August 13, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"[A] thorough and engrossing investigation... Davis's persuasive and deeply personal argument for moving beyond the gender binary will resonate with those curious about child rearing free of normative expectations."
Tomboy is ostensibly about girls who dressed or acted or played like boys—the science, psychology, culture, history and future of their motivations and experiences. But that whole idea is dependent upon the notion that there’s a normal way for a boy or girl to behave or look. What’s normal for boys and for girls has shifted many times in history, as has the idea that there should be separate ideas of what’s normal for each group. So these songs play with that idea, of how a girl or boy should be, and how they get celebrated or chastised when they don’t abide. I reminded myself over and over about all the incredible art and music that came from people who defied gender norms.
Peggy Lee, I’m a Woman (1962)
Many of us who came of age as women in the 1980s are more familiar with the adaptation of this tune, for a perfume commercial. The lyrics, written in 1962, home in on the problem women faced, fighting for liberation from the domestic sphere while still being expected to master it. For example:
I can rub and scrub til this old house is shinin' like a dime
Feed the baby, grease the car, and powder my face at the same time
Get all dressed up, go out and swing 'til four A.M. and then
Lay down at five, jump up at six, and start all over again
Turns out, these lyrics were the preview for the impossible expectations that would soon be bestowed upon most women.
Velvet Underground, Candy Says (1969)
Lou Reed and his compatriots spent a lot of time with people breaking all kinds of gender rules, from Andy Warhol to Candy Darling, a trans woman for whom this song was written. Long before the term gender dysphoria was coined, VU was writing about it, with lyrics like this: “Candy says I've come to hate my body, And all that it requires in this world.”
Big Star, September Gurls (1974)
Speaking of smashing expectations, Big Star is famous for being one of the most celebrated bands of all time that had almost no commercial success. I love their sound so much, and many of their lyrics capture a teenage boy’s wrestling with desire and masculinity and sensitivity. The narrator in this song says, “I was your Butch” but he’s also “been crying all the time.”
David Bowie, Rebel, Rebel (1974)
A lot of the research I did for the book was about the benefits of what’s sometimes called “psychological androgyny” — that is, psychological traits marked (incorrectly, as I believe) as masculine and feminine. They’re not usually talking about looking androgynous, though sometimes that comes with the package, and David Bowie is often brought up as an example of someone who’s wildly creative, in part because of being in touch with his “feminine” side. Rebel, Rebel is all about rebelling against how you’re supposed to dress or wear your hair or dance based on biological sex, and about celebrating that: “We like dancing and we look divine.”
X-ray Spex, Oh Bondage, Up Yours (1978)
Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I think ‘oh bondage, up yours!’
Need I say more?
Well, okay, a little bit. The Girl Power of the 1990s, courtesy of the super sexy Spice Girls, was a cooptation of Grrrl Power, courtesy of feminist punk bands like Bikini Kill. Xray Spex’s take on Grrrl Power, over a decade earlier, captures the true spirit.
Dar Williams, When I Was a Boy (1993)
So many people asked me during the writing of Tomboy if I’d heard this song (which shows you how many folk music-loving white people I know). It’s a nostalgic look back at her childhood, riding shirtless through the neighborhood, climbing trees. Over and over I heard this tale from interviewees, and how complicated it was when childhood was coming to an end. I always thought this line was interesting: “I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew/And you can walk me home, but I was a boy, too.” It seems to be an acknowledgment that she’s moving toward puberty, that she may have feelings for someone, but she doesn’t want to give up the privileges associated with tomboyhood, her membership in the boy gang.
RuPaul, Sissy That Walk (2014)
Tomboy was usually a positive term, a way of saying a girl was cool for defying expectations. There’s never been a positive word for a boy who does the same — that boy would be ditching tree-climbing and running shirtless for wearing nail polish and reading quietly. So RuPaul does what he does best with this song: he reclaims the term sissy, always used to shame a feminine boy, as a point of pride. It doesn’t matter what people say about him. “Unless they paying your bills,” he says, “pay them bitches no mind.”
Tomboy, Princess Nokia (2017)
There are a few songs called Tomboy, most rehashing Peggy Lee’s take: I can be super strong and super feminine. Princess Nokia’s is really about sexual empowerment, about self-love and refusing the pressure to be super feminine. Who else but a super confident woman would rap, “My little titties be bookin' cities.” Tomboys were almost always expected to tuck their masculinity away once they hit puberty, to focus on finding a man, who might find her masculinity threatening or unattractive. But for Princess Nokia, her tomboyness is what makes her attractive.
Undefeated, Rayana Jay (2018)
This song is inspiring on so many levels—not just the beat, not just the message, but the way it was made. An all-female team of writers and producers created the song at San Francisco’s Women’s Audio Mission, a recording studio created and run by women. The song is known as an anthem to Black female athletes, chronicling the incredible hurdles (literally, for the track stars) they’ve had to leap over to success. Tomboy talks a lot about the racial overtones of tomboyism in this country. It was encouraged in the 19th century for young white girls so that they’d be healthy at puberty, when it was time to get ready to breed. And there have always been different standards of acceptability for white girls and girls of color. This song says Screw THAT to all of those standards. It really captures the tomboy spirit.
Tomboy, Destiny Rogers (2019)
Destiny Rogers has another take on the word tomboy. It’s got nothing to do with sex, or femininity. It’s about deserving what any man gets, and being perfectly able to achieve success despite gender. “I'm a girl’s girl,” she sings. And then: “I'm a boss in a man's world.” Those things aren’t in opposition for her. They’re the same thing. For me, it shows that real progress has been made. Even if she claims the word tomboy, Rogers knows she doesn’t need the label. We’ve evolved beyond it.
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of two novels, Belly and Lost Stars, and hundreds of essays, articles and op-eds. She has written for The New York Times, Time, Salon, CNN and many other outlets. She also teaches personal essay writing (now from her closet).