Welcome once again to a Good, Sad and Quirky review. Today I have a memoir in graphic novel format that relates the tale of one Liz Prince, a girl who struggles to fit into the pre-packaged image of how a girl should look and how a girl should behave. It’s a fantastically engaging book and one that may well become essential reading for anyone who feels that their biological attributes don’t match with society’s expectations as to how those attributes should be deployed.
Tomboy is the story of Liz Prince – it chronicles the difficulties and triumphs she experiences from childhood into young adulthood and beyond, in identifying as a “tomboy”. Liz likes baseball, superheroes and action figures, and feels most comfortable in jeans, a t shirt and her favourite cap. She’s happy like this. For her it is not a problem, it just is. Imagine her surprise then, on discovering that the people around her, from her own siblings, to her classmates, to her teachers and coaches, seem to find this disconcerting in the extreme. Tomboy covers the bullying that Liz experiences due to her boyish appearance, the difficulties in making and keeping friends that goes hand in hand with being visually different to one’s peers and the emerging problems that Liz encounters when trying to get to know boys in a romantic way while looking like a boy herself. Tomboy is an important and emininently readable piece of work that speaks clearly to one girl’s struggle to figure out what exactly it is that makes a girl and where she fits on the spectrum of womanhood.
Wow. Don’t be fooled by the cartoony style of the artwork, this is a book that packs an ideological and personal punch. Before even a third of the way through the book, Mad Martha was nodding and tearing up, so close to home were the situations and emotions presented here by Liz. The book follows a a chronological order, opening on a scene in which four-year-old Liz is screaming in an attempt to stop her mother from putting her in a dress. From there we move on with Liz into her years in primary school and on towards middle and high school, by which point being the only comfortable tomboy in a crowd of pubescent teens becomes quite a challenge indeed. The book finishes with Liz finding some stable ground as an adult in accepting how she is and how she wants to be and discovering that there is a community in which she can be socially accepted.
The art, as I mentioned, is in the traditional cartoon style and is both easy on the eye and perfect for conveying the humour underlying many of the situations Liz finds herself in. See for yourself:
There’s plenty in the storyline that is though-provoking and touching and challenging, but there’s also a lot here that will be very familiar to anyone who’s beyond the age of 15, whether they had trouble fitting in with peers or otherwise. In one sense, Liz is telling the story of any-teen in the struggles she has in making friends and finding her place and her passions, but over the top of that is her specific story of gender-image, which will also strike a chord with many teens, wherever they fall on the spectrum of appearing to be socially-acceptable.
The only problem I had with this graphic novel is that I felt the pace started to drag a bit during the high school section of the memoir. By that stage the issues that Liz was struggling with – particularly in terms of finding a romantic partner – had already been raised and the narrative seemed to get bogged down a little at this point. That’s just my personal interpretation though, and I’m sure others will think differently.
There are also a few instances of swearing and “adult situations”, so if you’re not into that, steer clear.
Otherwise…I got nothing. I really enjoyed Prince’s style in both artwork and written word.
Two parts of this memoir really stood out to me as being original, in the sense that I hadn’t encountered them in fiction before. (I realise that this is technically factual, in that it actually happened, but it’s a subjective retelling and presentation of a particular person, and in that sense, it reads like fiction). The first was the very clearly outlined difficulties that Liz encounters as a heterosexual female whose personal fashion preference is decidedly masculine. I haven’t encountered this in any YA before and I think it provided a real sense of depth to the story. It got me thinking about how personal presentation and sexual preference are linked in our minds…if we see a woman dressed in man’s clothing, do we automatically assume she is a lesbian? If so, why? How does this affect young people as their identity is emerging in the teen years – do they feel pressure to conform to gender image expectations and how does this affect them psychologically if they do conform or if they don’t? These are things that I am still pondering and it was wonderful to see these presented realistically for a YA and new adult audience.
The second thing that jumped out in this particular memoir was Liz’s personal dislike (bordering on gut-wrenching hatred) of anything considered to be “girly”. This was articulated fantastically throughout the memoir, and resolved somewhat in the latter part of the story as Liz begins to separate the idea or image of “girliness” being bad from the idea that being a girl (or a woman) is bad. This part of the story raises some great questions about attitudes in wider society about females and femininity and the worth that is placed on boys’ activities (and therefore, boys) as opposed to girls’ activities (and therefore, girls). While I’ve definitely come across these arguments in reading on feminism that I have eagerly devoured in the past, it was refreshing to see it presented in situ, as it were, as it unfolded in Prince’s life and development.
My overall take on the book?
A must-read, must-discuss, must-unpack book for anyone working with young people or anyone who has any interest in gender stereotyping. And anyone who likes a good graphic memoir, really 😉
I realise I’ve blabbed on a bit here, but this really is one of those rare books that comes along and touches a nerve, inspires important discussions, and makes one cling all the more defiantly to one’s favourite, comfy, non-fashion-forward hat.
Tomboy is due for release on September 28th from Zest Books and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.
Until next time,