Monday, October 20, 2008

Confessions of a tomboy

By Molly Borowitz

When I was in tenth grade, my best friend at the time told me that her mom thought I was a lesbian.

We were at Kelly's house, gathered around the hot tub. My hair was wet, and I was wearing my purple-plaid flannel pajama pants embroidered with the Minnesota Vikings' logo. They were men's pants (I had another pair of Vikings pajama pants in purple satin, but they weren't warm enough for the chilly November evening), and I wore them very low on my hips, my hands plunged deep in the pockets and my shoulders hunched a little forward. That was my habitual stance, generally accompanied by a ponytail and chapstick. At fifteen, I had yet to own mascara, I hated wearing heels, and I watched ESPN instead of MTV. But given that Kelly – and her mom, who was often privy to our kitchen-table gossip sessions – had seen me through three or four different crushes on and a few brief relationships with boys in the past six months…well, I was slightly surprised.

"She thinks what?"

Just to clarify: the present company was all-female – just me and Kelly and Erica, another of our best friends from the JV volleyball team. We spent almost all of our time together during the winter of tenth grade, in very typical high-school-clique fashion. I wasn't embarrassed by Kelly's mom's assumption; I didn't blush, I didn't curse, and I didn't argue. And if I were lesbian, it would have been the perfect opportunity to tell my two best friends. But I wasn't, and as a high-school sophomore I was very afraid of labels. It had been hard enough to fit in after being labeled "the smart girl," and this new epithet seemed even more difficult to overcome.

"Well…you don't wear makeup and you kind of talk like a boy –" (this comment was relatively valid, since I spent the remainder of my time with computer nerds who talked in 1337 5p33k and cursed at their consoles when someone killed them in Counterstrike) "– and she says you carry yourself like a boy, and you stand like it, and stuff."

I took my hands out of my pockets and shifted my weight to one hip.

"Um…I mean, okay, I guess those things are kinda true. But how does that make me a lesbian?"

No response. Because both Kelly and Erica, bright and savvy young women that they were (and are), knew perfectly well that the two have very little to do with one another. They absolutely knew that my behavior and and my sexuality were not necessarily aligned, and they also knew that they were the first people to whom I would have come out. Yet despite their knowledge of these things, my personality and taste were still somehow subject to a larger, looming force; if my TV-show preferences or my lexicon didn't conform so neatly to the pre-packaged "feminine" gender role, the reason obviously had to be my sexuality.

Now, I understand the appeal of attributing someone's personality largely to her sexual preference; God knows it's easier to associate certain traits, characteristics, and preferences with sexuality than to actually get to know people. We like labels, we like categories, and we like having the power over others that they both afford us.

But what I'd really like to know is: whatever happened to the concept of being a tomboy? Remember that adorable little freckle-faced girl with braids and a baseball cap, the one who always shows up in movies like The Sandlot or The Little Rascals? Whatever happened to the girl who's interested in things other than Barbies, shoes, gossip, and boys? Now, I don't mean to belittle these interests – in fact, I share them – but I also think it's okay not to espouse those predetermined behaviors that Western society oh-so-subtly terms "ladylike." I burp, I fart, and I really like watching televised sports. Sue me.

As a self-defined tomboy, what confuses me more than anything is that it's not men who find us threatening. In fact, I got along much better with boys in high school because we had so much more in common. To guys, I was always that cool girl who knew stuff about sports, who wasn't disgusted by video games (although I have to confess that to this day I still totally suck at Halo), and who would rather play roller hockey in the parking lot than go to the mall. No, it was girls – or their mothers – who took issue with those traits, who lectured me because I didn't always sit with my legs crossed, wore a baseball cap backwards, or swore like the boys did.

But why should girls be more concerned than boys about maintaining the strict performativity of the feminine gender role? Whether I was lesbian or not, what sucks about this story is that, first, my friends tried to determine my sexuality by something as superficial as my habits; and second, they felt such an overwhelming need to label me. We (myself absolutely included) pass this judgment on other people all the time, practically without thinking, but it's worthwhile to remember that you can't determine someone's sexuality (a huge and significant part of her political, social, and cultural identity) on such an arbitrary basis, nor should you have to.

Look, ladies – if you consider yourselves (and I hope you do) equal to all the boys around you, then you have to learn to let it go. Being a tomboy – or a lesbian – does not prevent you in any way from being a woman.


At October 23, 2008 at 10:15 AM , Blogger lareprise said...

Point well taken. Yet Monique Wittig will beg to differ on this issue

Being a tomboy – or a lesbian – does not prevent you in any way from being a woman.

A lesbian is not a woman. She is super human, capable of breaking down gender barriers created within the heterosexual system of gender identification which denies girls the freedom to burp, fart and watch televised sports.
The question that I will raise is this: what is this womanhood, and is it something we truly seek to cling to?


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