By Wanda Deschamps November 24, 2020
Tomboy : The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different, Lisa Selin Davis, Hachette Go, August 11, 2020, 336 pp., $34.65
“That’s a girl who has short hair and likes sports” explained Lisa Selin Davis’s daughter as she made the announcement of her identity to her mother by relaying this explanation from her grade one classmate. Selin Davis was curious about her daughter’s description yet could have left it there. The seeds, however, for Selin Davis’s non-fiction contribution – Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different – released this August had been planted.
I had not thought about or even heard the word tomboy for a very long time.
Fortunately, a refresher appeared early in the introduction through mention of favourite tomboys portrayed in the media during the 70s when she (and I) was growing up. “…from Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie to Jo Polniaczek on The Facts of Life…They were the heroines of America’s most beloved works of literature, from Jo March in Little Womento Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Selin Davis’s exploration of the concept of tomboy cuts across as wide a range of topics as those characters. Through the lenses of history, biology, psychology, endocrinology and more, she digs deeply drawing from firsthand accounts, research studies, publications, interviews as well as her lived experience.
One example of her commitment to a multi-dimensional examination, is chapter six named Are Tomboys Born or Made?including a section on The Biology of Male and Female Brains with content from, Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at University of Cambridge. He has written
“of what he terms the ‘essential difference’ of male and female brains, arguing that male brains on average are ‘systematizing’: They naturally try to analyze systems and discern the rules that govern them….Female brains, he says, are ‘empathizing.’ The empathizer intuitively figures out how people are feeling, and how to treat people with care and sensitivity.”
What does this have to do with tomboy?
Selin Davis explains,
“Since girls with CAH get a surge of androgens, their brains may get masculinized, too, leading to nontypical interests and skills sets. That is, perhaps young females with CAH have brains that are more ‘male.” And since tomboys also tend to have more male-typical interests, maybe they have more androgens, and maybe they have male brains, too.”
There is no end of researchers who counter Baron-Cohen’s claims and Selin Davis also openly disagrees with him.
The reason I highlight his theory is because Tomboy has arrived at a time when the spectrums of gender and sexuality and all their contributing and influential forces are under examination. We are further considering societal constructs of gender, as well as societal assumptions and expectations. This level of acceptance is relatively recent, so I braced myself for tales of discrimination, bias, harassment and abuse based on society’s treatment of girls who have dared to break the mold.
I was somewhat relieved when I read,
“Most tomboys I talked to were encouraged or facilitated by their parents. At the very least, they were tolerated.”
Unsurprisingly, Selin Davis reflects: “..for many tomboys, puberty was tough.”
And “almost all the tomboys I talked to felt pressure to stop being one after puberty, from their parents, their peer, their culture. Encouragingly: “…almost all of them felt their childhood tomboyism affected their adulthoods in positive ways and stayed with them.”
These insights from interviewees and especially their personal stories add poignancy, realism, and enjoyment to the reader’s experience as well as a platform to evoke memories from the reader’s own childhood and adolescence.
Tomboy is also a lesson in how much has changed. We’ve reached a point in our evolution of gender understanding that such a book would not be complete without mention of trans and nonbinary gender expression. Chapters 12 and 13 War of the Words: Tomboy or Transboy and Breaking the Binary focused on trans and nonbinary aspects of human identity are timely and helpful.
I was particularly grateful for her explanation,
“In theory, gender nonconformity refers to behaviors, as tomboy does, and trans is about identity: having a gender identity that differs from the one associated with sex assigned at birth: it’s about one’s internal sense of self as a man or a woman or neither or both.”
If there is one key takeaway from –Tomboy – perhaps it is that.
Selin Davis may have been spurred to write Tomboy because she is the parent of a girl who chose to betray traditional gender norms; however, I anticipate Selin Davis’s approach will appeal to all kinds of readers. Just shy of 270 pages, Tomboy can inform, educate and benefit many individuals, professionals, families and groups from human resource professionals to mental health advocates to those studying gender. I can also imagine Tomboy emerging as a favourite among book clubs because it is topical, multi-faceted, highly relatable and ripe for discussion.
As we aspire to greater understanding of human differences as part of more inclusive and diverse society, consider Tomboy – The Surprising History And Future Of Girls Who Date To Be Different – for your pandemic winter reading list.
(Wanda Deschamps is founder and principal of Liberty Co, a consultancy working to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce.)
Also reviewed by Wanda Deschamps
Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem November 9, 2020
The Conscious Creative: Creating your own values-driven practice October 6, 2020
The Power of Disability: A book about life, June 9, 2020