Gender expression: Tomboy or Girly Girl?

August 17, 2022

Image concept by Kate with photos from Pexels

Kate Rogers explores why young women feel they have to define themselves under the male gaze

Most young women are familiar with the age-old question, “Are you a tomboy or a girly girl?”, which the perpetrator asks patiently, hands folded, ready to dive into our psyche.

She is thinking three things. The first, “I could be a tomboy. I like basketball and Family Guy and I never wear skirts.” The second, “But I might be a girly girl. I hate beer, love rom-coms and never turn down the opportunity to dress up.” But the most prominent thought swirling behind those panic-stricken eyes is the third, “What does that even mean?”

Frankly, she and every other woman are right to ask that question. What does it mean? I suppose it could be asking how closely you align yourself with traditional feminine values or if you believe gender is just a social construct; neither of which are easy things to answer. So why are they so frequently asked? Why is the world so interested in how women define themselves?

I would suggest it has little to do with women and everything to do with the male gaze. The curiosity into how girls define themselves is rooted in the way they are perceived by men.

Recently lines between femininity and masculinity have been blurred under the fuzz of unisex clothes and diversity campaigns

Look at Allison Reynolds, played by Ally Sheedy, in the film, The Breakfast Club. She’s edgy and grungy, wearing dark clothes and a smudge of eyeliner under each eye. But, by the end of the film, she’s transformed into a more traditional style, with a pink dress and matching bow. She’s sweet, feminine and approachable. While all these traits are admirable on their own, when clearly introduced as the subject of male desire, they come across as rather sour.

Growing up, women see this so often, a subliminal or sometimes glaring message to doll yourself up, have an Allison-style makeover. Yet there is also this uproar for the complete opposite.

Sticking with the theme of cheesy teen films, 10 Things I Hate About You introduces us to Kat, the desirable tomboy. The type of girl who ‘doesn’t wear makeup’ but always has clear skin and long lashes, who looks sexy running off a football pitch in 25-degree heat. Heath Ledger, playing Patrick, liked this type of girl; she was special, she was different. So why shouldn’t you be?

Recently, the lines between femininity and masculinity have been blurred but under the fuzz of unisex clothes and diversity campaigns everyone still wants to know if you’re a Kat or an Allison.

Let’s allow ourselves to weave in and out of these gendered tropes embracing everything in-between that feels right

The obvious conclusion is neither, despite the pressure to be otherwise. Women are 3-dimensional. It’s impossible to be only one type of woman. That’s a cheap reflection of self-expression.

I find that for young women, in particular, this typecasting only serves to split us up. The “I don’t wear makeup” girls secretly envy those who paint their faces like a work of art. While the “How do you go out dressed like that?” girls wish they didn’t measure their self-worth by how dressed up they are.

It’s a tricky habit to break, almost impossible with everything from your pushy aunt at Christmas to TikTok’s ‘Pick me’ and ‘Bruh girl’ trends attempting to shove you into a box. Telling you that everyone else should be in a box too.

There is no direct resolution to this problem, nor is it an easy fix. However, next time we pick up something in a shop that’s ‘too masculine’ or ‘too feminine’ for us, we try it on anyway. It might work in the long run to get rid of those thoughts that something is too ‘insert gender conforming dated phrase’ for us. Let’s allow ourselves to weave in and out of these gendered tropes embracing everything in-between that feels right.

So that next time someone asks, “are you a tomboy or a girly girl” we can confidently say “neither” and not feel the need to explain why.

Collage created with images from Cottonbro at Pexels


If you are affected by any of the issues explored you can get support from: SafeLives which is operating the Your Best Friend Fund – The #FriendsCanTell campaign – to educate and empower young people to spot abuse in relationships and support their friends.

Many thanks for making this project possible!

Kate studies English language, History and Philosophy at Woodhouse College. She’s interested in social and political issues, concerning women, her local community and the Black-British community, and demonstrates her interests through volunteering as well as in her art and writing.

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