She decided to do the work herself. “If you look back to the origins and the evolution of tomboyism, it was serving a very different and much more problematic cultural purpose: The trope was intended to shore up the health of white women as a means to essentially ensure the continuation of the white race,” Abate said. “White women would give birth to strong white babies, and that would ensure that the white race would remain strong and in power. It’s just that simple.”

Abate’s research dug up examples of this connection time and time again, as well as pictures of the liminal space that the trope of the tomboy occupied: somewhere between boy and girl, white and black, straight and gay. In exploring texts like Little Women, E.D.E.N., and The Member of the Wedding, as well as pop culture in the late 20th century, Abate identified how whiteness pervaded and perpetuated the tomboy trope and excused it by giving white tomboys flexible identities to embody.

“Girls who had to labor in fields, they weren’t seen as tomboys—they just grew up in farming families,” Abate said. “That was the reality of living in a rural place. The same went for working-class girls—they didn’t have the luxury, because of their socioeconomic status, to be too delicate. They did all the heavy washing and the scrubbing of the floors. They were never too frail or too weak. It wasn’t an option for them. The same thing goes for nonwhite women and girls. [They] were never seen as too delicate. On the contrary, they needed to be strong, because they were expected to perform heavy labor.”

By the 20th century, the image of the pallid, incapable white woman had faded as the heightened popularity of the tomboy rose. But the cultural imperative for women to embrace male behaviors was only a passing trend. “When sexologists like Freud came onto the scene, tomboyism began getting linked with lesbianism because it was seen as a sign of gender inversion,” Abate explained. “‘You’ve got a man trapped in a woman’s body.’ It’s how the early psychologists talked about homosexuality. The stigma that gets attached to tomboyism, or at least the alarm and concern, it took several generations for that to happen.” By the time second-wave feminism had arrived in postwar America, a girl wanting to be like a boy was a phenomenon that began to be stigmatized again.

The characters that I saw in pop culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s seemed free to me, but what I didn’t and couldn’t have known then is that they were still being forced to choose one path over another. I didn’t know the sinister history they represented. I didn’t understand that, when truly distilled, my childhood heroes were actually close facsimiles of masculine white boys. That the idolatry I internalized was, in many ways, working to confuse instead of clarify my acceptance of myself. I envied their freedom, but only into adulthood have I come to realize at what cost that freedom came.

“I think that if you would go on the playground at recess at pretty much any school and ask a kid what a tomboy was, they would know,” Abate said. “Despite all of the gender-creative, gender-fluid, gender-queer kids and embracing of gender-neutral pronouns, you walk into Target today and everything is still so gender bifurcated.”

We’re a long way from destroying the poles that the tomboy represents. And while I needed her when I was younger, I’ve been learning to let her go. In a 2016 essay for Medium, Catherine Connors, co-founder of Project Maverick, wrote that she would never call her daughter a tomboy, “because I didn’t like comparing her to boys. I told her that I didn’t like thinking of things as ‘boy things’ and ‘girl things,’ and that I certainly didn’t like any suggestion that ‘boy things’ were somehow better. I told her that there was a long history in the world of ‘girl things’ being treated as less important than ‘boy things,’ and that that was a problem for everyone, and not just girls.” Selin Davis’ Times op-ed received backlash for reinforcing this binary. But, like Abate said, the issue is much greater than just striking one word from our vocabularies.

Maybe for now we can at least try to reclaim what the tomboy meant to us. On her mixtape 1992, 25-year-old Bronx rapper Princess Nokia confidently chooses to embrace the word. “Who that is, ho? That girl is a tomboy! That girl is a tomboy!” she shouts. Nokia admires her own “little titties and fat belly,” her ability to attract anyone regardless of what she’s wearing or how she’s acting—whether she is identifiable as boy or a girl. The tone of the song is arrogant; it almost has to be. As Nokia told the Guardian in 2017, when she was young, she was “not a typical clean-cut young lady, always a bit rough around the edges, always a bit messy.” A tomboy through and through.

“I remember at school one day there was a vocabulary list on the chalkboard, and the word ‘nonconformist’ was on there, and it said, ‘Someone that doesn’t appeal to society, someone who doesn’t fit in.’” Nokia said. “We had this whole conversation about it, and I realized it cohered to the punk-rock world that I was into. It was more than the clothes, although I loved the fashion. It was rooted in this beautiful socioeconomic awareness and identity, and just saying, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to be loud and express ourselves.’”

Seeing tomboy characters on screen and in books when I was young and impressionable and pained by my body made me feel powerful, too. I could choose what hobby to embrace, when to be traditionally feminine and when not, what spaces to occupy. Into adulthood, I’ve rarely felt comfortable in feminine clothing, but I’ve learned to approach femininity with a certain coyness. Growing up with more “boy-like” girls as role models offered reassurance that it was okay to be myself. Tomboys in pop culture showed me two limited sides of a spectrum, but I’ve taken from both the behaviors and feelings that make me most comfortable.

The tomboy trope was ultimately founded in the assumption that there is something inherently terrifying about femininity, and that a total rejection of typical woman-like things is the only option to wearing a skirt even once. “If we truly had a notion of girls can play whatever sport they want, we wouldn’t need tomboyism,” Abate said of her hopes for the disappearance of the term from our cultural lexicon. “But right now there are so many things that have to change. We’re talking hundreds of years of patriarchy.”

This story was first published on Medium.

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