By Stephanie Cook (MJour'18)
Search for Title IX and you’ll find a landmark federal civil rights law passed in 1972. Search for the term “title nine,” however, and the top result will likely be a national chain of women’s athletic clothing stores.
Legally, the implications of Title IX—which established new requirements for gender inclusivity in federally funded educational programs—were broad. Publicly, the law is known mainly for one thing: allowing women in sports.
As women growing up with Title IX took to fields, courts and arenas, the trend became woven into the fabric of society. Sporty girls became known as “tomboys,” a term that fascinates Jamie Skerski, senior instructor in the Department of Communication.
“That’s my generation, that’s Mia Hamm’s generation,” Skerski says. “For the first time, you have a generation of women who benefit from Title IX, and in the 1990s, imagery of sporty girls explodes in popular culture. Books and movies depicting athletic girls went mainstream.”
Originally, “tomboy” described a young boy who was out of control or didn’t conform to polite culture. Later, it shifted to describe unruly women. The modern incarnation is a young girl who is biologically female but prefers the activities we associate with boyhood, Skerski says.
“They exhibit gender behaviors that we associate with masculinity,” she says. “That used to be seeking education or wanting to wear pants, and now, because of Title IX—because girls and women have had more opportunities in athletics and sports—tomboy has come to mean athletic girl.”
The word “girl” is important, as society’s acceptance of tomboys almost always has an expiration date.
“Most narratives have tomboys trading in their soccer cleats for high heels in the end,” Skerski says. “It’s a way to discipline that rebellion. You can do it, but popular culture says this isn’t a permanent status. You should grow out of it.”
At TEDxCU in 2018, Skerski presented the talk “Tomboys and Gender Rebellion,” inspired in part by students in her senior seminar on gender and rhetoric, whom she’d asked to present gender collages.
“I had not even talked about tomboys at this point in the semester, but I heard, over and over again, ‘Here was my tomboy stage.’ It was all about freedom—freedom of dress, freedom of being strong—until you hit that junior high-middle school adolescence,” she says. “When I heard it coming out of my students’ mouths, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s cultural, it’s personal, it’s on an identity level as well as a narrative level.’”
As industries from entertainment to fashion embrace—and profit from—tomboys, Skerski warns that they often rob tomboys of an essential function: gender rebellion.
“You get sexy tomboy or pretty tomboy,” she says. “It’s becoming more of a normative, dominant kind of identity rather than that rebellious woman or girl.”