Tomboy: a graphic memoir by Liz Prince. Publisher: Zest Books. Graphic/memoir. Paperback. 256 pages.
“A boy can be celebrated because of his personality and talents, regardless of how he looks. In fact, talent can make a guy attractive who may not be by traditional standards. But a girl is usually only popular if she looks good.”
An outstanding, contemplative examination of identity, status and fitting in. Liz Prince is a talented cartoonist who takes us back to her childhood to examine her choice and comfort in being a tomboy. At a young age, Prince rejects standard female looks and prefers to dress like a boy. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt anyone? She chooses to wear a hat, blazer, jeans and t-shirts to dresses and skirts. Of course she gets picked on in elementary school without really understanding why. She states: “I didn’t even know what a tomboy was until I started school and was expected to follow the “rules of gender.” She prefers what we consider boys’ toys and games and most of her role models were boys like Huck Finn, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. She wants to be a boy instead of a girl because even in elementary school she knew that boys might have it better than girls. Prince suffers intense bullying for not looking like the girl her classmates expected her to look like with long hair and soft edges. She plays on the little league baseball team and also joins a girl scout troop.
As Prince becomes a teenager she grows confused as she’s a girl who wants to be like a boy and dress like a boy but she’s not gay. She’s attracted to boys. This throws another loop in her quest for identity. Like many teens she struggles for acceptance and for a boy to like her. I wore pink in high school and never had a boyfriend so I can relate. She worries about puberty—getting her period and developing breasts. She’s extremely body conscious. She notes that she started feeling dislike for girls and their girly ways. “For boys, there seemed to be more options available: there were more ways to be a boy and still be accepted whereas the popular girls all seemed to be cut from the same cloth.” So true.
I always preferred skirts and dresses and still do. I still defined myself as a feminist in fifth grade. I don’t recall a lot of girls wearing dresses when I grew up but I did. It’s my style. It’s what I’m most comfortable in. When I wear jeans I just don’t feel like myself. But I had wavy hair, unruly hair in the 80s and most girls and teens had straight hair. I fought my hair for many years until my senior year when I gained a slight bit of self-confidence and started to go with the flow regarding my hair. Clearly many adults never wear skirts and dresses but wear makeup and clothes that accent their femininity. Outside of fancy events and modeling shoots, I’ve never seen Gisele Bundchen wearing a skirt. She’s generally in jeans. But no one would confuse Gisele for a boy with her long hair, curvy body and makeup.
Being critical only suits one’s own egoism. There’s not many ways to tell who someone is based on her personal style and looks. Don’t put people in boxes. Don’t be so quick to judge someone based on her appearance. It’s about personality, capabilities, desires and communication. The way someone dresses is completely personal expression and comfort.
Boys and girls accuse Prince of being a lesbian or not liking boys. “The stereotype of the butch lesbian has plagued me my whole life but I don’t dress like a boy to attract girls. I dress like a boy because it feels natural to me.” A friend of Prince’s mom, Harley, runs a zine and asks Prince to contribute. Harley is this “cool” childfree adult who takes an interest in Prince’s desire to be a graphic/ comic artist. She’s also the first adult to explain to Prince about societal expectations for boys and girls. Through Harley, Prince realizes that it’s not girls per se she dislikes but the way that our society expects girls to act and dress. Thus a young feminist is born. Prince changes to a more progressive school where she doesn’t feel so out of place with the other “misfits:” Goth kids, punk kids, a hippie, a nerd. She also does an internship at an art collective and meets some cool kids there.
Another graphic memoir that’s stand-out poignant and provocative is Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me. This is en par with that in quality and meaning. Tomboy is a fascinating meditation on identity through fantastic cartooning style. Sometimes amusing. Often heartbreaking. Always honest. An important read for all ages.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Zest Books.
Liz Prince will be reading at Trident Booksellers and Café on Thursday, October 23 at 7pm.
purchase at Amazon: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir