Lisa Selin Davis is sorry. Very sorry. In 2017, she wrote an op-ed titled “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She Is a Tomboy.” The woke Internet lost its collective mind and now Davis has written an entire book to apologize. Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different includes some interesting cultural anthropology, but mostly it is an exercise in trying to get herself back in the good graces of the Brooklyn neighbors she has offended.
In the original piece, she describes how many adults (including doctors and teachers) ask whether her seven-year-old daughter, who wears “track pants and T-shirts… has shaggy short hair” and “has friends who are mostly boys,” wants to identify as a boy. Davis gushes: “In many ways, this is wonderful: It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender nonconformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her—in the beginning.” But then, she adds, “when they continue to question her gender identity—and are skeptical of her response—the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.”
Davis’s article was widely shared, including among people who worry that the transgender movement is actually moving girls and women back to a pre-feminist state. All the cultural and legal work involved in ensuring, for instance, that women’s sports are a legitimate enterprise will unravel as boys and men will compete for those same titles. And all the work that went into assuring girls that they can be interested in areas that are traditionally male will be undone by the suspicion that girls with those interests are “really” boys.
Andrew Sullivan has noted a similar effect of the transgender movement on the logic of gay rights. He criticizes the current idea of “gender identity” because it relies on old-fashioned stereotypes. “A boy with a penchant for Barbies and Kens is possibly a trans girl—because, according to stereotypes, he’s behaving as a girl would,” he writes. “So instead of enlarging our understanding of gender expression—and allowing maximal freedom and variety within both sexes—the concept of ‘gender identity’ actually narrows it, in more traditional and even regressive ways.”
Such speculation has rendered Sullivan persona non grata in trans circles. And Davis doesn’t want to go down that road. She now realizes the error of her old ways. In the book, she writes: “While the piece expressed full support of trans kids, to many, the op-ed smacked of transphobia and ignorance.” Her critics, she says, suggested she “blamed adults’ narrow views of gender on the increasing visibility and acceptance of trans people.” Now she knows they are right: “I have since learned after two years of study, that conflating a young child’s desire for a haircut or a football with gender identity was very much the fall-out from a hyper-gendering childhood.”
She has consulted with a number of experts on gender identity as well as the University of New Hampshire’s “Bias-Free Language Guide.” So now she knows that the word “tomboy” is “problematic/outdated” and should be replaced by “children who are gender nonconforming, children who are gender variant.”
Gender nonconforming, she explains, “can include anyone of any gender, doing gender in all kinds of ways.” It is unfortunate that Davis has gone down this road because the question she asks in the beginning is actually an interesting one. For generations, American history and culture had a strong tradition of tomboys. From Jo in Little Women to Jo on The Facts of Life, we used to accept the idea that girls didn’t all have to dress like princesses.
Particularly as families left the stuffy East Coast and headed West, they could embrace a more “all hands on deck” attitude. The plucky stories of the tomboys in Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn have been passed down from mothers to daughters for generations. Think of Katharine Hepburn, who called herself Jimmy when she was a child, wore her brother’s clothes, and wished she was a boy because she thought “boys had all the fun.” Even as recently as the ’70s and ’80s, Davis rightly notes, there seemed to be many more tomboyish characters on television and in movies. Where is today’s version of Punky Brewster or The Bad News Bears?
Davis cites a survey from the 1970s noting that 78 percent of college women said they were tomboys growing up. Today, it is somewhere between a third and a half. What happened? When and why did being a tomboy become less cool? Davis blames capitalism and war. “During each war,” she writes, “economic times were tight, and women filled men’s roles while they went off to fight: War begat feminism. And often the children of feminists were raised as tomboys. But as money flowed into the economy and the middle class surged later in the twentieth century, more items were gendered. This serves two purposes: to sell twice as much stuff and to push women back into their places.”
The result, says Davis, was that the 1990s “produced the most hyper-gendered childhoods yet.” The explosion of pink things and princesses, well documented in Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is certainly the result in part of clever marketing. But the success of the marketing was not masterminded by corporate America’s male chauvinists. In fact, the success of princesses and Bratz dolls had just as much do to with changes in family expectations of children—ones largely pushed by feminists and other liberationist types.
Davis is right that girls and boys were once dressed in the same way when they were young and that it is only in more modern times that we have felt the need to make sartorial distinctions between them at younger ages. But that is at least in part the result of the fact that we treat children as small adults, able to make their own decisions about clothes and makeup and sexuality. This once meant that we were supposed to be lax about when they could go out on dates. But now it means that we allow nine-year-olds to decide when they need hormone therapy.
Back in the 1970s, most Americans were pretty content not to think of nine-year-olds as being sexual creatures at all. But today that’s no longer an option.
Which brings us back to Davis’s original conundrum. If talking about “tomboys” is problematic because doing so suggests that preferences such as dressing like a boy or wanting to play sports are not really part of a “gender identity,” then what exactly does it mean? And if she doesn’t want to live in a society where girls who have gender-nonconforming interests are not asked whether they want to be boys, then what exactly does she want?
The answer is just to get rid of these categories altogether: “What does it look like to physically transition from a woman, but not to become a man?” she wonders. Davis quotes approvingly from a gender theorist named Kate Bornstein about the non-gendered future she imagines: “Sure, some people will hew to the binary edges, but everybody else will be mixed together in gender soup, able to grab any ingredients they want from around the circle. Rather than see the in-between place as a no-man’s—no person’s—land, see it as a legitimate, healthy respectable spot.”
And those ingredients? Well, Davis breathlessly cites the director of a clinic who says they have “gender non-binary kids coming… asking for, for example, a touch of testosterone…. We have some young adults saying, ‘I just want my breasts removed. They don’t match who I am. I’m not a man. But I’m not a woman either.’” Chop off a little here, add a little there. Throw it all in the pot. What could go wrong?
At the end of her original op-ed, Davis defends her daughter, who she says is “happy with her body and comfortable with the way she looks.” She tells all the teachers and pediatricians and busybodies to back off when they are, in effect, asking whether her daughter would like to lop off any body parts or ingest life-altering drugs. If only she had done the same for the thousands of other children caught up in this madness, Tomboy wouldn’t be the intellectual calamity it is.
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