Reading Like a Tomboy: Looking for Myself in Literature -The Toast

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This fall I’m embarking on my first-ever “Write Like a Girl” Workshop, working with students aged 10 to 14 to determine what exactly “being a girl” means and helping them bring their myriad experiences, hopes, dreams, and frustrations into their writing. I’m hoping to teach the next generation of of quirky, out-of-place kids that they can “girl” however they want — there’s no canon worth bothering about. We’ll read Ophelia Speaks and Body Outlaws and I Am Malala and talk about street harassment and dress codes and Beyoncé.

I also teach college writing classes with an emphasis on representation, giving my freshmen a chance to seek out and examine books, films, and TV shows that portray people just like them — or don’t. I try to hasten them toward the important realization that if they don’t see themselves represented, if they grew up being asked to identify with characters with whom they had nothing in common, it is not a shortcoming on their part. Movements like DiversifyYA, the influence of Shonda Rhimes in television, and the debut of comic book superheroes like Ms. Marvel all help me make the case that people representing themselves and those like them is the best way to achieve more diversity in what we read and watch and hear. I have no gift for writing fiction, but I do know how to lead these girls and young women on a search for themselves on the page. I’ve been on this mission for years, because when I was a kid, I had no idea where I fit.

Miranda in 1995 (front row, right) Miranda (front row, right), 1995.

While there was plenty I could learn from Anne Shirley or Harriet the Spy, I always longed to read about an actual tomboy like me – no long braids, no puffed sleeves, no growing up into a swan after an ugly duckling childhood. Finding a story like that would have given me one way to understand and explain who I was, and perhaps spared me a great deal of trouble. As a young reader, I always wanted a role model who didn’t grow out of her awkward phrase, who didn’t eventually find that it all just fell into place – because I wasn’t sure it ever would for me. I was looking for a character who could assure me I was not a lone weirdo with unique and unsolvable problems. I wanted to know there were other kids who found the potpourri of boy/girl behavior messaging in books utterly bewildering.

Then I found my mom’s vintage copy of Honestly Katie John, in which a young girl with short hair and no grace to speak of grapples with femininity and tomboyishness in her small town. I felt reassured that my struggle wasn’t new; it wasn’t outlandish; it wasn’t wrong. If girls like Katie John and me had existed in 1972, surely they were still out there somewhere. This is what girls who aren’t “girly girls” have done since time immemorial — we’ve tried to find our own way.

Since the age of ten my favorite book has been Jane Eyre, which has as much to tell me about modern adolescence as a raven does a writing desk. It felt normal to me, then, that so many of my literary favorites came from books to which I could not personally relate. It was even encouraging, maybe, that books about girls who looked and dressed and spoke nothing like me could offer helpful examples of how to “girl” properly. Thanks to Anne of Green Gables, Girl of the Limberlost, Beverly Cleary, E.L. Koenigsberg, and Judy Blume, I knew I was “allowed” to be bookish, capital-R Romantic, chatty, nosy, curious, fearful, occasionally bossy; to prefer the outdoors (though I didn’t, particularly); to make mistakes often and embarrass myself. But I was more like the awkward love child of Nancy Drew’s sidekicks, George Fayne and Bess Marvin, who didn’t seem to be troubled by things like skirts or perpetually saying the wrong thing or having no common ground with their peers.

I was frequently mistaken for a boy when I was younger, which didn’t bother me — but I noticed that didn’t happen to the girls in my favorite books. No matter how hard I studied literary girlhood, I could never seem to remember its lessons in the clutch. I could never put together a becoming outfit or remember to brush my hair or make sure it hadn’t all flown away from its meager ponytail. What should have been charming notes to the boys I liked came across more like hostage demands. At lunch I read by myself, and afterwards played basketball with the boys (with unfeminine aggression!) instead of perching nimbly on the monkey bars with the other girls.

All my life I suppose I’ve felt a kind of yearning for androgyny. I caught brief glimpses of the girl I wished to be in Scout Finch’s skinned knees, Jo March’s russet boots, Margaret Thursday’s Little Lord Fauntleroy panache. But judging by the books that filled my backpack and stacked up on my nightstand, girls like me just didn’t exist. I was the chubby red-faced angry third-grader on the playground trying to catch up to the bullies singing “1-800-97-Jenny” or calling me “Randy Savage” (my mother’s family is Cherokee and Choctaw, for which I was mocked on the playground).

If nurture — and my mother’s influence — did have the power to triumph over nature, I would have been a model citizen of girly-girl nation. But in first grade I announced to my mother that I wasn’t wearing frilly dresses with big bows anymore. In fourth grade I proudly came home from KidCutz with the bowl cut that launched a thousand battles. My mother wanted to sweep my bangs becomingly to the side; I wanted to get out of the shower, dry off, and be done with it. As I batted her hands away from my forehead for the hundredth time, she finally snapped, “But it doesn’t look good.

I remember disappointment and defiance warring in my brain as I looked in the mirror. The bangs hanging straw-straight looked totally normal to me — and exactly like every other mushroom-cut in my class — but clearly my mother’s more advanced feminine sensibilities could tell they were all wrong. “I don’t look good?” I thought, wounded. I knew how the other girls at school looked — cute, coordinated, slender, well groomed. But knew I wasn’t like them. Their bodies didn’t seem like foreign casings. Their skirts and tights and sweaters didn’t seem to be choking or suffocating them.

A young Miranda about to meet Madeleine L'Engle. A young Miranda about to meet Madeleine L’Engle.

Gender just seemed so mysterious at the time, and still does, honestly. As a child I was desperate to find a proper literary heroine, who of course had to have spunk and a touch of rebelliousness, but in my case would have felt the same cocktail of corrosive feelings I did — guilt, humiliation, awkwardness, social ineptitude — and possessed the unenviable ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and look bad in clothes.

Perhaps hoping to steer me back to the less confusing end of the gender presentation pond, my mother gave me her old copy of Stories to Live By, a late-1960s anthology of short fiction from the Girl Scouts magazine. Stories to Live By was an Aesop’s Fables for the modern teen, in a fictional golden era when all the girls wore dresses and all the boys called their fathers “sir.” There was no mention of the Civil Rights Movement in its pages, no hint of an impending Summer of Love, no Stonewall — in fact, no politics of any kind. It was also a Bechdel Test nightmare — the girls only talked to each other about boys, clothes to impress the boys, or money to buy makeup to attract the boys. Nobody was queer, or overweight (unless they were about to learn to “reduce”), or doubted they’d ever find their place in the world. Most of the stories in this utopia of 10-cent Cokes and sock-hops were about going steady, breaking up, caring too much about appearances, or “being true to yourself” (which actually meant conforming). They weren’t all frivolous — one was about segregated train cars; another about a terminally ill sister — but aside from a few money woes, some crash diets, and an ethical quandary or two, every single story featured a dance, a date, a budding romance, and a town full of white people.

According to this bland assortment of models for budding womanhood, my own impulsiveness, lack of grace, and short temper would never have made it. Still, I avidly read Stories to Live By cover to cover, over and over. It did have something to offer me besides an amusing snapshot of outdated mainstream mores: a template to riff on; a set of ingredients for the baked good known as adulthood; a more traveled road from which to diverge. I might not do any of the things these rosy-eyed damsels did, like outgrow my awkwardness, but I could fall in love and have a makeover and perhaps a date. That would have to do.

Luckily for me, the queer kids started to come out of the closet in middle school — encouraged, perhaps, by awareness of gay teachers for the first time — so right as I hit my early teens, I started to see people in real life I would have found very reassuring in childhood literature. I had also made the move from reading buttoned-down 1960s YA and literary classics to reading contemporary fantasy written by kickass women like Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey — their women characters were beautiful, sure, and they were also warriors, mages, bards, teachers, partnered, unpartnered, gay, straight, poly. They were sexually liberated and witty. Instead of finding representation, I embraced escapism: Alanna the Lioness abandoned needlepoint for knighthood; Kerown of By the Sword had love, magic abilities, a horse-like Companion, and fought like a demon on the battlefield; Rune of The Bardic Voices trilogy was boyish and musically talented and grew up to be adopted by a traveling band of musicians. It didn’t matter that all the external factors were different, because these women felt lonely, out of place, wrong somehow, until they discovered their people. I could relate to that.

As I aged into the teen rom-com demographic, however, the search for self in the books I read was replaced with a desire to see myself in movies. I drank the rom-com Kool-aid and focused only on the sense of joy and completion every heroine felt when she finally had the love of some adoring boy. I lost myself, and it showed in the guys I dated.

It was breaking out of the heteronormative dating binary in my twenties that finally made me understand how many kinds of women there are. I met dapper-as-hell lesbians who rocked vests and button-downs and tailored slacks, sleek femmes with blowouts and elegant accessories, big girls with killer taste in prints and cat’s-eye glasses, gender-queer folks whose presentation was as fluid as it was fashionable, and other women who just…were. Themselves.

At the time I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series and was as impressed by Lisbeth Salander’s lack of repentance for not fitting in as I was with her fighting skills. Shared book nerdiness was a common theme in almost every date with a woman that I went on during these years; for a while I actually formed a YA book club with a woman named Preeti in lieu of a romantic relationship. Preeti’s vibe was sort of Katherine Hepburn meets a slouchy 1940s professor by way of Calcutta and Michigan, and seemed effortless and alluring. We’d meet and exchange an old favorite novel for a title the other hadn’t read, and then meet again to debrief; I was convinced these were dates, she was equally certain they were not. In a way I suppose I was still trying to force a meet-cute/fall-in-love narrative that just didn’t fit in my life.

I made some important shifts in my quest-reading in these years — in college I’d found my feet as a critic, and fallen headlong into essayists and memoir. Nonfiction — where there are as many voices as there are writers, representing themselves in all their awkward, messy, confessional glory — has the potential to be a haven for the underrepresented (publishing establishment pending).

I started inhaling graphic novels, too. If you’ve read Fun Home (or watched Sydney Lucas’s perfect performance of “Ring of Keys” on the Tonys), you might remember the first moment young Alison Bechdel saw a butch lesbian in a diner. That’s what reading Fun Home was like for me — oh, there you are. The intimacy of her storytelling, bolstered by those familiar tomboyish images of a kid in jeans and tees and fighting the barrettes and bows of the world, converted me to comics for life.

A shared love of artists like Lynda Barry and Ben Katchor was one of the things that drew me to the man who would eventually become my husband. One of the things I did along the way was complete a comic autobiography about being a writer and an alcoholic, and getting sober at 21. I started out trying to draw the way “good artists” draw, and eventually began drawing myself as a Fisher-Price peg person — purple-clothed body, short hair — pursued everywhere by a Crazybrain that squawked all the self-loathing and doubt I ever felt. I stopped looking for myself elsewhere, and made my own Story to Live By.

I just turned 30, and when I read now, I derive hopeful clues about “how to be” and spend less time worrying about “how to woman.” If “I just don’t want to fuss!” was its own gender presentation, I think I’d have sorted myself out long ago. I still struggle with things many women are good at, though I think have almost mastered a few of them — I know how to pick out good presents for people, and send care packages, and I own a nice pair of boots. I know what exactly one attachment on my hair dryer does; I do not wear makeup; I’m very good with kids.

I learn from girls who have adventures and boys who love earnestly, women who are frank and sharp-tongued and men who take great care of their skin. For some women I admire, life means mothering; for others it means mercenary-ing. This is what I want to explore with my “Write like a Girl” students — I want them to interrogate the experience of being themselves, and write about their triumphs, their struggles, their fears, their curiosity. Let them learn sooner, rather than twenty years of hard road later, that spunky and serious and girly and tough and silly and brainy and fearful and angry can coexist in one wonderful person, no matter how they dress or who they’re attracted to or how they wear their damn bangs.

Miranda K. Pennington has completed a book about her lifelong habit of over-identifying with the Brontës and is represented by the Julia Lord Literary Agency. She teaches academic and creative writing at various adjunct-employing institutions, including Columbia University, where she obtained her MFA. Her writing has appeared on the Ploughshares Blog, The American Scholar Online, and The Catapult podcast.

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