The history of the shifting image of the tomboy in popular culture


A Literary and Cultural History

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Michelle Ann Abate

"An ambitious and exciting book that examines representations of what could be considered tomboys, in U.S. fiction and film, since 1859. The scope is impressive: Abate has done a great deal of archival research to unearth the titles she examines and cites many relevant theoretical and critical texts."
Beverly Lyon Clark, Wheaton College

Starting with the figure of a bold, boisterous girl in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the “girl power” movement of the 1990s, Tomboys is the first full-length critical study of this gender-bending code of female conduct. Michelle Abate uncovers the origins, charts the trajectory, and traces the literary and cultural transformations that the concept of “tomboy” has undergone in the United States. Abate focuses on literature including Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding and films such as Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon. She also draws on lesser-known texts like E.D.E.N. Southworth’s once wildly popular 1859 novel The Hidden Hand, Cold War lesbian pulp fiction, and New Queer Cinema from the 1990s.

Tomboys also explores the gender and sexual dynamics of tomboyism, and offers intriguing discussions of race and ethnicity’s role in the construction of the enduring cultural archetype. Abate’s insightful analysis provides useful, thought-provoking connections between different literary works and eras. The result demystifies this cultural phenomenon and challenges readers to consider tomboys in a whole new light.



Read the Introduction (pdf).



"Tomboys is well-written, grounded in detail from a broad range of texts, and engaging. This is a smart and insightful analysis of American literature, history and culture. Abate juxtaposes texts creatively and convincingly and provides useful, thought-provoking connections between different literary texts and eras. I expect it to inspire important, continuing conversations about history, race, and culture."
—Anne Phillips, Kansas State University

"The author provides a detailed look at the dynamic trajectory of the tomboy 'code of conduct' in popular literature, pulp fiction, and Hollywood film....Abate suggests that the dynamic evolution of the tomboy represents wider social and cultural debates within the US."

"Michelle Ann Abate’s new work on tomboys across US history and culture is a thoughtful and broadly applicable contribution to the field of children’s literature…. [She] creates a useful history on which to hang further analyses of girls’ culture…. One of the most elegant exercises in this book full of elegant writing is Abate’s dovetailing of the subversive and complicit aspects of tomboyism…. Tomboys is a bracingly honest look at the successes and failures of one aspect of girls’ culture over the bulk of US history."
Children’s Literature



Introduction: From Antebellum Hoyden to Millennial Girl Power; The Unwritten History (and Hidden History) of Tomboyism in the United States
1. The White Tomboy Launches a Gender Backlash: E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand
2. The Tomboy Becomes a Cultural Phenomenon: Louisa May Alcott's Little Women
3. The Tomboy Matures Into the New Woman: Sarah Orne Jewett's A Country Doctor
4. The Tomboy is Reinvented an the Exercise Enthusiast: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland
5. The Tomboy Becomes the All-Americanizing Girl: Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and My Antonia
6. The Tomboy Shifts From Feminist to Flapper: Clara Bow in Victor Fleming's Hula
7. The Tomboy Turns Freakishly Queer and Queerly Freakish: Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding
8. The Tomboy Becomes the "Odd Girl Out": Ann Bannon's Women in the Shadows
9. The Tomboy Returns to Hollywood: Tatum O'Neal in Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon
Selected Bibliography
Works Cited
Photographs follow page 144


About the Author(s)

Michelle Ann Abate is an Assistant Professor of English at Hollins University.

Subject Categories

Cultural Studies
Literature and Drama
Gender Studies



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