The whole conversation started because I don’t like the word “tomboy.”
“Mommy,” my daughter Emilia said to me one day some months ago, “I think that I’m a tomboy.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I like a lot of things that boys like. I like basketball and motorcycles. I like surfing.” She thought about that for a minute. “I mean, girls like surfing too and lots of sports. And I like other things that girls like, like dolls. But mostly I like things that boys like. And Story (her best friend) is a boy. So. I think I’m a tomboy.”
“I wouldn’t call you a tomboy, sweetie. I think that you’re you. And you like a lot of different things, and they’re not just ‘boy things’ or ‘girl things,’ they’re things that you like.”
“But you could call me a tomboy.”
“But I wouldn’t.”
“But if you did ... ”
“I wouldn’t. And I won’t. I’ll just keep calling you Emilia.”
And that, I thought, was that. Conversation closed; no more talk of tomboys.
But then she asked me about it again, a few weeks later, after a friend (a girl) described her as a tomboy. And then a few weeks after that, she asked me what a “bad-ass” was. She had seen the word, underneath an Instagram photo of herself in dirt bike gear, on my phone. And then just a few days later still, she asked me whether Hilary Clinton is a bad-ass (“I think that she is one, Mommy.”) It wasn’t until we were well into a months-long conversation about all of these things that I realized we weren’t really talking about tomboys.
We were talking about feminism.
If you’d asked me, pretty much any time over the last 8 years or so, if I ever talked to my children about feminism — about girl empowerment, about gender equality, about gendered narratives in media, etc, etc — I’d have told you that I talked to them about it all the time. All the time. When we talked about why I wouldn’t buy Bratz dolls. When we talked about Jasper’s love for princesses. When we talked about Mommy going to work, and Daddy staying home. When we talked about a lot of things. But it wasn’t until Emilia demanded to know — in not these precise words — what it all had to do with her. With what it all has to do with who she is, and how she sees herself, and how others see her, and all the complicated questions in between.
I mean, look: by most conventional standards, Emilia is absolutely what is often called a tomboy. She does like things that are culturally coded as ‘boy things.’ She likes sports, she likes adventure, she likes action; she’s all skinned knees and torn pants and messy hair. She surfs, she skateboards, she rides a dirtbike (which she insists is a motorcycle, because "motorcycles are cool, Mommy.") There are some quote-unquote girl things that she likes — interfere with her American Girl dolls and she’ll cut you — but she enjoys those “girl things” in a context that is, for lack of a proper term, gender-complicated. Her favorite American Doll sits in a doll-sized wheelchair because “she hurt herself on her motorcycle.” Her princess costumes are worn with skate shoes and Buzz Lightyear wings. Taylor Swift concert stickers decorate the bottom of her skateboard.
We used to call girls like Emilia "tomboys." But I hate that word, because it implies that a girl (or woman, for that matter) who does not conform to girl-coded cultural stereotypes is not only not really a girl, but somehow a kind of a boy. It tells girls (and boys, and women, and men) that there is a right way of being a girl, and a wrong way of being a girl, and if you’re the "wrong’" kind of girl, then actually you’re more of a boy. That’s messed up, when you think about it. And that is why I told her that I would never call her a tomboy. I told her that I would never call her a "tomboy" because I didn’t like comparing her to boys. I told her that I didn’t like thinking of things as "boy things" and "girl things" and that I certainly didn’t like any suggestion that "boy things" were somehow better. I told her that there was a long history in the world of "girl things" being treated as less important than "boy things" and that that was a problem for everyone, and not just girls.
“Because what happens if you’re a boy — like Jasper — and you like kittens and My Little Pony and people say that’s bad or silly or wrong?”
“You feel bad.”
It really is as reductive as that, I think, when it comes to discussing why gender stereotyping is a problem: it makes people feel bad. It makes them feel limited. It constrains their own understanding of their horizons of possibility. It tells them, you have to fit inside these boxes, and don’t you dare step out of line. And it does this to girls and to boys, to women and to men. It does this to children and to adults alike. It’s bad for everybody.
Which is why feminism is for everybody, although I didn’t say it to Emilia in exactly those terms. If feminism can be understood, in part (I don’t pretend to be able to explain it in whole, to my children or to anyone else), as a commitment to and/or belief in allowing everybody the freedom to define who they are — and to direct their life on the basis of that definition — without restriction by conventions of gender, then, yes, it’s for everybody. It’s especially for children, when you define it even partially that way, because that’s what childhood is about: discovering yourself and defining yourself. Crafting your own story about yourself, and telling that story, and then changing that story and telling it differently, and then doing the same thing again, and again, and again. Such that having access to the fullest range of possibilities — liking pink AND brown, sharks AND kittens, princesses AND pirates, ballet AND baseball — matters tremendously. The scope of who our children can be narrows or widens depending on the degree to which we do or do not challenge gender stereotypes.
It’s why fighting the pink aisle matters. It’s why demanding more women (and more women of different cultures and colors and body types and abilities) in media matters. It’s why pushing for more women in leadership positions in politics and business matters. It’s why celebrating women in sport and in STEM — and men who stay at home or become nurses or teachers — matters. It’s why talking about this stuff with our kids matters. So that they know that they should not feel limited by their gender when they think about who they are and when they dream about what they could become. So that they can grow up believing that all things are possible, and fighting (because it does still require a fight) for all those possible things.
This, then, is why I never use the word "tomboy" with Emilia. Because she’s not a tomboy. She’s so much more than any one type, never mind a gendered one. She’s a girl, sure, but she is, to borrow from Whitman, large and contains multitudes.
And because we talk about that, she knows it. That’s feminism. That’s our feminism, anyway.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
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Catherine Connors is a recovering academic, practicing writer, amateur entrepreneur, and professional mother. She's the former editor in chief of Babble, longtime author of the blog Her Bad Mother, and the founder of Demeter Media, a research and media development company aimed at creating and promoting more gender-authentic content and platforms for women and girls. She lives with her husband and two feminists-in-training in Los Angeles.