But We Never Talk About “Tomgirls”: The Binary Breakdown Pt 1

The Gender Binary.  Before I can even start my new series, “The Binary Breakdown”, I feel like I should take a minute to talk about the gender binary, because as I am constantly reminded by friends of mine, not everyone can take gender studies classes.  SO.  What in the heck is it?  The gender binary is the idea that there are two distinct, opposed genders (male and female) that correlate with the biologically determined sexes.  Gender, to make this really clear, is socially constructed; it is the meaning that we give to one’s biological sex, and it is totally possible for people to identify with the gender that is not associated with their sex, leading to a transgendered status.  The fact that this is possible is related to the fact that the gender binary is a false binary: gender, especially as it intersects with sexuality, is not a case of black or white, but rather more of a grayscale.

Still with me?  I really hope so, because I’m about to get into how the gender binary impacts all of us in our daily lives: not just feminists, not just transgendered people, but every single one of us.

Now let me ask you a question: how many teenage boys do you know openly pursuing an interest in ballet?  How many girls do you know who play football?  Boys who cheerlead?  (You may actually know some male cheerleaders, it’s totally possible, that was the most likely of the three).

How many of the boys you thought of during that exercise have been teased or have had their sexuality questioned because of the activities they engaged in.  Yeah.  That’s what I thought.

The truth is, girls are more likely to break the rigidity of the gender binary and pursue male-gendered activities such as sports, martial arts, or the sciences.  Boys are less likely to cross that line to experiment with interests such as fashion, cooking, classical dance, or other female-gendered activities.  That’s why we get the term “tomboy” to describe girls who maybe dress in a less feminine style and pursue male-gendered interests, but we never really use a male equivalent, because it is considered less socially acceptable.

This will probably shock anyone who actually knows me, but I am going to give some unexpected applause here…to Disney.  That’s right, I said Disney, which is amazing because I love to look at the rigidity of the gender binary and antifeminist undertones in a lot of their movies (although they are starting to get better finally!), and I am giving them this thumbs up for their made-for-TV Disney Channel movie Eddie’s Million Dollar Cookoff, which is about a 14-year-old boy named Eddie who discovers he has a real passion for cooking but his dad, brothers, and peers all mock him for it, saying it’s a girl thing.  The movie does a great job questioning our concept of the gender divide, both with Eddie and with his friend Hannah, a softball player whose mom wants her to be a cheerleader.

But here’s my question to you: why is it that Eddie gets teased endlessly at school for cooking, but no one ever says a word to Hannah about playing softball?  Why is it more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to pursue…let’s call them “domestic” activities?

On her blog Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist, Danielle Burch recalls a conversation she had in middle school about who has it better, boys or girls (that hyperlink will take you right to her post), in which a female friend of hers stated that boys had it better, while Danielle pointed out that girls have more flexibility because they can dress like boys and pursue masculine interests.  She says that it wasn’t until later that she realized that boys may actually have it better, that the reason its stigmatized for a boy to pursue feminine interests is because being a girl is seen as being inferior.

I’m not saying that being a girl is in some way ACTUALLY inferior to being a boy.  But girls are less likely to have their sexuality questioned, and sexuality is even more intrinsically tied to notions of masculinity than it is to notions of femininity.  When girls test the limits of the gender binary, they are seen as “rising above”, “overcoming obstacles”, “proving their gender can do it”.  This is not how it is perceived for boys.  Although I seem to have lost my sociology notebook and misplaced my textbook from last semester and therefore can’t give you a proper citation for this, in a study a few years ago both women and men expressed the idea that men had it easier, whether it was because they felt the pressure to look perfect would be less, or because they knew men would have the higher salary, or whatever, the vast majority of participants stated that men do have a lot of advantages over women.


There have been some improvements, of course.  The stigma placed on men going into traditional “pink collar jobs” such as nursing and childcare is starting to decline, as male nurses and nannies become more accepted.  But when we still hear boys who are less athletic and more interested in things like apparel design called derogatory terms like “fag” (which I am only even saying here as an example, I think you all know I’d never actually use that word) in school, it makes it hard to say that boys can truly dapple in “girl” activities.  While women are banging at the door to the Old Boys Club, men are still studiously avoiding the sewing circles they’ve been warned away from for generations…because to them, to be feminine is to be the one thing a man should never be: weak.


~ by Randi Saunders on August 17, 2011.

2 Responses to “But We Never Talk About “Tomgirls”: The Binary Breakdown Pt 1”

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