The Tomboy and the Girly-Girl

TV Tropes notes a common dichotomy between two distinct types of heroines in fiction: the Tomboy and the Girly-Girl. It’s not quite an unfavorite trope of mine, but I do find it problematic, as it measures female characters’ personalities against a masculine norm: how “like a man” are they or aren’t they? Jo March, heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (and one of my favorite characters from children’s literature) is a classic tomboy because she enjoys masculine pursuits and likes dressing up in trousers to play the male lead in the theatricals she and her sisters perform. Her sister Amy, by contrast, is the girly-girl with stereotypically feminine concerns like appearance and fashion and social standing. Nearly every reader of Alcott’s novel comes away admiring Jo and feeling impatient with Amy. In this as in most stories, the tomboy is drawn as more admirable and sympathetic — the “strong female character,” as opposed to the more passive and shallow girly-girl.

I admit I share the general preference. I always appreciate heroines with a touch of the tomboy about them, particularly in fantasy fiction. Tomboys, with their preference for trousers over skirts, are more mobile, more physically active and vigorous, which makes them better suited to participate in the action and adventure of the typical fantasy novel, while girly-girls, with their restrictive clothing and physical fragility, tend by practical necessity to occupy the periphery of such stories. In relation to male characters, the tomboy is often the ally, the respected comrade-in-arms, while the girly-girl is the distant love interest, the girl worth fighting for, the Ideal rather than the real. What female reader wouldn’t rather see herself as an active participant in a story’s most pivotal events than as a bystanding object of worship? (Wait — don’t answer that.)

Another point in the tomboy’s favor: tomboys defy rules. Few things win our sympathy more quickly than rebellion against unreasonable authority, including restrictive gender rules designed to extinguish any spark of individualism lurking in a woman’s heart and mind. These gender roles, as I’ve noted before, appear ad nauseum in second-world fantasy, despite the freedom novelists have to build their worlds from the ground up; accordingly, the genre needs tomboys who look out for ways to overcome or circumvent those wearisome “women-can’t-do-X” prescriptions. Tomboys are fighting for their chance to be who they are. Who wouldn’t root for that?

Yet tomboys can be easy characters to get wrong in a crucial way. With her embrace of individuality over convention, the tomboy can be a rewarding feminist heroine, but because she gravitates toward masculine interests and pursuits, in the hands of a less astute writer she opens the door to the anti-feminist “Not Like Other Girls” trope. Even talented writers can be guilty of this, as the first example that leaps to my mind is Arya Stark, the popular tomboy character from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, who scornfully dismisses all conventionally feminine girls and women as “stupid.” At least in Arya’s case, the wider narrative does not affirm this sweeping dismissal, but such statements are common ones for tomboy heroines to make. In too many stories where they feature, more feminine characters appear as one-dimensional foils, either feather-witted, catty, or both, completely deserving of the tomboy’s disdain. The more aligned to the masculine a girl or woman is, the “better” she is — more courageous, more competent. Not exactly the most feminist of messages.

The tomboy heroines I appreciate most are the ones who befriend other women, including (sometimes especially) the “girly” ones. I’ve mentioned Starhawk, the warrior heroine of Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, as a favorite, both because she’s an unquestioned badass and because she lifts other women, the feminine Fawn (her romantic rival) in The Ladies of Mandrigyn and the more tomboyish Tazey in The Witches of Wenshar; in both cases, her friendship helps these women discover something extraordinary in themselves. Maia, the heroine of Todd Lockwood’s The Summer Dragon, which I’m currently reading, has all the usual tomboy earmarks: she wears trousers, she strides into danger rather than flinching or hanging back from it, and she’s an excellent shot with a bow and arrow. Her closest ties are to those within her family circle, yet the one person who never doubts or underestimates her is her gentler, more soft-spoken (more “feminine”) sister-in-law, Jhem. Accordingly, Maia loves and trusts her. No hint of “Not Like Other Girls” here.

We all know the tomboy can be awesome, but what about the girly-girl? Is she, by her very nature, doomed to be always the damsel, never the heroine? That may be the most obvious route to take with her, but every now and then a girly-girl can surprise us with unexpected badassery.

I met with such a character in a recent read, Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law, the first of a sequel series, of sorts, to his original Mistborn trilogy. The heroine of the first trilogy is a tomboy in every sense, including, alas, “Not Like Other Girls.” (Sanderson has since expressed regret at not creating more female characters for her to interact with.) On the surface, Lady Marasi Colms, chief among the heroines of the second series, could not be more different. She says of herself that she likes wearing dresses, she likes living in the city because of its conveniences, and she doesn’t mind leaving the dangerous work to the men. Really this last one is the only part I’d have issues with, but if there were nothing more to her, she would indeed be what another female character calls her — an “ornament.”

Yet Marasi, as it turns out, has her own ways of being awesome. She has an interest and extensive knowledge in criminal justice, providing useful information when it’s most needed. She’s a crack shot with a rifle, and with this skill she saves male characters’ lives more than once. And despite her claim that she’s fine with letting the menfolk take the big risks, she accompanies the male heroes into danger because she feels a responsibility to do so (a woman of honor, this one), and each time they offer to leave her behind in a place of safety, she refuses, staying at their side, determined to be of use even though she doubts her abilities. In the end — Spoiler Alert — she strikes the decisive blow against the villain. As to how she does it… read the book. It’s really good.

Marasi is the heroine you don’t see coming, an example of what a girly-girl can be if she and her story are written well. Other girly-girl heroines I admire include Sorcha, Liadan, and Fainne, the heroines of Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy respectively; the young apprentice sorceress Isabeau in Kate Forsyth’s Witches of Eileanan series (with her twin sister Iseult filling the tomboy role); and Beatrice Barahal, the girly-girl to her cousin Cat’s tomboy in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy.

I admire all these ladies, for showing their readers there is more than one way to be a heroine.


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