy L. "A Three Generational Study of Tomboy Behavior." Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 39.9-10 (November 1998): 787.

O'Brien, Sharon. "Tomboyism and Adolescent Conflict: Three Nineteenth-Century Case Studies." Women's Being, Women's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Mary Kelley, ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979. 351-72.

Olson, Jenni. "Butch Icons of the Silver Screen." Dagger: On Butch Women. Lily Burana and Linea Due, eds. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1994. 58-76.

Phillips, Gabriel, and Ray Over. "Differences between Heterosexual, Bisexual and Lesbian Women in Recalled Childhood Experiences." Archives of Sexual Behavior 24.1 (February 1995): 1-20.

Plumb, P., and G. Cowan. "A Developmental Study of Destereotyping and Androgynous Activity Preferences of Tomboys, Nontomboys, and Males." Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 10 (1984): 703-12.

Rottnek, Matthew, ed. Sissies and Tomboys: Gender Nonconformity and Homosexual Childhood. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Saghir, M.T., and E. Robins. Male and Female Homosexuality. Baltimore: Williams-Wilkins, 1973.

"Study Suggests That Tomboys May Be Born, Not Made." Science Daily (November 12, 2002).

Whitam, Frederick L., and Robin M. Mathy. "Childhood Cross-gender Behavior of Homosexual Females in Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, and the United States." Archives of Sexual Behavior 20.2 (April 1991): 151-70.

Yamaguchi, Lynne, and Karen Barber, eds. Tomboys! Tales of Dyke Derring-do. Los Angeles: Alyson, 1995.

Zucker, Kenneth J., and Susan J. Bradley. Gender Identity Disorder and Psychosexual Problems in Childhood. New York: Guilford, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: Tomboys  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 28, 2004  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
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