Tomboys: Performing gender in popular fiction




Fictional tomboys, gender performativity, popular fiction, sexuality, tomboy narrative


In the nineteenth century, new characters exploded onto the pages of popular novels: forthright, self-reliant and self-aware girls who became known as tomboys. Like Jo March storming through the pages of Little women, these brave and boisterous young women charmed and astonished readers, and profoundly influenced generations of girls. This article examines the impact of the tomboy in literature, its confluence with other, older, archetypes such as the cross-dressing warrior maid, and its development alongside other proto-feminist heroines of the nineteenth century: the Female Gentleman and the Plucky Girl. The article interrogates not only the character traits of fictional tomboys, but also the narrative arcs and tropes with which they were often associated, such as the Tamed Tomboy, who, like Jo March, comes to learn the real meaning of womanhood, as defined through her mother and sisters, in marriage; and the Incorrigible Tomboy, like George in the Famous five books, who resists all efforts to be treated ‟like a girl”. The article further explores the continued relevance of these famous nineteenth- and twentieth-century tomboys, whose performances of gender and sexuality echo in recent fiction for children and young adults through characters such as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger games trilogy, the genderfluid Micah in Justine Larbelestier's Liar, or overtly queer heroines such as Kaede in Malinda Lo's Huntress. What has the tomboy in literature meant to twenty-first century understandings of gender performativity? And, importantly, what stories about gender – what possible lives – do these characters construct for the young women who read them?