Jul 152019

Calamity Jane

I’m using “gender” in the now-accepted usage meaning “societal roles,” as distinct from biological sex. I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

Tomboys are not expected to behave like feminine girls at all. They play with boys toys, they wear boy clothes, the talk with boys vocabulary, and their primary peer group is male children. They sometimes have a hard time gaining acceptance with the local boys, depending on the region, but often find a way to gain acceptance and are included in boys games and rough housing. Other girls find tomboys odd and off-putting and don’t socialize much with them.

Upon reaching puberty many tomboys are reluctantly forced into feminine peer groups, but even so, many stay distinctly separate in demeanor and activity choices throughout life. They repair cars and don’t take shit, etc. You know the stereotype, if you live in an anglophone country you’ve met one.

I don’t think people realize this is a third gender, because this social role has been around for far longer than the idea that “gender” means “social role” has been around. Most people still equate gender with sex, and tomboys are overwhelmingly female. But its pretty easy to identify the female-bodied people who are feminine-gendered and those who are tomboys within just a few minutes of conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that, many are apparent from dress, attitude, and stance. Perhaps I’m overestimating how easy it is, I may have unconsciously developed the skill since I’m personally attracted far more to tomboys than any other gender. But I’d wager most Americans can discern between the two very quickly, as we run into so many of both types.

I believe that the presence of the tomboy gender is why clothes that were traditionally only worn by men (most famously trousers, but pretty much every man-gendered clothing) are acceptable clothing for women. The prevalence of tomboys moved male-clothing into ok-for-both-sexes territory, and the feminine-gendered benefited by this. There is no equivalent socially-accepted alternate gender for males, so the same thing never happened to women-gendered clothing, and thus it still looks “funny” for a man to wear a dress.

There are interesting parallels between tomboys and the Samoan fa’afafine. First, both genders are basically restricted to a single sex. Secondly, both are named for the sex that its members feel comfortable with, in contrast to their own sex. Ie:  fa’afafine comes from fa’a–, meaning “in the manner of”, and the word fafine, meaning “woman”. Tomboy comes from the English name “Tom,” which around the 16th century was such a common boy’s name that it came to be interchange for the word “boy.” “Tomcat” means “male cat” for example. So tomboy emphasizes just how boyish the girl is, so much so that the gender-name means boy twice. And finally, both genders are given the pronouns of their sex. So fa’afafine use the male pronouns (English equivalent of he/him) and tomboys use the female pronouns (she/her). (Note that I DO NOT have much knowledge of the Samoan culture or the fa’afafine gender, so these could be entirely surface-level similarities without much substance)

Much like the metaphorical fish that doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in, Anglophone societies simply didn’t notice that there is a third gender within them. By the time the term “gender” began to mean what it does now, the two female genders had already been around for centuries, and no one really bothered to think of them as separate genders. They were both just “ways to be a girl.” But it very much seems to me that we have been, in fact, living with three genders all this time.

Or am I missing something? This is somewhat tentative, and I’m curious as to what others think about this.

  3 Responses to “The Anglosphere Has Always Had Three Genders”

  1. This is an interesting thought. I agree that ‘tomboy’ feels like a natural cluster, probably enough to call it a distinct gender. But I’m not sure that the existence of a tomboy gender is the prime factor behind male-gendered clothing being okay for both genders.

    Our culture has a not-so-subtle belief that masculine = good and feminine = bad. A lot of villains in fiction are more feminine than the heroes. A good hero is a tough manly man, but a more feminine man is often, if not villainous, at least pathetic. More at tv tropes: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SissyVillain

    Lindsay Ellis has a good video where she apologizes to Stephanie Meyer for hating on Twilight. Part of the video she focuses on how part of the culture’s hatred for Twilight was related to the fact that it’s girly, and our culture hates girly stuff. https://youtu.be/8O06tMbIKh0

    I’m not saying that it’s ironclad, but the point is that there’s definitely a trend in that direction. From that I figured that if our culture believes male = good and female = bad, then any movement towards the male end of the spectrum is good, and movement towards the female end is bad. So a female wearing male-gendered clothing, or behaving in male-gendered ways, is fine because it’s movement in the masculine direction. But a male wearing female-gendered clothing, or doing female-gendered things, is bad because it’s moving from the male end to the female end of the spectrum.

    It feels to me like the tomboy gender being accepted, and male-gender clothing being acceptable for women, are both part of this larger cultural preference for masculine over feminine. I would guess that this is also why there isn’t any kind of male equivalent to the tomboy, a janegirl or something.

    • >It feels to me like the tomboy gender being accepted, and male-gender clothing being acceptable for women, are both part of this larger cultural preference for masculine over feminine. I would guess that this is also why there isn’t any kind of male equivalent to the tomboy, a janegirl or something.

      This is possible, but without a lot more research, I think it’s just as possible that the casual arrow points the other way. IE: the reason for this larger cultural preference is because the tomboy gender exists, and the janegirl doesn’t. If the janegirl existed and the tomboy didn’t, the cultural preference would go the other way.

      I also have seen that Ellis video, it’s really good!

  2. This is certainly an interesting one. I think it makes sense under a performative account of gender at least? To be honest I’ve given understanding this a few tries but even when Contrapoints explains it using examples and stuff (relevant summary starts around 24 minutes in, but the context is the message) I’m still confused. I think it just hasn’t had enough impact on my life, thankfully: I can get away with not really bothering to do a gender, so I don’t need a good mental model of it.

    But to opine nevertheless: there’s got to be some extent to which it matters whether tomboys (…identifying it as a gender makes me reluctant to use the word??) self-identify as being separated from femininity, or merely “doing womanhood” in a different way, right? With expected variance on an individual basis of course.

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