20 Jan 2021

Girls who dare to be different in hyper-gendered world

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 10:15 am on 20 January 2021

Sugar and spice is not a very nice way to way to describe girls, it never has been.

But the old nursery rhyme dividing boys and girls has still not been consigned to history. Childhood is more hyper-gendered than ever before, says writer Lisa Selin Davis.

Davis explores our changing understanding of gender in her book, Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.  

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Photo: supplied

She tells Summer Times social pressures continue to put children in narrow boxes causing damage to everybody, including her own daughter who caught grief for climbing trees and skinning her knees while totally rejecting pink.

“Her rejection of traditional girl stuff, pink and dresses and such, started happening in pre-school. Then, in year one, someone came up to her and told her she was a tomboy. That is not a word that I had ready in my lexicon, I’d mostly forgotten about it.”

While that label brought relief to other adults who wondered why she was more interested in boyish activities, it raised other questions for Davis.

“What is boy stuff and girl stuff? What does it mean to act like a typical boy or girl, where do those ideas come from? And why was that word so common in my youth and why was the representation of the tomboy so common in my youth and where had it disappeared to.”

Davis says a lot of people around her assumed her child was transgender because of her short hairstyle and predilection for sports and other ‘boyish’ pastimes.

“But for me, having grown up in the 1970s, having grown up with feminist parents, I had trouble understanding why this idea that it was about gender identity was located in gender stereotypes. The 1970s was a time when we worked so hard for girls to be able to have short hair, to play sports, to not wear dresses.

“I was asking what’s happening that we’re thinking identity and stereotypes are the same thing. When I wrote about that, to say I support trans kids but adults should stop insisting that my child can’t be a girl if she rejects ‘girl stuff’.”

That article, published in the New York Times, was perceived by some readers to be transphobic and she found herself the subject of a Twitter storm and had people arguing she should have her publishing career finished.

“I had basically stepped into a culture war between some trans people and some feminists that I didn’t know existed. I had no idea that this was happening.”

Davis says that while writing the book she came to understand that the word gender means many different things to different people.

“Each meaning that you cling to, you’re clinging to it because you have an agenda or a belief system and you’re fighting for that belief system. For some people, they use gender to mean gender identity and they say gender is biological and I’m born the gender that I am.

“There are many other people who use gender to mean gender stereotypes, they say gender is a construct, it’s about all of the ideas you have about me based on my sex, based on my body. Whoever you are, whichever definition you subscribe to, it’s really threatening to the other definition.”

The headline of that article was ‘my daughter’s not transgender, she’s a tomboy’ and Davis suspects that many of her critics didn’t read beyond that.

“I’ve worked very hard to teach my daughter that she doesn’t have to come out as anything, she doesn’t have to pick a letter in the rainbow alphabet anytime soon, that we’re open to whoever she becomes.

“That headline sounded very authoritative and declarative, but its not what I said in the piece. I said she may well end up that way, but I don’t want us rushing to make decisions about a child based on whether or not they adhere to our ideas of what a kid should be liking or doing or who they should be playing with based on their bodies.”

Davis says we’ve only been dividing clothes and toys for boys and girls for around 100 years and that itself is based on troubling ideas of teaching boys masculine traits and girls submissive or caring traits.

“It really changed as our understandings of sex, gender and sexuality and their relationships to each other changed.”

She says that, prior to that, thinking of a child as a little man was ‘gross’ because a man is a sexual being.

“They dressed kids according to age, toys were according to age and, when they got a little bit older, they started emphasising their gender roles. But, once psychologists started thinking about homosexuality and that maybe nurture was part of that, parents were encouraged to prepare boys to be little men and girls to be little women to make sure they didn’t grow up to be gay if they were boys and to make sure they didn’t grow up to be feminists if they were girls.”

The oldest editorial Davis could find on tomboys was from 1890 that argued girls were so liberated that there was no need for a double masculine word to describe girls that liked to play baseball or climb trees.

“In the late nineteenth century, people were already arguing that we’ve given girls all this freedom, we can just call them girls. Of course, that wasn’t true. We can make all kinds of gains in representations, gains in law, but those forces – that your body is supposed to determine who you are and how you behave – they bare down in increasingly insidious ways that we might not even be aware of, like now.

“We still have the same thing, we think children are so liberated, they’ve got dozens of gender identities, but we don’t realise that, actually, all of their stuff is divided into pink and blue, girl and boy – everything they see.

Even though the term tomboy isn’t particularly popular now, Davis says we’re still aggressively labelling children with terms like gender non-conforming or gender atypical rather than just calling them boys or girls.

“Until you look deeply into, you might not realise just how pervasive it is, and you might not ask what are the psychological implications of it – which is what I’m asking and what I’m asking the world to ask; what happens to kids when they’re range of normal is that narrow.”

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