Tomboy is a graphic memoir about a young Liz Prince grappling with her identity as a gender non-conforming child in a gender conforming society. She spent years dreading puberty and the changes her body would make causing her to present as more feminine and even more time being bullied and cast aside neither fitting in with the girls or the boys. However, Liz, at least in her retelling, was a resilient child who, aside from feeling upset that the boys wouldn’t let her play with them once they “found out” she was a girl, did not seem highly affected by the bullying she received. As she grew older, she experienced other people, particularly adults, who reflected her world-views and identity and who gave her language to express who she was and to feel verified in her non-conformity. I believe this memoir stands to be another reflection of those views, given from adult Liz to child Liz and all other children who need to hear that they don’t have to conform and that there are people just like them in the world even if those people aren’t their neighbors or classmates.
What Liz offers with her memoir is profoundly important for a lot of children today, and I believe, even into the future, unfortunately. Children are sponges who observe the world and internalize all of the information they see and hear, for better or worse. So as young children enter into the developmental stage in which they begin to identify themselves in opposition from others, they use the information they have internalized to do so. Our society has an incredibly strong hold on gender norms, represented in myriad ways from product marketing to clothing to colloquial speech. At young ages, boys and girls understand this distinction and it is powerful. So when children like Liz don’t see who they want to be reflected in “who they are supposed to be,” there doesn’t seem to be a place for them.
I think that there is a movement happening, at least in more liberal areas of the United States to start breaking down this reinforcement of gender norms, particularly as it pertains to packaging and marketing of children’s toys. Last year, in a monumental move, Target announced it would do away with labeling toys and bedding as “boys” and “girls”. This is a bold move, and was met with mixed reactions but suggests that we are moving in the direction of breaking down these invisible barriers that children face as they grapple with their sense of self. It certainly won’t be the end to the dichotomy as it will take marketing companies (and parents, but that’s a whole other battle) to truly change the way people and children look at toys and themes, but Target’s choice, as one of the largest department stores in the country, does make a statement that is hard to ignore.
Talking with my classmates gave me a greater appreciation for this title. Having the discussion moved back, it was over a week between when I finished the book and when we discussed it, and my memory for the book was blank. I could still fondly remember Honor Girl (which we also discussed), which I adored even though it broke my heart, but Tomboy was gone. I blamed the black and white imagery. As we discussed the ramifications of being different as a child, I remembered all the ways in which I have felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I remembered how much various books I’ve read this semester I have connected with, such as Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, and an audiobook I listened to called Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. They echoed my feelings and experiences as a fat woman in this society, and I think Liz did this for every child who questions their gender identity and expression and place in society because of it. I champion Liz for coming out with this book, and I love what it represents for anyone who feels different. These books are so important for library shelves.
Prince, L. (2014). Tomboy. San Francisco: Zest Books.