The Sexism Of The Word "Tomboy" Is Perfectly Illustrated In This Fierce Documentary About Female Athletes
When you hear the word "tomboy," what comes to mind? CSN and NBC Sports' documentary of the same name may make you rethink the word completely. TOMBOY proves female athletes are just as badass as their male counterparts— if not more so. As the tagline suggests, it's all about "elevating the conversation of gender in sports," and the film succeeds in doing just that. Using the voices of prominent athletes, the doc shatters stereotypes of what women should or shouldn't be like. And, in a corresponding interview with Bustle, UFC champion Miesha Tate highlights some of the misconceptions that people have about women in sports: "That we're fragile. That we're not capable or performing to the depths of the male athlete."
The thing is, female athletes are just as strong-willed and talented as male athletes, but they aren't necessarily given the same recognition as the other gender. And that inequality is even implied in the very word "tomboy." One of the most striking moments in the documentary is when Tate declares,
"I think a strong and empowered woman is one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. Because we’re so capable in so many ways… We can be compassionate and strong and beautiful."
When speaking to Bustle over the phone, she dives deeper into this idea. "Women shouldn't have to choose between being strong or being beautiful. I think that women are capable of absolutely anything. I think we're the whole package — we can do it all," she explains. "I'm tired of society putting limitations on what women are capable of. And I guess that's what it is. I think an empowered woman is a beautiful woman."
The assumed limitation of women is the crux of the issue with the word "tomboy." Billie Jean King, a tennis champion who's featured in the film, summed up why that particular word can be a bit problematic. “I didn’t like to be called a tomboy," she recalls on-screen. "I hated it, because what do you call a boy? You know, he’s a great athlete, he’s well-coordinated, so am I. I just happen to be a female, a girl. Big whoopee.” King dedicated her career not only to the sport, but to activism as well, leaving her mark on the court and beyond.
As her comment points out, men are simply called "athletes." Why demote a woman to a "tomboy" — a word associated with the male gender? If anything, this doc — which stylizes its name with the word TOMBOY struck out — flips the word on its head by proving you can't place women in that box, or any box for that matter.
When you look at the stats, some of which are featured in the film, there are less women involved in sports even at younger ages, but that doesn't mean those who do participate aren't breaking records and making names for themselves. The idea that it's not "feminine" to have muscles or get dirty on the field is simply not true. As proven repeatedly in this documentary, femininity is how any woman decides to define herself — without any limits or preconceived notions attached.
As for the impact of sports, Ros Gold-Onwude, a basketball analyst who played at Stanford, points out why competing matters so much. "Sports gives you something you can call your own," she says in the doc. "You learn to deal to not only deal with adversity, you deal with bruises, bumps... It just makes you tougher. Toughness is a good thing on women, on girls. As is excellence." And that's the thing. People may knock you down, whether that be in sports or in any other field. But getting up and continuing to try teaches you not only about resilience, but also about yourself. Women deserve that growing opportunity, just as much as men.
During the film, professional basketball player Cappie Pondexter points out why, ultimately, other people's opinions don't matter. "No matter what people say, no matter if they label you a tomboy, you just have to go after it," she says. "Basketball isn’t for the weak. It’s a game of strength. You have to be strong."
And to say these women — who shoot three-pointers, race down ski slopes, fight in the ring, and throw 77 MPH curveballs — are "strong" is an understatement. They're warriors and so much more than their gender. Or, perhaps, they're so strong because of their gender.
Summing up the main message to take away from the movie — and one that resonates beyond the realm of sports — Tate says over the phone, "It's not like it's rocket science, you know? It's relatively simple honestly: Women are just as capable as men. Period."
Perfectly timed with Women's History Month, TOMBOY airs throughout March on NBC-owned TV stations. You can catch it on NBCSN on Thursday, March 30.