Archived Discussion

This is discussion archived from a time before the current discussion method was installed.

Working Title: Tomboy And Girly Girl: From YKTTW

Nornagest: Unfortunate Implications? Hmm. Let me see if I've got this straight:

- If the tomboy is presented as better, stereotypically female interests are worthless, or at best petty. Unfortunate Implications.

- If the girly-girl (a name, incidentally, which strikes me as really awkward) is presented as better, non-traditional gender roles are somehow inferior. Still Unfortunate Implications.

It appears you cannot win.

It'd be nice if you could always present both roles as equal, but that basically prevents the distinction from being important to most plots. If you have a protagonist that fits into either category and it's important to the story, you're eventually going to have to present it as a good or bad thing if you don't want to be limited to the "we just need to understand each other" Aesop.

Clerval: Huh - why'd you delete my response instead of just replying to it? And why's it so hard to present them both as equals? Just give 'em separate skillsets that are useful in different situations, or whatever. And, again, why's it so hard to NOT present all girls as either one or the other at all? How many plots is the distinction really that important to anyway? There was no reason, to take an extreme example, George of the Famous Five couldn't have done the same things she did with longer hair, or why Anne's fondness for pretty dresses had to entail extreme wibbliness. To be fair I don't think this trope is SO all-pervasive these days - plenty of writers clearly ARE finding ways to 'win'.

Nornagest: Didn't see your response; most likely it got eaten by an edit conflict. Sorry about that.

Anyway, it's not too hard to avoid using the trope in an ensemble cast, or to give each stereotype equal screen time and skill sets. The problem shows up when you have a single protagonist (like most children's fiction does, and this is primarily a children's fiction trope) — there is basically no way to avoid making value judgments about the protagonist's gender role, as long as that gender role is important to the plot. The sole exception, as I've said, is the learning-to-understand-each-other plot. Note that the protagonist need not be a stereotypical tomboy (or orthogirl, for that matter, but "tomboy" is almost always how it's played in modern media) for this to work — even some vague tendencies one way or the other will do it, as long as those tendencies have plot significance.

On reflection, it seems like the only way to win is not to play. Okay; I can roll with that.

Gattsuru: I dunno. The Gunnerkrigg Court example (or their opposing characters), or Animorphs, or a few other examples make the matter less about "learning to understand each other" or "X is better", and more about growing a beard on the relevant characters. Those differences have plot significance — sometimes they are the plot — but they don't try to prove that one character's personality or capabilities are better, or that it's important for one to understand the other, so much as it's just important to interact.

Nornagest: Well, at least as far as Gunnerkrigg Court goes, I wouldn't say that the difference is plot-relevant in the way I was discussing. As far as I remember, the simple fact that Kat is a tomboy (or Annie isn't) never drives a plot in its own right; it merely informs other character traits, like Kat's technophilia or Annie's empathy, which do drive plots.

Clerval: Sorry, by the way, your addition just read weirdly as if you'd read what I wrote. Well, sure, if you must write a plot which is really about the difference to the point of explicitly comparing the two, one will probably have to come out better, but how many plots like that do there really need to be? Any more than if you are writing a sensitive, intellectual boy and his more macho friend/rival/acquaintance, one must win over the other? (rather than they both just fight a monster or something).

I'm finding it hard to remember examples from kids' media, but I do remember a fair few teen books where the heroine would be the slightly more tomboyish, or at least less confident, friend of a very beautiful, feminine girl who slightly overshadowed her. The girly friend could be implicitly treated as more trivial by the narrative, but not always, sometimes they were perfectly sympathetic characters and the heroine's slight sense of inferiority (where that existed) would be her problem to get over. So if the difference absolutely has to be an issue, though I really don't see that as necessary, that's one way of avoiding "who is better."

Nornagest: Direct comparisons seem to come up most often in romantic plots (and romantically-focused formats like a lot of soap opera), which are the largest set of plots that are explicitly about femininity in that sense. And it's especially hard to avoid the implication of superiority here — unless you're doing a Big Love plot or something similar, one participant is going to win and one is going to lose. Even if the loser ends up in a fulfilling relationship, it usually comes off as a Pair the Spares scenario.

This happens for guys, too; the sensitive-intellectual-gets-the-girl plot is nearly as common as the tomboy-gets-the-guy one, although there's usually a subplot involving overcoming some kind of inhibition that's absent in the distaff version.

Clerval: I thought you said it was mainly about children's fiction? I'm a little confused by what you're saying, but let's see - The questions seem to be: Is it necessary to portray girls and women in this yin-yang, polarised way at all, and if it is, do they have to be in competition (whether for a man or for narrative approval)? And it runs the other way: Does there have to be a competition, and if so, do the competitors have to be a tomboy and a girly girl? And there just seem to be plenty of "no"s along the way to me. If you want to tell a love triangle story involving two women, neither of them needs to fall into either category (most real women do not). On the other hand, if you really do want to tell a story about two girls who do embody these stereotypes, there's no reason one has to come out on top - or that they even need to learn to understand each other, they could be friends/colleagues/Nakama from the beginning and be busy with some other problem now.

However, if you decide to pit "girly girl" (you're right, it's a cringeable phrase, surely there must be something better?) against tomboy as rivals competing for a man's love, and do not allow them any other way of relating to each other, then no, you probably cannot "win", because the entire premise smacks of Unfortunate Implications. But as you say, why play that game? There are plenty of others.

Nornagest: YA and older children's media, if I'm remembering correctly. I haven't seen the trope in the wild for a while, but the examples seem to support that; the trope also seems to show up occasionally in general-readership fantasy. Oddly, I think I've seen its male Sensitive Guy vs. Macho Man counterpart much more often in adult fiction.

Looking over the examples, I'm forced to concede that my original objection was a little over-snarky and overly general. The conflicts you refer to rarely occur in the buddy-show and ensemble cast variations on the trope, which may be the most common if our example list is representative. However, they do occur frequently in the love-triangle variation, at least if the triangle is resolved by the end of the plot (the only subversion I can think of immediately is Utena, where the female leads end up with each other); they're also practically required in the antagonistic variation, where the more stereotypically feminine half of the equation is usually The Libby.

I don't think the purest, most polarized variations on this trope need be true for my objection to apply; even if you view characters as occupying points on a scale of gender conformity rather than a binary tomboy/princess division, they're still more or less girly compared to each other, and the same implications can be seen. They need not be emphasized; in adult fiction, they're usually not. But YA fiction relies much more heavily on themes of personal identity, so you see conflicts relating to the trope a lot more often. It seems unfair to brand them all as reactionary fantasies in disguise, or what have you.
  • Orange Aipom: I don't understand why it says "toned-down girly variations", when the girl who does the girlier sports is a toned-down tomboy anyway. Really, it's only a matter two characters having the same archetype being completely pointless.

Neo Chaos: Okay, handshucker, why exactly are you removing those four particular examples (Sailor Moon, Kimagure Orange Road, Street Fighter, Rival Schools)? What exactly about them make them not fit on this page?

Fighteer: I don't get the addition of Maytag and Bernadette of Flipside. Which is the tomboy and which is the girly girl? Bern is a fighter archetype while May is roguish, but both are capable combatants and neither is particularly "girly", certainly not in a stereotypical way. I'm gonna take it off unless someone really objects.

fuzzbucket: Who of Macross Frontier? You can't just put up the title, there has to be a duet from that series to fit thie trope.