Hollywood’s Ambivalent Relationship with Tomboys

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Being stuck on a plane for 16 hours last week made me desperate enough that I watched the movie Cheaper by the Dozen 2. A few minutes in, the character of Sarah Baker (Alyson Stoner) appeared onscreen. Sarah was a 13-year-old, sporty prankster who wore long cargo shorts and alternately a beanie or a baseball hat.

“Oh hey,” I thought, “it’s a baby lesbian! Rock on!”

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Of course, she wasn’t. Sarah had a crush on the neighbor boy Elliot Murtaugh and spent a quarter of the movie agonizing over this first crush…the “tomboy in love with a boy” trope that is consistently used for tomboy characters in movies. Admittedly, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, released in 2005, would have been an unlikely vehicle for presenting a new kind of character—a sexually ambiguous teenager in a family movie—because even in 2016 movies are too worried about potential backlash from conservative viewers to explore greater diversity in the sexual orientation and gender presentation of its characters, but at the moment of Sarah’s introduction, there was no reason why she couldn’t have been just such a character. Instead, Cheaper’s use of the hackneyed tomboy love trope is an excellent example of how Hollywood consciously or unconsciously uses the “tomboy” character to reinforce prevailing ideas of heteronormativity.

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To be fair to movies, the (albeit rare) appearance of tomboy characters has a clear positive aspect: given that many young girls—both gay and straight—are tomboys, their presence on-screen means that “gender non-conforming” (whatever that means) girls are given some representation. In addition, for heterosexual tomboys, these characters may represent an accurate portrayal of a first crush. However, that’s where the positive aspects of the tomboy character ends. For both gay and straight tomboys, the entertainment industry has an insidious way of using tomboy characters to reinforce the primacy of “femininity” and heterosexuality.

Take, for example, Sarah, Roberta Martin from Now and Then, and Becky “Icebox” O’Shea from Little Giants: all three characters are sporty—lacrosse, softball, and football, respectively. Sarah and Icebox (Shawna Waldron) both dress in athletic attire, while Roberta (Christina Ricci) binds her chest to minimize her femininity. Sarah and Icebox, although not Roberta, are “one of the boys” and are most comfortable around boys. As viewers, we are primed to understand that these three characters are unusual; they are “not girly,” which means that they will be automatically perceived by others as less “feminine” and potentially less romantically desirable than their “girly” counterparts (although lest we make the mistake of thinking they might be Lesbians, they’re conveniently given male love interests).

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For Sarah and Icebox, the “otherness” of their tomboyishness is shown when they get a crush on a boy…and suddenly worry about how their “lack of femininity” will be perceived by the object of their affection. This lack of perceived femininity becomes a “defect” that they seek to remedy by embracing hyper-feminized activities. Sarah, for example, responds to her perceived crisis of gender conformity by first stealing makeup out of embarrassment and shame that she doesn’t have it but “needs” it, then by convincing her sister to “make her up” for her first date, which she goes on wearing a dress and with styled hair worn long. Icebox quits her football team to become a cheerleader, convinced it’s the only way to get her crush’s attention.

Roberta, who is perhaps not a true “tomboy” because of her antagonistic relationship with boys and her gender conforming clothing, nevertheless reacts to her first kiss with a boy by stopping binding her chest, symbolically coming to terms with her femininity. (Of course, Roberta’s character was actually meant to be a young lesbian, so she does not experience the same pangs of self-doubt about her femininity prior to kissing the boy.) 

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For Bollywood fans, a particularly egregious example of how a tomboy is expected to eventually grow out of her gender non-conforming phase into a more socially acceptable gender expression is Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In the movie, Anjali Sharma begins as a tomboy who excels at basketball and has a male best friend, Rahul Khanna. She realizes she is in love with Rahul…at the exact moment he falls in love with a sexy new student.

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Because she was “one of the boys,” he never even perceived her as a possible love interest. When the two meet again eight years later, Anjali has completely feminized. She is a tomboy no more. Yet in a metaphorically telling moment that almost certainly was unintentional on the part of the director, we see how society’s expectations for her gender expression are a handicap: Anjali, who as a tomboy consistently beat Rahul in basketball, can no longer play well, and loses a point to Rahul when she has to stop and fix her sari. Expectations about femininity literally become obstacles to her goals (and athletic prowess).

Although movies with tomboys most often take pains to inform young viewers that it’s acceptable to be a (straight) tomboy (Sarah’s mother, for example, reminds her that Elliot likes her as she is without makeup, and Rahul sought out Anjali without knowing she was no longer a tomboy), this message is undercut by the repetitive reminder of these characters’ “otherness.” Young viewers are likely to subconsciously make the association that if being a tomboy wasn’t a big deal, then surely the movie wouldn’t make it into a big deal. Furthermore, the movies seem to imply that the boys like the tomboys despite the fact that they’re tomboys. It’s a rare boy who will look past a girl’s gender non-conformity, is the subliminal message coded in the movie.

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If movies are subtly ambivalent about the acceptability of gender non-conforming among straight tomboys, then there is no ambivalence about gay tomboys. Simply put, there will be none. If there is to be a tomboy, she must be straight.   

Hollywood is often highly conservative when it comes to family films, and its social conservatism on the issue of homosexuality in that genre is not surprising given that according to GLAAD’s 2016 Accelerating Acceptance Report, for the last two years 37% of Americans reported feeling very or somewhat uncomfortable that their child had a lesson on LGBT history in school. And between 2006 and 2010, the “gay penguins book” And Tango Makes Three topped the ALA’s 10 Most Challenged Books List. Americans are particularly socially conservative when it comes to children, and Hollywood obliges them by not showing gays in family movies.

However, to not show queer tomboys on screen is a representation gap for this segment of the population. Furthermore, having a queer tomboy character would allow real life queer tomboys to see a character that looks like them, the same way straight tomboys have their own characters to look to. Imagine a film in which the young tomboy falls in love not with the boy next door, but with the girl next door. It would be a huge step forward for expanding the portrayal of LGBT characters on screen, but also show young queer tomboys that their first crushes are just as legitimate as those of their heterosexual peers.

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