In the original “West Side Story”, Anybodys was a fleeting but memorable character. She was as tough as the boys – harder, perhaps – though they often reminded her that she was out of place. They insulted her; they told him to beat him. When she didn’t want to get married because it was “too loud,” A-Rab said harshly, “You’re never going to get married.” So ugly.”
The Jets initially punished her for playing the girl role badly. But they had a name for such a girl: tomboy.
The story is set in the 1950s, when tomboys were common characters in novels, movies, and television – think Scout Finch, the short-haired heroine in overalls from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Tomboys were certainly not the norm, but they weren’t far from normal, and their portrayal sent a message to girls that adopting aspects of masculinity was, if not sanctioned, at least understood. In the 1970s, tomboys were a beloved childhood archetype, if not a peak to be reached, until they were replaced by very feminine ‘girl power’ archetypes such as the Spice Girls.
Over the past 15 years or so, as the notion of gender identity – that people have a sense of their gender regardless of their body – has gained traction, and trans people have shifted from marginalized to recognized , there has been growing speculation about real and fictional gender nonconforming people of the past. Would the “tomboys” of old have identified themselves as trans or non-binary, if this idea and language had been available to them?
A writer working on a book on Amelia Earhart told me that she thought Earhart could have identified herself as nonbinary. Louisa May Alcott, some have speculated, might have been trans because she said things like, “I am more than half convinced that I am the soul of a man, put on by some freak of nature. in a woman’s body.
Some female soldiers who fought as men in the Civil War are now identified as trans. The same goes for James Miranda Barry, the UK’s first female surgeon who has lived her entire life, in public and in private, as a man, and worked hard to make sure no one finds out about her. secret. A new book destined to become a miniseries about a Scottish nobleman named Ewan Forbes-Sempill (née Elizabeth), who likely had an intersex condition that led to him being mistakenly identified as a woman, also defines him as trans.
As for the fictional characters, some say that Mulan, the Chinese warrior who fights like a man, is trans. When a production of Enid Blyton’s “Malory Towers” premiered in 2019, tomboy character Bill was portrayed as a trans boy. And now Anybodys has been recast in the “West Side Story” remake; it’s not a rambling girl but a trans man (played by Iris Menas, a non-binary actor), which has led to the film being banned in several countries hostile to transgender identities.
David Saint, the executor of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for “West Side Story,” told Insider that Anybodys “is a character who was a man born into a woman’s body. ‘story.”
It’s a cause for celebration among trans people, who find themselves better and more often represented today than at any time in history. But mapping trans identities on male women of the past, whether real or fictional, is complicated. It imposes modern interpretations on history and removes patterns of gender nonconformity in girls.
Until the turn of the 20th century, sex, gender, and sexuality were all broadly linked in the public mind. Although people engage in homosexual sex acts, there was no dominant social category for homosexuals. Any woman who had “fallen in love … with so many beautiful girls and never the slightest bit with any man,” as Alcott once said, might just believe that they had the soul of one sex and the body of one sex. ‘another.
A concept of gender – that masculinity and femininity are not inextricably linked with being male or female – came later. In the mid-20th century, sexologists and psychologists working with people known at the time as hermaphrodites and transsexuals coined the term “gender identity”. It remained largely within this niche medical and psychological context until this century, when the idea of man and woman as social, not biological, categories that everyone could relate to. has become more popular.
Assuming that people in the past lived as the opposite sex due to gender identity ignores the historical roles, norms, and laws that created confined sex-based scripts. Barry, for example, née Margaret Ann Bulkley, could not have been a doctor had he lived as a woman, let alone become the second highest medical officer in the British Army.
Did Barry’s instructions to keep his birth sex a secret stem from his male gender identity (a concept not yet articulated), or did he have other reasons to take his secret to the grave? Was he a trans man living his truth or an oppressed woman without the possibility of living hers?
Would Forbes-Sempill have claimed the pronouns them / them, and that would have allowed him to retain his property and title, and marry the woman he loved, as only men could in Scotland? Was Mulan a liberated trans man or a woman who otherwise couldn’t fight in wars because of regressive ideas about women? Would anyone have made the transition if this option had been available, or would she not have needed to if the boys had accepted her as a gender nonconforming girl or if her character was written in? the 1970s, who liked tomboys?
Are we straightening history or rewriting it?
Tomboy, however sexist the word may be, once gave girls the freedom to explore the blue side of the pink / blue divide and push the boundaries of acceptable behavior and appearance. But this freedom usually evaporates at puberty. His offers were limited and temporary.
We are now expanding the gender boundaries for all ages. But in some ways we are reducing them as well. If Anybodys is no longer considered a girl, this limits “girl” and “woman” to only the most feminine women. The message to them is that if they go too far toward masculine – being tough, rejecting dresses and skirts, wearing short hair – they’re not girls anymore. While it’s wonderful to have trans characters portrayed in a movie, re-gendering tomboys as trans can end up reinforcing stereotypes. What frees one group may limit another.
The inclusiveness and diversity of race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and body type in all kinds of media represent real progress. If it’s impossible to know how people in the past would have identified or lived if 21st century choices had been available, I imagine those who suffered because gender ideas in their time did not accommodate them would find indeed the spirit of today’s free time.
But forcing modern definitions of gender into the past, and assuming that all non-conforming people would change their pronouns or bodies, leaves no room for male girls and female boys to be themselves; he tells them they must be someone else.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different”.