Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #299: Tomboy by Liz Prince

Hardly anyone interesting will admit to having a happy childhood: that's the marker of stupidity, conformity, and the boring. We were all outcasts, rebels, loners, burnouts, stoners, band geeks, ordinary geeks, losers, poor kids, from the wrong side of town or stuck wearing hand-me-downs during those important years. Everyone claims to have been unpopular in high school -- either the ones who were popular are lying now, or those cheerleaders and football players are just in an entirely different cultural circle (NASCAR, country music, tertiary Fox channels, and only books ghost-written under the names of sports heroes) these days.

Liz Prince was unpopular as a kid -- she's a cartoonist, so we could have guessed that. She's written a memoir of her childhood, which is another marker of having been unpopular -- publishers aren't particularly interested in a few hundred pages of "everybody loved me, I got decent grades, and was homecoming queen!" But Prince's drawings are open and clear -- lots of thin pen lines and rounded figures -- and her writing is clear and honest, so Tomboy is more than just another "other kids picked on me" book.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is mostly about how Prince was never interested in girly things -- dresses, pretty hair, dolls, the color pink, the whole panoply of modern marketing crap, girl division. And she mostly grew up in the suburbs of Santa Fe in the '80s and '90s, which partially explains why this is her problem -- there are a number of urban centers where kid Liz Prince would have been no big deal, though on the other hand it certainly could have been worse in parts of the South and other enclaves where the 1950s have never ended. Tomboy is not a feminist critique of American gender roles, though Prince could have used a good dose of that much earlier than it finally got to her. It's her personal story, about how she muddled through and had a decent childhood and adolescence despite all of the kids around her who were annoyed and hostile because she did "girl" differently than they expected.

One of the startling things for a reader on the other side of the gender divide like me is how absolutely tiny her deviations seemed. She liked wearing a baseball cap. She never wore dresses past the age of two. She was friends with a few girls, but also boys sometimes. She liked to play catch. I'd like to think it's not this bad where I live now -- that girls can both play baseball and be in the Girl Scouts without people's heads exploding -- but I'm not in a position to really say (being male, and one of The Olds). For Prince, just being authentically herself was an uphill battle every day.

Prince does make the point a number of times that a lot of people are just jerks, and find ways to pick on people they consider weaker: this was the way they picked on her, because it was easy. (Each of us reading this can probably remember a similar way we were each picked on, whenever our childhoods were.) That's magnanimous of her, and shows that she can be clear-eyed and honest about her own experiences, but there's no denying that ingrained, institutional sexism made her first twenty years much harder and less pleasant than it should have been.

This book will probably be read mostly by tomboyish girls, past or present. But the people who really should read it are boys, and, maybe even more than them, the girls who love pink and gossip and painting each others' nails and big frilly dresses and cute shoes. I hope they find it; I hope they get it. Tomboy is a brave and honest book, by a fine cartoonist, and it deserves to be in a million school libraries and ten million brains.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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