Raise a gender non-conforming child long enough, and you develop set ways of explaining them to people who don’t really get it. One of mine is that Eli is basically the gender flip of a “tomboy.” And I challenge people who have an issue with Eli by asking why they don’t have issues with “tomboys,” and why is it that we don’t have a non-pejorative word for the other gender equivalent of it?
I maintain that it’s about misogyny: We see it as funny or badass, or the subject of a great movie or TV show, to have a girl character who acts like a boy, but we see it as weird and perverse or in some cases immoral to have a male character who gives up his masculine glory to want to be, dress, or present more feminine.
That’s saying male characteristics are inherently more aspirational and valuable. Of course girls want them! Why would a boy give them up?
Don’t believe language is that big of a signifier of what our culture values and tolerates? Consider a recent study published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity proved this on a statistical level. It showed that parents are more comfortable with their girls being gender non-conforming than their boys, and attempted to change their boys’ behavior more often. The researchers were suprised that both moms and dads equally tried to change their non-conforming sons behavior. We know the disastrous impact of this when it comes to mental health and suicide.
What’s even sadder? This finding: “Although initially researchers presumed parents’ warmth toward their children would be an indicator of acceptance of gender-nonconforming behavior, the study shows otherwise. Parents who report greater warmth also say they make more attempts to change their child’s behavior if it does not align with societal expectations. Researchers attribute this result to parents’ belief that intervening in such behavior is a good thing, not a negative reaction.”
This only deepens my belief that language both reflects and shapes cultural “norms.” Eli has literally been bullied by tomboys at school for wanting to dress like and play like the opposite of his gender at birth—the exact same thing they are doing.
So I’ve been trying to decide for a few days now how I feel about this article on the Girl Scouts website called “It’s time to stop calling her a tomboy.”
It’s not a bad point the article makes: That we’re so struck when a girl is outdoorsy or into sports that we have to find a way as labeling her as a boy.
On the other hand, in some ways I find the label progressive. It has given a culturally acceptable name to girls who want to represent along a more fluid gender spectrum. Moms of tomboys may feel differently. As the mom of a son who doesn’t have a non-pejorative word for who he is, I’m envious of the label. If I say my son is gender-fluid, it’s at least a 30-minute conversation. If you say a daughter is a tomboy, people just smile and think of the movie My Girl.