Investigating the Tomboy Spectrum
By Guest Blogger, Clare Marie Myers
Last summer, Qwear published a piece in response to a reader qweary asking "What is tomboy style, and how is it similar to and different from butch style?" A few days later, the piece was republished on Autostraddle, prompting a lengthy and thoughtful comment thread that included some of the original writers. (You should read them now. Go ahead. I can wait.)
As a follow up, I want to look more closely at the spectrum and boundaries of tomboy style, and specifically where queer tomboy style is located with respect to other queer style-identities. Two common threads within the Aesthetics of Masculinity piece were a) that tomboy style is younger/less mature than butch style, and b) that tomboy style is more feminine than butch style. But these are not the same, and it’s unclear if they’re even compatible. Blake’s appraisal of tomboy style as “a continuation of that phase that was supposed to end before high school” is very different from Rae’s “tomboy style is when my girlfriend borrows [a chambray shirt and jeans] from me on a Sunday.” One is this:
and the other is this:
Can such distinct styles both be called tomboy? If so, what ties them together? Are they two discrete types of tomboy, or two ends the same spectrum?
The more images I collected, the more I noticed that what the Internet calls tomboy style (and on top of that, what I specifically read as queer tomboy style) falls along both the masculine-feminine spectrum, and what I’ll call the relaxed-refined spectrum.
As I began to separate the images into relaxed (skate park/picnic/dive bar wear), smart (“Could I wear this to work at a bookstore?”) and refined (“Is this too fancy to wear to work at a bookstore?”) I noticed something else that surprised me — though maybe it shouldn’t have. Most of the Relaxed Tomboys read as masculine-of-center or simply center, while the Smart Tomboys leaned more feminine-of-center. (The first is closely related to the established term “tomboi,” the second to “tomboy-femme.”)
Some Relaxed Tomboys (including celebrity crush):
Some Smart Tomboys (including celebrity crush):
(Refined Tomboy, if such a thing really exists, turns out to be Advanced Studies, so I’ll leave it alone for now.)
While I’d intended to examine tomboy as it related to itself, the more I looked, the harder it was to ignore its relationship with the “mature masculinity” of butch. Step away from butch in the direction of youthfulness OR step away in the direction of femininity, and you will land on tomboy. In my head it looks something like this:
As someone who finds tomboy identify and tomboy style so important and empowering, it’s uncomfortable to look at it this way—as mitigated, “lesser” masculinity. (There is also the problem that, as tomboy moves up and to the right, into the “smart/refined-feminine” space, it becomes even more the purview of thin, mostly white bodies — at least, this is the imagery that constantly cycles around the Internet, shared because it is valued and valued because it is shared.)
But perhaps it’s the fluidity of tomboy style — this not-one-thing-or-the-other-ness — that makes it so powerful. Some of the looks I connect with most come from somewhere between the masculine scrappiness of relaxed tomboy/tomboi and the feminine tweediness of smart tomboy/tomboy-femme. (Some favorites, including celebrity crush):
Sean (who previously went by A.D.) points out that tomboy style is “unapologetically itself.” It doesn’t need to ask permission, and at its best, actually creates permission. It allows for movement within itself (it’s the Ellen Page case: at her scruffiest and at her sleekest, she is always a tomboy); it allows others to come and go: some tomboys might be butch at work, others femme when they date. It is — or at least it should be —not policed and open to everyone. It is a blazer one day and a snapback the next, or even better, both at once: