It’s Ok To Be A Tomboy But Not A Sissy. Why?

Screen-Shot-2012-09-05-at-9.43.22-AMEvery quarter I ask my women students if any of them had been tomboys when they were little. Many hands enthusiastically shoot into the air. The women often have fond memories of their time climbing trees and digging in the dirt.

Then I ask men students if any of them had been sissies. The class bursts out laughing. One hand might sheepishly creep up.

One man claimed the question was unfair since the word “sissy” is stigmatized but “tomboy” is not.

Actually, there isn’t a non-stigmatizing word for a boy who acts like a girl. And there’s a reason for that. Any boy who acts like a girl takes himself down to a lower status. He becomes demeaned.

A girl who acts like a boy, on the other hand, doesn’t harm her social standing. At least not until she gets older and the behavior takes on lesbian overtones.

Another student thought I was exaggerating the problem. For his term paper he asked men and women on campus whether they had been tomboys or sissies, and whether they had ever thought about being the opposite sex.

When he asked women if they had ever wanted to be a man, or wondered what it would be like, many said they had. When he asked about being tomboys when they were little, they often reminisced on that happy time.

But when he asked men whether they had ever wanted to be a woman, or been curious about what it might be like, stunned reactions were the rule: “What!? Are you serious?” When he asked if they had been sissies when they were young, men turned an angry eye and asked, “Are you looking for trouble?”

He’s lucky to have finished his research and still be alive and in one piece.

This is just one of many examples of how we “gender rank” men above women in our society.

What difference does it make?

Devaluing females and femaleness ends in all sorts of problems: Women expect less for themselves, including pay and power in relationships. In societies and subcultures where masculine is valued over feminine we find higher rates of rape, wife battering, gay bashing, daughters-for-sale, and female infanticide.  STDs are more widely spread. Women’s sexuality becomes repressed. The list goes on.

Gender ranking. It’s all about empowerment and disempowerment. But as we become more aware of the problem, we can create change.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 30, 2011, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 54 Comments.

  1. I think that your blog post is actually the first time ever that I’ve heard the term “sissy” used not as a derogatory term, but as just a regular label meaning a cisgender boy who likes typically feminine things. Before, I had only ever heard it used in grade school to mean “scaredy-cat.” The definition of “sissy” on Google is “a person regarded as effeminate or cowardly.” It’s interesting to see that despite the two definitions, everyone always immediately associates the term with the more negative “cowardly” aspect. On the other hand, the word “tomboy” only has one definition, which is the one you stated in your blog post.

    Sadly, I think that it might be impossible at this point for people to divorce the term “sissy” from its secondary definition of “coward.” It might be time for a new term for young boys who like to do girly things, one without a negative connotation to it.

    • Well, I was actually pointing out that we have a double standard where it’s OK for girls to act like boys, or be called “tomboys” but boys are teased as “sissies” for acting like girls because the masculine is more valued in our culture.

      I hope that one day the feminine will no longer be disparaged.

  2. i am a 14 year old boy and i am a sissy. i love wearing girls clothes and i wear them daily at home. 😊

  3. I enjoyed the post and it opened my eyes to more of the gender rankings in our society. I grew up playing with barbie dolls, but also enjoying wrestling with the boys. I was never ostracized for being a “tomboy,” or wanting to play sports. However, I do remember boys my age being shamed for acting feminine and/or crying. As a child, I never realized girls had the ability to be more masculine and be accepted, but boys who acted feminine were punished or made fun of. Your post helped me realize that there are so many words that are stigmatized in our everyday language and some of the inequalities that women still face. Something as simple as someone saying, “You’re acting like a sissy,” or more often I hear men telling other men, “Stop acting like a p@#$&,” displays the disempowerment that women still face today. The same goes for someone saying,”That’s gay,” and using the word “gay” as an adjective. These words are a way of showing us that women and the LGBTQ community are still on a lower status than men.

  4. Growing up, I played with Barbies but I also enjoyed playing a lot of sports, hiking, and camping. Basically, I enjoyed many of the things my older brother did…I even wanted to be a Boy Scout instead of a Girl Scout. Hiking, camping, knives, and fire seemed a lot more interesting to me than what I saw my Girl Scout friends doing, but I was never discouraged from liking these things. On the other hand, I never saw my brother playing with dolls (he had “action figures”). We both enjoy cooking, which in some ways is thought of a housewife’s duty, but as a member of my family would say, “Cooking isn’t just for women, many of the best chefs in the world are men.” It seems to me that for a “female” job to be acceptable to men, its importance needs to be raised from “cook” to “chef,” or it has to be associated with aggression or some other masculine trait, like the difference between dolls and action figures. My dad says he used to play with G.I. Joe and Cowboy toys, which are dolls, but he would have never called them that. To him they were just toys or action figures. Even though I was raised in a family that let us play however we wanted, it was easier for me to play boy sports than it was for my brother to partake in more feminine activities.

  5. I also find it interesting in my very unscientific survey the number of men when they are in an anonymous setting will admit to the idea of being a woman. Over the years I would say 60/40 in favor of the idea. Conversely the number of women who adamently hate the idea of being a man 90/10. Again throughly unscientific but I do ask both sides when chatting on line.

    • Interesting. Wonder if you make them feel comfortable enough to be honest.

      • That could be possible. I think alot of males would love to be able to experiment with clothes and emotions. But are so scared to go outside of the allowed lines. To protect themselves, they focus more on the rough tough side. Just so much to lose as a male who likes to dress pretty.

      • Yes. Patriarchy and ranking men above women hurts men too.

      • It is really difficult to understand. Imagine if you were never allowed to wear pretty things or dresses/skirts and heels. Then imagine if you could never wear them because how you were born.
        I know women have been restricted in the past on atire, jobs, lifestyles. But you have gotten past most of that and in the very near future I think you will see a major change for women.

      • Things are looking good in many ways. But the Republican Congress scares me on reproductive rights.

  6. Some how people are threatened by a feminine boy. Even if he does not wear feminine clothes, just a softer more emotional boy is threatening and off putting. Odd too with all this recent male, testosterone, violence, toxicity stuff. Wouldn’t people prefer males in a softer, more fem role. Not saying submissive – but less aggressive, gentler, maybe even prettier?

  7. Before we are born we are expected to wear certain clothing, act and dress a certain way, and abide by specific traits based on our sex. Many social roles reflect presumed characteristics. I was taught at a young age that boys should be tough and not cry and girls are to be kind and gentle. However, growing up I was considered a tomboy. I played sports with the boys, hated wearing dresses, played with bugs/dirt and hardly ever played with dolls.

    I can see how women were more open to talking about being a tomboy and how men were offended. Because of this reason, I support androgyny. Androgyny is having the characteristics or nature of both male and female. It’s ok to have feelings and express them but it’s not ok to call someone a sissy. Maybe if it was worded differently men would have been more receptive, would have cooperated, and answered appropriately.

  8. I’d like to mention the concept of “men box” as explained by Tony Porter in
    this TED Talk

    It’s also interesting that 95% of male crossdressers are heterosexual (citation needed) but
    everybody thinks of them as homosexual.

    • Yeah, I love that TED Talk. I’ve been planning to write about it sometime. Thanks for reminding me.

      And it is interesting that male cross dressors are almost always straight, even though a lot of people are misinformed on the issue.

  9. I was real young and just loved wearing my moms underwear i had fun dad was marine used to call me sissy gay loved ladies but i went out with guys ashaned of my self for years but i just loved cross dressing makeup now fantasize about a masculine guy that treats me like a women still in closet scared to go to clubs

  10. As I was reading this it reminded me of something that happened to me recently where I was helping a friend of mine teach a traditional Polynesian dance and we were going over a part of the costume which was a cloth worn around the waist. Both men and women in the dance were going to wear the cloth around the waist, but the men were to wear it with a know in the front and the women with a knot to the side. My friend who was teaching told the guys, “You don’t want to wear it with the knot on the side or people will laugh at you and call you a ‘Fafa’ (Samoan slur for gay men)” Most of the guys started laughing along with my friend and then one of them asked so what would you call a girl who wears the way a man is supposed to, and then my friend just shrugged and said, “a tomboy, duh.” After she said that, I noticed that it was a little unfair, but then I shrugged it off. But now after learning a lot about how society values men more then women, I can see how this is one of those instances that proves that, as well as plenty of other things, especially in my own culture. It’s kind of a depressing to think about how much inequality we live in without even realizing it.

  11. I hate to correct people hear,but female s can have a stronger status than Males….
    1 they are getting better results at collage and higher Education…….
    2 A pretty woman can wrap any man round there little finger and use her beauty to get what she wants..( this has been going on for years).
    3 if a married couple with children brake up its always the woman who come s off financial better………..

    To get a happy balance you have to treat woman with respect….if you work together then you will stay together and have a happy life………..

    • If you had gender equality you wouldn’t have any of those problems.

      • being a female is not a silver bullet to life’s problems, and being a woman may actually add to life’s problems. Not all women can wrap a man around their fingers and not all women are better after a divorce.

        Having said that – it would be nice i men had more opportunity to explore their identities, change their fashions, try different styles, etc. But as long as we lose social status for apparently downgrading our gender – men will not try anything new.

        It is a sad commentary when even women take advantage of a feminine male and call him sissy, and denigrate him physically and sexually. So much for gender equality!

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post and can understand why each gender feel the way they do. Being a female and tomboyish seen cool when you were young child. People seen tomboys as being tough and not afraid to fight if need be. As an adult being a tomboy can make others think you are lesbian and as an adult females do not like being seen as tomboy. Being a young boy and someone calling you a sissy can end up in a fight. Young boys seen as a sissy is humiliating and can make a young boy feel less of himself. I have this male friend that was called a sissy growing up and it made him feel bad. Everyday someone was teasing him than he begin to start fighting and told them he was not a sissy. Now today as an adult he is now transgender. It is the people in this world that uses mean words to destroy others.

  13. You know one thing I noticed is that it is kinda ironic how some things that the western society sees as ‘Sissy” is actually the ideal man for many cultures.
    For example It wasn’t a long ago that a man wearing Wigs and Make up was seen as an ideal man in French and if some American “Alpha” male went back in time and called those men sissies he would be beaten to death.
    Heck in some asian cultures an androgynous pretty boy is seen as something positive , Yet in the western society it is seen as a negative and said male will have his sexuality questioned. Despite the fact that Feminine looking Men Like Ornaldo Bloom usually end up having many women swoon over them.
    I completely agree with you and I hope that the new Generation will be more open minded than this one.

  14. The tragedy here is not just the ‘devaluing of females and femaleness’. The lack of equivalence between Tomboys and Sissys shows that the *real* problem is the particularly narrow gender roles assigned to boys, and the dire consequences [imagined or otherwise] if they deviate from the norm. Boys should be able to enjoy the greater ‘gender role’ flexibility afforded to girls as they grow up and find their identities. Being sensitive, quiet, thoughtful, and in touch with your feelings should not be seen as a badge of femaleness, but as qualities open to *anyone*, just as ambition, drive and influence are [rightfully] no longer seen as solely male attributes.

  15. Was me climbing trees, playing in dirt, fishing, camping, playing sports being a tomboy? I have not look at myself as a tomboy. Simple as being a kid trying new/different things to have fun beside playing with Barbie’s, dress up, or tea party. As for boys being” sissy”, I believe them just being kids who tend to be emotional. But we except boys to be less emotional in order to become a man. Parents think by their children not being a sissy they won’t be gay or transgender. But a man, confident, dominant, strong, that women would love.

  16. Thanks and keep up the hard work!!!

  17. Since ‘sissy’ is so derogative, maybe using terms like ‘janegirl’ might be better. I’ve heard this term used before and I don’t think it conjures the same negative connotation.

    • First time I’ve ever heard that term.

      Yes, it may be less derogative, but I’d be surprised if too many guys were okay with it. Most guys would probably still want to beat up anyone who called them that.

      The only thing that will make men taking on feminine traits ok is gender equality. Which I’m working hard to achieve.

  18. I was one of the guys in our class who didn’t raise my hand when asked if I was a sissy growing up. I never liked to play with dolls but neither did I like doing typically boyish stuff like climbing trees or play with toy cars. I liked drawing, listening to music and play with my lego but I don’t know where that places me on the scale. I think that parents need to teach their kids regardless of gender that it’s cool to do whatever they want. If you grow up being comfortable with your interests and who you are you won’t feel the need to put other people down because of their choices and you won’t feel the need to e.g. bully gay people just to show the world that you´re “totally not gay.”

    • I don’t know that that makes you a “sissy” either. It is kind of in between, like you say.

    • Sorry for being late to help, but ,I somewhat understand you. I’m a guy who took dance in school, was kind and kinda sensitive, knew a lot about women’s interests (fashion, makeup, psychology, etc), and wasn’t very aggressive. On the other hand, I loved wrestling with my friends, loved war-related stuff, that I have to help/shelter women, have muscles, etc. Gender isn’t one set word. There is still some mobility within the two regions. You can be sensitive, love music and be interested in legos. That’s what a gentleman is. It’s okay to break out of the roles a bit, just remember you’re a man and don’t be feminine. Hope it helps, but I don’t see you as a sissy or a “real man”, just a masculine person, but above all, a man

  19. I have wondered about this for years, boys who show a feminine side are ridiculed, humiliated and ostracized. I suspect that if boys were allowed to explore their whole psyche they would be better balanced and probably “better brain hardwiring, more observation, higher intuition, etc that are usually associated with women.” as mentioned by Casta947 above. By constantly shutting down half ones personality we lose so much – and them we ask why males are so aggressive, dominate, less intuition etc. maybe it is the fact that girls can be both masculine and feminine that allows for the advanced development skills.

    I like it when schools have a “cross dress” day, it gives people a chance to do something different. Ever wonder why dressing as a girl on Halloween is so popular …..? Freedom of expression should include clothes, thoughts, and feelings too!

    • I agree, and because women in general embody a more balanced Masculine and Feminine, they are better equipped to be the new spiritual (I don’t mean religious) and social and political leaders. And slowly, we are going in that direction on the Planet. Being female now is a wonderful opportunity to express that balance. Not trying to prove our worthiness by our physical appearance or by over nurturing, or by trying to be more like a man, but by discovering OURSELVES. And allowing ourselves to feel whole and complete, being that man for ourselves, and then feeling safe to be ourselves fully. We are then the living examples of an enlightened woman. And men will eventually catch up as they embrace their own feminine aspects. Challenging and exciting times.

      • And hopefully one day it will be safe for men to develop their whole selves, too — as women’s status increases so that men don’t have to be so afraid of the feminine side of the humanity.

  20. Great post. I myself am f the two-opirit variety and did nt mind beingexposed to suh roles. I was not feally aware df my social status nd f am cosieredmore wn .asy-goingkind o aprson I ould be one of those ew aho would have loved uo talked aboutit if Iwas sed thtqestio. k

    • Thanks for writing in. But you’re a little hard to read.

      • Hi, sorry about that gibberish nonsense. Got this fixed though.
        What I meant to say was that I think this is interesting. A lot of people who are of the two-spirit variety such as myself are considered easy-going during their childhood. I was not really made aware of my social status until later in my years. So if someone were to ask me if I was ever sissy, I would have said yes and would have been one of those people who enjoys talking about it, not unlike most men who would be looking for trouble.
        yes I did wonder why though. This is still being studied both hard and soft-science based theories. One science theory states that it might have to do with how much hormone balances they have. As you know, women have a lesser count of testosterone within thirty to forty percent than men have of oestrogen, which would be only five to ten percent. This means that if men were to have higher oestrogen count that matched how much women had of testosterone, their personalities would be altered. This means, better brain hardwiring, more observation, higher intuition, etc that are usually associated with women. The truth is, there are just too huge a number of possibilities.

      • But also different cultures have different ideas about what masculinity and femininity are. And so years ago a woman who would feel completely comfortable as a woman in our culture would have felt very manly and ill-fitting in a different culture. Or, a man who belonged to the African tribe where the men wear make up and ornament themselves and look very feminine might be completely comfortable there but feel likely doesn’t fit in at all in the Western world as a man.

        My own very is that people are born with a range of personalities. So some women have what in our society are considered very feminine personalities, something else going personalities and most are in between. So long as you around the feminine side or somewhere in between you’ll probably feel completely comfortable. But if you end up with the personality that’s masculine but you’re biologically sending you won’t feel comfortable. But again, whatever is considered masculine will vary from place to place.

  21. I agree with the article half heartedly. I agree that it’s not fair that women can act like tomboys and men can’t act like “sissys” or girls. There is definitely a negative connotation to the word sissy and much less the word tomboy. Even say, “Janeboy” I’m sure wouldn’t necessarily fly. And to that extent I don’t agree that we should keep using words having to do with females to demean a man. However I feel as though progress is said to be made in regards to some women being accepted as tomboys. Isn’t that something to applaud? Only a few decades ago it wasn’t as socially acceptable for women to play sports, or get dirty, or speak their minds. But now it seems more acceptable for women to do more manly like things. I was a total tomboy, especially growing up and in many ways still am. Now, of course, I had a two year older brother who might have had some influence on me in that respect. As well as my mom giving me all this hand me down clothes. Thanks mom. But I love sports, especially soccer, and anything having to do with the outdoors. That’s not to say I avoid makeup, infact I spend a considerable amount of time getting ready and feeling lady like so to speak, but overall I’m happy with being able to go hiking and jump in the mud puddles when it’s raining outside without too many people judging me or scolding me for not being enough of a lady. Overall I agree that it’s crap for society to keep using demeaning words like sissy and others to insult a man, it’s completely and perhaps much more insulting to a women. But thank goodness I get to blow off some steam by kicking a ball around all day or playing in the mud.

  22. I was a tomboy as a kid up until the 7th grade. When I reflect back to why I was a tomboy, sometimes I feel the main reason was because I felt the need to “be the man of the house” and protect my mom for she was and still is a single mother of an only child. I wanted to be everything my dad wasn’t for my mom. Being there for her, protect her and love her, all of which he failed to provide for her. My reason for becoming a tomboy eventually had me liking being a boy. I wore baggy shirts and pants and sweet Nike’s because that’s what all the guys were wearing at school. I played with the boys and when I was around girls, a lot of the times I felt out of place because what they enjoyed, I didn’t find myself liking too much. At sleepovers, while they passed out goody bags with scented lotion and hand wash, I hoped for something like Pokemon cards or toy guns or cars. Getting to middle school, I discovered gays and lesbians and realized maybe that’s what I am and also learning that they were looked down upon in our society. So then I started to try and become more girly in the 7th grade because that’s the role I’m supposed to be, and it’d make everyone happy to know that I’m straight. I hope now we can spread the word that you can be who you want and feel, otherwise feelings are suppressed and that creates a bigger burden for the people who finally do let how who they really are.

  23. That’s pretty funny that this guy almost got punched in the face just for conducting an interview about gender inequality but I don’t think they want to punch him in the face because they were offended. I think they’re just insecure. I would have taken no offense to that question.

    I’ve always noticed when I was growing up that girls who acted like boys would be considered way more normal than boys who acted like girls. When girls act like boys it’s cool but when boys act like girls, people think, “hey, why aren’t you embracing the dominant gender?”

    Then they get called queers. I remember-vaguely- at some park in San Carlos when I was a little kid, some football coach was playing football with some boys and one of the boys was not playing football but sitting in the bleachers reading “Romeo and Juliet” and the coach yelled at him, “What are you doin’ readin that sissy shit ya queer?!”

    Then the coash threw the football to him but the kid wasn’t looking and the football hit him FLAT in the face. Everybody started laughing, including me, but except the kid. I was only about twelve and I thought it was hilarious. His sister went to go nurture him. None of the boys helped him but the one girl who was there, did.

    That’s a decent example of gender inequality, right?

  24. ’‘It’s a man’s a world’’. This figure of speech is really engrained in us and reading this article makes me believe it even more. We have accomplished a lot in the last hundred years. Women are able to a lot more, atleast in the western world. Women have the right to vote. They are able to work and become successful business women and doctors and fend for themselves without living in a mans shadow. The opportunities are endless. Yet, women are still looked upon as being less worthy than men. You can see this more clearly in other parts of the world, especially where it is more undeveloped. I don’t ever think that this problem will completely go away. We shouldn’t accept this way of thinking either because that would be the opposite of progress. I think that men who still think this way need to grow up and man up. They need to acknowledge that being a man doesnt’t mean that you are better than a woman or ’‘like a woman’’. Yes. there are differences between us like the genetics and body structure but we are all created equal.

  25. I feel that being a tomboy for girls is more accpeted becuase we don’t care about the stigmas that people might say abotu it. With guys they tend to wonder what others say about them. To me i feel that men are more insacure then women. If a guy is called a sissy then thats almost liek challenging his manhood becuase as a man he is supose to be strong and a sissy is a weak person. These are stigmas that society has put on people especially men for years. If a women crys people just say oh whatever but if a guy crys then people stop stare and kaugh at him. Overall, thats just a term that society has came up with to degrade a mans masculinity.

  26. Jessica Bailey

    Growing up the oldest of three girls all two years apart, there were two tomboys, myself and my youngest sister who is four years younger than me. My sister in the middle has always been a Diva! Anyways, while I decided the summer before High School that I no longer wanted to be apart of the “Boys Crew”, my baby sister kept the loose fitting jeans, big shirts and basketball. With this said Felicia, the tomboy, was and is still treated in our community as a male. With her “acting” as a male by our societies standards, came along the negative term that were used against her while in an argument with siblings or outside playing with the guys. Sissy (Sissy La La is actually the exact statement). She was not and is still not allowed to be emotional. If she would get upset because the boys were being to rough she was not to cry but to get ready for a scuffle. If in the house with her two older sisters, she was to argue back and be ready for whatever challenge we set up for her because after all she was out “little brother”. Though our society may value the male over the female has its flaws, but for a women in the male world it’s just makes her life that much harder!

  27. Timothy Lepisi

    I have a two year old son, and when he does cry for little things or is being sensitive we would call him a sissy. I never asked myself if when I said that if he was demeaned to a lower level but now I see the point that Georgia Platts is making. Why is it that girls being seen as a tom boy is cute or even normal at a young age, however boys that are sensitive can’t be accepted as just that. Instead they are seen as sissy’s because they take on normal characteristics of a girl. I never gave this much thought until this article though because it was so normal.

    Society tells us that only women can be sensitive and when men are seen this way they are not as much as a man. Girls on the other hand can be proud that they take on traits of boys. If society didn’t control the stereotypes of men and women so much, we wouldn’t have this issue. Until men and women can both be seen in the same light with similar characteristics, we will continue to place both men and women on different levels.

  28. I remember myself also behaving like a tomboy, but I wondered whether playing basketball, climbing trees and digging in the dirt are activities that belong to or characterize boys. We can learn from this case two positive things about women. One, that women can do almost everything that men do, and second that women are so special that any attempts to be like them be interpreted as strange since men cannot be exactly like women. Any attempt to bring this case as an example of how we “gender rank” men above women in our society seems to me more as an attempt to emphasize the discrimination between men and women. Instead to emphasize the beauty of be woman.

    • Unfortunately in our culture when there is a difference between women and men, the way men are is generally (not always) thought to be better. It’s why girls can do “guy things” without demeaning themselves, but guys can’t do “girl-things” without feeling demeaned.

      That said, I’m with you on seeking to value women, and women’s ways (biological or learned), as much as men.

  29. Tonya (Facundo) Kamaloni

    I think this blog demonstrates that words are a powerful thing. We can build someone up or tear them down by a simple utterance of a word. Children do not know the social implications of certain words. Teaching a child that sissy is a bad thing creates a host of expectations of how and what not to be. The same thing applies with the word tomboy for girls. As a first time mother to a toddler boy, I fight against these gender stereotypes on a daily basis. If my son exhibits signs of behavior contrary to what others think is right or wrong, I will love him the same, and encourage him to be who he is. I believe the key to changing our society, is to teach our children to love themselves and others.

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