What do tomboys become when they grow up?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about feistiness and feminist ethics. I mentioned a film I found through Women Making Movies called Tomboys! Feisty Girls and Spirited Women. I was finally able to watch it last night. When I first read about the film, I was intrigued by its opening question: Are tomboys tamed once they grow up? The film answers this question by offering up four stories by and about women (various ages–a teenager, an artist in her 20s/30s, a firefighter in her 30s/40s, and an activist in her 80s) who have refused to be tamed and who have managed to keep their feistiness despite societal pressures to become “proper” (more ladylike, more feminine in dress and manner, less playing with boys) women.

In addition to footage of these girls/women, the filmmakers (Julie Akaret and Christian McEwen) interview Carol Gilligan about girls, tomboys, adolescence, and resisting pressure to lose one’s feistiness. I like their inclusion of Gilligan. Her theories on women’s moral development and women-as-caregivers, which were first articulated in the groundbreaking book In a Different Voice, have been highly influential within feminist theory/feminist ethics. In fact, when scholars talk about a feminist ethic of care, her name is one of the first to come up (along with Nel Noddings). Gilligan has one of my favorite lines in the film when she suggests that these girls not be called tomboys but resistors–people who resist oppressive and restrictive rules/codes of behavior.

I really appreciate the concept of this film–creating links between girls, young women, middle-age women, old women. I also like the idea of valuing feistiness–this resonates with my own promotion of troublemaking. I want to show this film to my kids when they get a little older. I think it could generate some interesting discussions about what it means to be a girl (and a boy). For these reasons, I am happy to see such films being made. We need more of them.

I have some problems with the film (surprise surprise), but I will get to those in a later blog entry. Right now I want to focus on why I like this short movie: It values troublemaking as a form of spirited feistiness and resistance. And, it uses a feminist ethicist (Gilligan) to do it.

Feistiness and Feminist Ethics

STA has warned me that I need to take a break from the Brady Bunch and I agree. After all, this is not the Brady Bunch blog.

A couple of months ago, I was re-reading a great collection by Claudia Card called Feminist Ethics. In her introductory essay Claudia Card writes about feminist ethics and the virtue of feistiness. She argues that we need to stop being polite (and start getting real…arghh! Curse you MTV’s Real World). We need to cultivate insubordination as a primary practice in our ethical reflections and constructions. We need to be willing to quarrel with others instead of backing down. We need to constantly challenge the ways that ethical frameworks fix us into limited visions of what is proper or improper behavior.

I am intrigued by Card’s suggestions that the virtue that describes all of this rebellious behavior is feistiness. But I wonder, what are the differences between feistiness and troublemaking? Is feistiness to feminist as troublemaking is to queer? When I think of feistiness, my vision is (almost?) always gendered female. Actually, it is very specific: I think of someone I know — a fiery farm girl who has a glimmer in her eye and is always up for an argument. The problem is that I whenever I think of her I also always remember how her feistiness is perpetually kept in check through her limited and conservative roles as mother and wife. Maybe feisty is what happens to troublemaking girls when they grow up? Their seemingly limitless appetite for destruction (someone please stop me!) is tamed as they grow older and more proper and “responsible.” Is this what feistiness is? A muted form of troublemaking? When we (girls) grow up do we trade in trouble for spiritedness?

I want to believe that troublemaking is something that we should never grow out of. We should be able to grow older and wiser, more responsible and accountable and still engage in some fun and serious troublemaking.  And, we should be able to do all of this without having to tone down our rebelliousness so that it fits in the more attractive and desirable form of feistiness (It does seem to me that feistiness is quite often represented not as a threatening or troubling personality trait or type of behavior,  but as a desirable and “sexy” one. For more evidence of this claim, check out the myspace page for this “Feisty” from the Love of Ray J). I wonder what this film, “Tomboys: Feisty Girls and Spirited Women” has to say about all of this? I will have to watch it this summer.

But, wait… Feistiness could be connected to the female/feminine in ways that aren’t completely constrained by masculine norms or traditional feminine roles. I am reminded of this great paper I just read by my friend, KCF, where she talks about (among other things) the femme identity as negotiating and playing with feminine roles not just reinforcing them. Wow. So, could femme feistiness be one specific version of troublemaking? [see this and this for more on the femme identity]. What would troublemaking in this form look like?