I Am Not a Tomboy

by Adrien

I grew up in my big brothers’ hand-me-downs, and had short hair until I was older. I spent a significant amount of time with my brothers, but I am not a tomboy. I always get the same reaction in divulging the existence of my two elder brothers: “That makes so much sense.” Following this reaction is an explanation that my sense of humour, assertiveness, span of interests, and general demeanor is “boyish.”

I personally attribute many of these qualities as learned from my mother. My mom left home when she was 17, putting herself through college, finding a career, and starting a family. She got divorced, subsequently starting over as a single mom. She was often forced to rely solely on herself in a largely patriarchal society. She raised me to be capable of the same.

Despite what some call “boyish” qualities, my mother and I shared something apart from the boys. We took “girl time,” went on our own adventures, and talked about issues we could not discuss with the boys. As much as these are meaningful, deeply personal experiences for me, I also understand how Feminism through Practice and Poststructuralist theorists can explain our roles as “strong women” with “boyish” qualities alongside our exclusively “female” experiences together.

Feminist Theory highlights our experiences as gendered[1]. Although this theory can be unpacked further, suffice it to say that the social hierarchy of male dominance has impacted both my mother and myself to exhibit “boyish” behaviour in the public sphere, and to look down upon hyper-”female” behaviour. Insofar as Practice Theory notes there is a difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, the way we act in public does not always carry over to our private “mother-daughter” endeavours. Practice Theorists such as Lila Abu-Lughod would distinguish our performances of boyishness as agency to retain some authority and validity within a patriarchal hegemony, as distinct from our “girlish” alliance in private[2].

Poststructuralism would deconstruct these mother-daughter outings as a form of resistance through discourse[3]. Poststructuralism highlights political, economic, and social structures as enforcers of power. Social structures and discourses are observable through verbal and nonverbal means. My brothers and father never actively seized power over us, and often our “performance” of boyishness left us with some matriarchal clout[4]. Despite this, I found myself confronted with extra rules and earlier curfews than my brothers. Although my mother confronted my father if she vehemently disagreed with his reasoning, she allowed many unequal regulations because I was “her little girl.” Poststructuralism highlights that this discourse is nonetheless consenting to the system of power[5].

The final aspect of Poststructuralism worthy of discussing is the idea of truth and how it unfolds under systems of power[6]. I suspect that it is due to social assumptions of patriarchy in western American society that my mother is not the assumed inceptive force of my independent demeanor, diverse interests, and wacky sense of humour. Instead, I propose that my society’s chosen truth runs patrilineally, and therefore my brothers must give me my “boyish” characteristics rather than my mom.


[1] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 07 October 2015.

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. University of California Press: 1986, p. 30

[3] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532663/Poststructuralism, accessed 09 November 2015.

[4] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 12 October 2015.

[5] http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532663/Poststructuralism

[6] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 11 November 2015.

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22 Responses to I Am Not a Tomboy

  1. Emma Metz says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog. I found many similarities between my family dynamic and your family dynamic. I also have two older brothers. I am not a tomboy, but I do speak my mind and I have strong opinions. I share these qualities with my older brothers. These qualities reflect dominance are considered normal for males. When I show these qualities I am not considered a tom-boy, but instead I am called a Diva or told to stop being sassy. For example, it is a Sunday night and my family is deciding where to go to dinner. I speak up and say I do not want Thai food. One of my brothers will then call me high maintenance. If the same brother disagrees with the restaurant choice, he would not be considered high maintenance.

  2. I would just like to start by saying that this essay was fantastically written, I really enjoyed reading it. It is sad, yet true in our world today, that your mom leaving home and creating a successful life for yourself at such a young age would seem ‘boyish’ or something that a man would do just because women are classified as followers and incapable of making something of themselves by themselves. As you said Poststructuralism would see your ‘girlish’ mother daughter outings as a form of resistance through discourse, but you and your mom were not trying to make a point or prove anything, it was just what you wanted to do, you did not have to prove or fight back against anything. Your essay was the perfect way of telling society that you and your mom both made up your own minds and created your own paths not because of what society was telling you but because it was what you wanted and just how life worked its self out, it was very interesting and a great point.

  3. Cierra Russ says:

    I think it is interesting you bring up this idea of qualities like assertiveness and certain interests being “boyish” because it is true, everything is gendered and we classify each quality into the binary categories of “male/masculine” and “female/feminine.” An interesting point off of this idea is that feminists advocate for the equality of women, yet the way women often strive to reach this equality is through the development of more “masculine” characteristics. The simple categorization of these attributes aids in maintaining hegemony and inequality. Furthermore, I also like how you talked about getting these qualities from your mother, not your brothers, but that because we live in a patriarchal society it is assumed you received them from the males in your family. I think this is an fascinating point, that even characteristics can be inherited patrilineally.

  4. Meryl Balusek says:

    I really agreed with what Adrien said regarding practice theory. The display of boyishness that both her and her mom display must come from the lack of a male authority figure in the family. Our society, as much as we do not want to believe, is definitely patriarchal, so raising a family with the absence of a father makes more of an impact, and would make the women of the family want to show more authority and prove that they are strong and able to live and support themselves without a male figure present. I definitely think that analyzing this family through the eyes of a practice theorist is an interesting and accurate way of looking at it. Being a “girly-girl” raising children without a husband seems less likely, as well as with being a “girly-girl” surrounded by all brothers and a single mother.

  5. Faisal Lalani says:

    The first thing I thought of reading your intro paragraph was practice theory. Sure enough, you tied it in, and well I might add. What stands out to me is when you called those qualities you possessed “boyish.” It’s interesting that we can find a specific kind of humor to be “boyish,” or the fact that having an assertive nature makes you “boyish.” And in a negative context no less! Reading your paper (which was well-written by the way), I noticed how those boyish qualities seem to resemble some sort of disease that you and your mother tried to get rid of during your times alone. But it is present. This division is something real and you proved it with one of your last examples stating how your mother might let you stay up later than your brothers because you were her little girl.

  6. Natalia Sabadell says:

    This essay is very well written and was enjoyable to read. I especially like it because I am able to relate. I have two older brothers and a very opinionated family so I have some of those “boyish” qualities as well. I agree with your thought that these qualities help retain authority and validity within a patriarchal hegemony. Its great how you look up to your mom and the things she has accomplished.

  7. Nicole Mattson says:

    I thought this paper was well written and very insightful! I like how you tied together feminist anthropology, practice theory, and postructuralism. Particularly at the end, the conclusion you draw linking how we can look at feminist theory through a postructuralist lens is wonderful. I would have never thought to consider the idea in this case of how our patriarchal society has influenced the establishment of this “truth” that it is your brothers who have given you these “boyish” qualities, as opposed to the subjugated knowledge that you really feel as though you have primarily been influenced by your mother.

  8. comc9215 says:

    The first thing I would like to comment on, and very positively in fact, is the thought and intelligence you conveyed in your writing style itself. For me, it helped your argument seem much more compelling just reading it from a source that sounded more than just an assignment. On top of that, the material within your blog is a very interesting way of approaching and viewing the certain way we consider Masculine/Feminine aspects of behavior in modern America, raising the idea that you gained “masculine” traits not from your brothers or father, but from your mother.

  9. Francesca DeCarlo says:

    This essay was incredible tactfully written while still being easy to follow. I loved the writers employment of Feminist Theory, Practice Theory, and Poststrucuralism, highlighting the fluidity of the theories and how they are interconnected. The theory, however, that I most identified within this particular topic is Practice Theory. For the writer, her agency is to act as a Tomboy within a Patriarchal society. What I thought was interesting was that, as I read the paper and through introspection, I too find agency within this Patriarchal society, but in a very different way. I am a blonde, girly, sorority-involved, member of society and proud of it. I’m also proud of my other unique qualities–that I am often complimented on my intelligence, that I love school and learning new things, and will always push myself to excel in scholarly realms and hope to some day accomplish great things to add value to the world. The first qualities I listed about myself I feel are often patronized, so much so, that I feel as though sometimes it clouds and complicates my other qualities that I mentioned second. Being naturally very feminine and, quite frankly, the girliest of girls, my agency is being able to persevere through school and work hard in all of my classes in the hopes of someday having an elite job. Although Patriarchal society may not expect this from me, my agency helps me to work through these normative systems and be able to express myself, just as being a tomboy enables the writer in the same way.

  10. Marin Anderson says:

    There are many double standards in our society. If a woman speaks her mind, she’s deemed a bitch, if a man speaks his mind, he’s deemed a boss. It’s highly unfair and something that females have to live with day in and day out. I really enjoyed reading about your personal experiences with this. You’re a great writer.

  11. Anna Bockhaus says:

    First off, great essay! I really liked how you took qualities of your personality that you attribute to learning from you mother, and reclaim them as feminine when they are usually thought to be masculine. I think that’s important in a society like ours that tends to value traditionally masculine characteristics (in men) over feminine. You advocate that women come in many shapes and sizes, so to speak, and having qualities that some think as masculine do not make you “boyish” but are what make you “girlish.” Well done. 🙂

  12. danisilverstein says:

    I would like to first say that the way you wrote this blog post was extremely well done and very intriguing. Right from the start, I thought of practice theory and I enjoyed how you tied that in. It makes sense because of your personal experiences that you may seem “boyish” to some. When you grow up surrounded by brothers and only have your “girl time” rarely with your mother, you are going to pick up actions that the surrounding males, in this case your brothers, partake in. I grew up in a home with just my older sister and my mom and having any guy around whether it have been a brother or my dad was in the picture, the way I act would probably be altered. Overall, great post!

  13. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    This article was very well written and an interesting read because I was able to connect with it. Although I did not have brothers growing up, I had a very “girly” sister and we were and still are polar opposites. Growing up, the majority of my friend groups were all boys, I played with cars and video games, which most people didn’t think a little girl should be doing. Through my life I was called a tom-boy on a daily basis with a negative feeling attached to it. This made me want to go out and do “girlish” things with my mom and sister like shopping or getting nails done, even though this didn’t make me happy. Also, similarly to the first comment, I was always degraded by my “girly” sister when I was okay with getting dirty or hiking or doing other more “masculine” activities. I really liked how you used your own personal experiences in your article and how you used feminist anthropology to show how no matter how women act or behave in society, we are often discriminated for our choices.

  14. Molly Mallgraf says:

    Very well written and composed article; I think you’re strong stance and approach to the way you are looked at is great. You’re tone and breakdown of people’s reaction to your personality show you have a strong sense of who you are and I think that’s great. Your last point about societal truth I feel could be applied to the whole thesis of your article. The fact that qualities you and/or your mother possess are distinguished as “boyish” in the first place shows that society has preset notions of characteristics being boy like or girl like. I think its a bit ridiculous that in todays society that a “tom boy” is even still a talked about phrase. A girl can act or present herself however she pleases and will STILL be a girl, and vice versa for men.

  15. Jack Seaton says:

    This was a very articulate paper, I enjoyed reading it and understanding where you have come from. The way you said people and society break you down as a tom boy is not defining towhee you are. The way you used poststructuralism and how it breaks down under a higher power is interesting. The social systems in the current united states is based off of “social norms” but it is a hegemonic society where their are many differences in people.

  16. Paul Fox says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog because it is so relevant to how people act today when deciding how to associate people. For example, my brother is younger, and if he does something wrong that I also do, I get more criticism for it than him even though he knows he shouldn’t do it as much as I do. People make hasty judgements and I like that the author exposed that using the theories we have learned in class.

  17. Elizabeth Williamson says:

    I really enjoyed reading your essay and relating this to my own experiences. I thought that your approach to the practice theory of feminine anthropology was very well detailed. My favorite part was your “performances of boyishness as agency to retain some authority and validity within a patriarchal hegemony, as distinct from our “girlish” alliance in private”. This mention of strong agency that is so often overlooked as an equal counterpart to masculinity but has such a strong presence in our society.

  18. beel9934 says:

    I enjoyed your merging of poststructuralism and feminist theory, while these are two approaches that usually go together/overlap I think your discussion on being perceived as “boyish” paired with your more traditional mother-daughter relationship brought in the complicated dual expectations inherent to the patriarchal system. I also liked your account of your mothers past and how, contrary to the believe that your older brothers shaped your “tom boy” appearance, it was her history of being independent/self reliant that shaped you the most

  19. Patrick Ingram says:

    I really enjoyed how you looked at this. the use of feminist theory in this topic is perfect. As I am a boy I very had an experience that wasn’t boyish and i thought the fact that you compared this to your mother-daughter relationship was awesome. Good work, it was a very interesting read. I also thought your writing style help make your point very easily understandable.

  20. Phoebe Holasek says:

    I thought this was a really cool take on a common misconception of what it is to be a “tomboy”. Somehow being strong, outspoken, independent when coupled with jeans and a T-shirt is seen as means to question ones femininity – as if being a girl is defined by being quiet and well dressed. I was always called a “tomboy” growing up and I took it as a compliment because I didn’t want to be seen as a helpless little girl. I realize after reading this article that I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss “being a girl” in exchange for “being a tomboy”. You shouldn’t have to label yourself as more boy-like in order to gain respect or authority.

  21. Priya Byati says:

    This essay was written beautifully. I loved how you took on the perception how attitudes and personalities on even the most basic level is gendered, and where you obtained the “tomboyishness” is attributed patrilineally. You tied in practice theory into your essay, and reading other people’s comments, I wonder would it be your agency to act tomboyish even though you a girl in a patrilineal society, or would it be considered agency to act “girly” despite your “tomboyish” nature?

  22. Sam Freund says:

    Very powerful, are there any things from your life a symbolic anthropologist might see as significant in you’re development of these qualities?

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