Tomboy: why its ok for a girl to be like a boy but not vice versa…

The movie Tomboy (released September 2011 in the UK) depicts a 10 year old girl who presents herself, physically and socially, as a boy. It has prompted at least one woman commentator (Stephanie Theobald) to reminisce about her own tomboy childhood. For sociologists, the movie and reactions to it, could be a useful teaching tool about the social construction of gender and concepts such as Connell’s  (1987) ‘gender hierarchy’. Theobald herself uses the idea of girls ‘passing’ themselves off as boys, offering a way in for students to Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodological account of gender via his case study of ‘Agnes’

Another useful teaching resource on the issue of the hierarchy of gender identities is the extract from Ian McEwan’s novel, The Cement Garden, spoken by the character Julie (aged 17) and also appearing at the beginning of Madonna’s song What it Feels Like for a Girl.

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, ‘cause its okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, ‘cause you think that being a girl is degrading”.

This gives expression to Thorne’s (1993) claim that girls who are tomboys gain benefit from associating with masculinity, but boys who behave or look like girls are ‘contaminated’ by their association with lesser valued femininity.

For sociological studies of tomboys, see Reay (2001) and the overview of research provided by Renold (2008)


Connell, R.W. (1987) Gender and Power, Cambridge: Polity

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood, Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Reay, D. (2001) ‘Spice Girls’, ‘Nice Girls’, ‘Girlies’, and ‘Tomboys’: Gender discourses, girls’ cultures and femininities in the primary classroom’ , Gender and Education, 13 (2).

Renold, E. (2008) ‘Tomboys’, in C. Mitchell and J. Reid-Walsh (Eds.), Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Thorne, B. (1993) Gender Play, Buckingham: Open University Press.