Tomboys: Supporting evidence

Since I reference all of these great tomboys in culture in my recent article for Film Comment, I thought I’d provide the results of my research. This was a fun one.

My main focus was on Candleshoe.

Paper Moon was the more obvious choice, which is why I didn’t “go for it.” Also, I saw Candleshoe as a child. I’m not sure, but I am fairly certain it is the first movie I saw in the theatre as a child. It was the same year as Star Wars, which was the first time I saw a movie multiple times in the theatre. I did not see Paper Moon when it first came out. Too grownup. Candleshoe was “for me.” It was a Disney movie. I have not seen it since. The only image I remembered from it was children sliding across a slippery floor in a huge mansion. It was so much fun watching it again. It’s fantastic.

Then, of course, Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. She’s almost as influential in the Tomboy Realm as Jo March in Little Women.

Tatum O’Neal again in Bad News Bears. GOD, she was so aspirational in that.

I followed her example. I was the only girl on my Little League team. There were no girls league, are you kidding me? I’m Gen X, baby. I was like, “Eff this, I’m joining the boys.” Give me 10 more years and there’d be girls’ sports leagues. But in the meantime, I made do.

Little Darlings deserves more space and discussion. I only referenced it briefly. But it’s so interesting, so deep – surprisingly deep. Tatum O’Neal, just three years before, was a scrappy pre-teen on a baseball mound. Here, she is full teenager, and now she has segued into more ladylike behavior, and she does NOT play the “tomboy” role, but the prissy romantic role. Kristy McNichol plays the teenage version of the tomboy, the tough-talking chain-smoking tough chick, even MORE aspirational than tomboy children. She is so so good in this. What a treat to watch it again.

Linda Manz is a huge figure in the Tomboy Hall of Fame. I didn’t see Days of Heaven or Out of the Blue when they came out. Again, I was a child.

Days of Heaven

But I DID see her in a television movie called Orphan Train, playing a child prostitute on the streets of 1880s New York, and she made a HUGE impression. I clocked her instantly as my “type.”

I loved Orphan Train so much I wrote a novelization of it. I posted excerpts here years ago.

I did supporting research on the history of the tomboy in American culture by reading Michelle Ann Abate’s Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. I had my own icons, and it was fun to see them all show up in this book, but boy she has done her research. It’s a deep topic, and she really gives a sense of how the culture treats “tomboys,” and how they are coded queer (it wasn’t about that for me, but I get it was about that for many), and how the queerness was submerged, coming out in pulpy ways in the conformist 50s, and the whole intense mind-fuck of female friendships. (I mean, they’ve never been mind-fuck-y for me. I have great girlfriends, and they are intimate important relationships in my life. But as an archetype, and as commentary on the culture, female friendships have taken on many different forms, and often there’s a buried lesbian subtext, which Abate gets into with some depth.) I am very grateful for all of her meticulous research and footnotes and examples. It really helped contextualize my own personal experience of these 1970s tomboy films. My concern, though, was how these tomboys “made it” as adults. Could my tomboy self still go on to have a normal dating/sex/romantic life – with men? Or … would I have to do like Olivia Newton-John in Grease? Jo March didn’t marry Laurie, her good pal. So … what happens to the straight tomboy?

Can’t she get the man she wants? Or is part of being the tomboy means being alone, singular? These were urgent questions to me as a girl. When my boobs started “coming in” I slept on my stomach, hoping that I could stop the development. I put an Ace bandage around my chest to flatten them down. I had so many boy friends. I loved playing with them. I knew how things changed when girls got older. I saw it all around me. I wasn’t ready to let that go and “become” a real girl. You see how deep these things go. I did make it through. I wore boy’s clothes – or, men’s clothes, really – in high school. I raided my dad’s closet for his big dress shirts, his blazers, which I would embellish with safety pins and Band-Aids (a strange trend at my school). I did my own thing. Eventually, in my 20s, I burst out of my chrysalis, during the riot grrrl years – a continuation of the tomboy thing really – only in an adult vein – where I wore basically baby-doll nighties in public, complete with gigantic combat boots. It was a good era. You could wear flannel, jeans, and Doc Martens and be considered sexy. I have never shaved my armpits. I didn’t give it a second thought then. Neither did M. (Window-Boy). I don’t even remember being anxious about it. But M. wasn’t squicky about anything having to do with a woman’s body. It was all good to him. (Bless him.) I wasn’t conscious of any of this at the time, really. I had my neuroses but “who I am in the world as a woman” wasn’t one of them. I lived a bohemian life, and I was not on the normal track for women. It wouldn’t be until much later that I questioned some of my choices, and regretted them. But still, I wasn’t like, “Oh, I miss my tomboy self.” I’ve always been independent and I am impervious to peer pressure. Harriet the Spy was ALWAYS my idol. I basically still dress like her.

A movie that addresses the tomboy segueing into adulthood is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s fantastic Love & Basketball. How fun it was to re-visit this one. You should see it if you haven’t. It’s so REAL. It’s COMPLEX and everyone gets to be complex. It’s so good, and Sanaa Lathan is a favorite of mine.

Where are we now with the tomboy? She’s still among us. I reference Olivier Assayas’ brilliant Personal Shopper, with Kristen Stewart as a very NOW type of “tomboy”. The word isn’t helpful anymore, I suppose, and she doesn’t identify that way. But she’s in flux, she’s in-between, she’s boy-girl. It’s a fascinating exploration of fluidity, with the perfect Patron Saint of fluidity, Kristen Stewart.

Final reference from the article: Emily Bronte’s wonderful clarion-call of independence, her poem “Often Rebuked.”

I absorbed these tomboy films. I was liberated by them. By Harriet the Spy, too. I started keeping a journal because of Harriet the Spy. She helped make me who I am today.

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2 Responses to Tomboys: Supporting evidence

  1. It’s amazing how swiftly changes were happening in the 70s. I played my last Little League game in the spring of 1973. We moved in the summer of 1974. At that moment the idea that a girl would play in our league was beyond comprehension. It wasn’t that anybody objected, it was that nobody dreamed it possible the subject would ever come up. I came back to visit in the summer of 76 and one of my best friend’s little sisters was playing first base…on the All Star Team.

    For what it’s worth, the tomboy movies weren’t just a big deal to girls. The Bad News Bears ended up being my generation’s collective autobiography (at least as far as “the childhood years” went!) and you hit on a bunch of my big favorites. I think one of the reasons my mother laughed so hard when we saw Candleshoe in the theater was it reminded her of herself, growing up in the twenties and thirties. Hope that spirit is still alive out there…I don’t get out much anymore!

    Best as always Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      NJ – // I came back to visit in the summer of 76 and one of my best friend’s little sisters was playing first base…on the All Star Team. //

      Ha! That’s awesome! Yes, a lot of upheaval at the time, which I had no idea about – I kind of wish I had kept up with baseball. I enjoyed it – and I always got hits! I sucked on defense, but I had an almost perfect batting average, at least in terms of making contact with the ball.

      and yes, I know the tomboy movies had an effect on boys too – which is always good. If anything, the sexes are even more divided now. It’s a weird thing. “movies for girls” “movies for boys” – it’s so limiting.

      // I think one of the reasons my mother laughed so hard when we saw Candleshoe in the theater was it reminded her of herself, growing up in the twenties and thirties. //

      That’s so great!! I can’t tell you how much fun it was to see it again. I haven’t seen it since I was a small child – literally – and it really held up. I didn’t have to adjust my expectations, or try to figure out why on earth this had moved me so much back then. It’s great fun!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, as always!

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