The word tomboy originated in the mid-sixteenth century and referred both to a boisterous boy or girl and to an unchaste or immodest woman. From the seventeenth century on, the term has referred solely to girls whose behavior is considered boylike, being especially active, spirited, outspoken, and indelicate. In all applications, it has been used to censure a person considered deviant. As a stage of sexual and psychological development, tomboyism occurs between childhood and puberty and is an explicitly temporary stage during which it is more or less socially acceptable for a girl to behave contrary to the norms of stereotypical femininity. Tomboys often wear boys' clothes, prefer boys' games (such as sports instead of dolls), prefer boys as playmates, have a stronger relationship with their fathers than mothers, and may also identify themselves as boys. Tomboys also typically desire to be outside as much as possible, where they can run about, explore, and meet people instead of remaining in an isolated and passive domestic space typically reserved for women.
Many sociological studies and fictional representations of tomboys portray these girls as experiencing a typical and temporary period of gender disidentification, assuming that the onset of puberty will bring with it an awareness of adult responsibility and conformance to typical feminine traits and attitudes. This view, however, ignores the fact that many childhood tomboys possess genders and sexual identities that fall outside the heterosexual norm and which will remain fundamental to the grown women's identities. Although prepubescent children are sexually active psychically, if not physically, most representations of children fail to acknowledge their complex sexual identification and desires. Thus, tomboys may not only act like boys, they may also identify with boys and feel sexual attraction for girls. The traditional understanding of tomboys assumes they will be feminine and heterosexual adults, whereas the alternative acknowledges active masculinity and queerness in both girls and the women they will become.
According to several surveys in the 1970s and 1980s, as many as 50 percent of adult women identified themselves as childhood tomboys. Although it is quite common for young girls to be physically active and opinionated, the act of labeling such girls as tomboys makes them seem hyper-masculine and abnormal in relation to heterosexual gender norms. Likewise, the assumed temporariness of this phase of development indicates that girls may play at creating an identity relatively free from gender stereotypes, but women must leave such play behind them. Because tomboys appropriate traits of masculinity that are generally reserved for men, they represent a potential threat to patriarchal societies that depend on fixed and binary definitions of gender and sexuality that privilege masculinity over femininity. By refusing to allow tomboyism to continue past adolescence, society perpetuates the illusion of gender binaries. Cultural representations and explanations of tomboys thus represent both the potential freedom from stereotypical genders and sexualities that girls can enact as well as the limitations of such subversive identities.
see also Butch/Femme.
Segel, Elizabeth. 1994. "Tomboy Taming and Gender-Role Socialization: The Evidence of Children's Books." In Gender Roles through the Life Span, ed. Michael R. Stevenson. Muncie, IN: Ball State University.