Gang Warfare: The Sisterhood Versus The Tomboys

Arya Stark

I just read Christa D’Souza’s article on ‘The Sisterhood’ in March’s edition of Vogue, and it intrigued me. I know, I know, Vogue doesn’t quite count as a book, but I found the ideas touched upon in the article interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you lot.

The general premise is the rise in popularity of the ‘girl gang’ – women-only parties, pats on the back on Twitter etc. The article is more an exploration than a clear thesis, but it draws on the theories of a number of high-profile and outspoken women, so it’s a useful springboard to the discussion format that blogging allows.

My initial response was to instinctively wrinkle up my nose at all of this, and treat it with suspicion. It feels dangerous to say it, in the current climate, but I cannot help but be wary of modern feminism. One of my ten year old students said to me the other day that he didn’t want help with his homework from anyone, as if he did well it wouldn’t really be his achievement, so he’d be more pleased just to do okay and know that he’d done it all on his own. That’s sort of how I feel about feminism. Women are NOT the weaker gender, but saying that we need extra help only proves otherwise. I’m sure other people will disagree, in fact I’m certain of it, but my opinion is based only on my own experiences.

I was always a tomboy when I was growing up, preferring to climb trees and generally do dangerous, challenging and muddy things outside rather than play at tea-parties and dolls. Not that I didn’t like wearing pretty dresses! I still remember the battles I had with my mother (between the ages of 4 and, oh, 18?) when I wanted to wear my best clothes out to play in, and she knew they’d come back covered in mud, permanent paint, and generally completely destroyed. Being sporty and active, getting straight back up if you fall over, even if your knees are bloody, having strong opinions, subverting or ignoring societal and fashion rules… these maxims are what make a tomboy, and in the world we live in today none of these prevent you from also being feminine. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for company, it’s usually going to be boys who want to risk their lives for adventure and build dens all over the place.

I do have a handful of close female friends these days, but they’re all tomboys in their own way. They’re tough. And I love them for it. I’ve found them all over the place, often in the strangest places, so we’re not a gang as we’re all very different people on very different journeys. We all demonstrate characteristics that society typically positions as being very male though, and I think we understand each other better as a result of sharing these. Our drive, our eagerness to try new things, our ability to switch off our emotions in order to get the job done, the fact that we typically prefer male to female company!

Tom was very surprised by this side to me when we first met, and I think he still struggles to get his head around my being more comfortable hanging out with his male friends than with other women. I just find them easier to talk to! They’re not playing games, or being driven by neurosis; they won’t take offense at my many unintentionally-offensive comments, but see the intended humour instead. My gang-that-isn’t-a-gang of tomboys are the same, but we’re thin on the ground. Girly-girls often seem perplexed by us, even frightened. My instincts tell me that we’re doing just fine being ourselves, but I am vaguely curious about the benefits of being one with the sisterhood.

I’ve been organising my ‘hen do’ recently with my maid of honour (well, I’m organising it, she’s sort of cheering me on), and the issue of girls-only came up. We paused for a moment, a little stunned to realise that there wouldn’t be any men present (male strippers will NOT be invited, as I’m keeping the precise address we’re staying at under lock and key. Unless Steve Backshall wants to pop in for a cup of tea. And then, you know, if he wants to strip that’d be okay). Then I realised that, actually, I’m sort of looking forward to being part of a girl-gang, just for a weekend! I’ve never done it before, so maybe it’ll be fun?! Katy looked at me suspiciously when I voiced this thought.

One point that struck a chord from D’Souza’s article was voiced by Laura Bailey, regarding her dependence on “a virtual creative female sisterhood via Instagram”, which provides, amongst other more utilitarian benefits, “support for a friend’s cause or a new business venture, and [says] I like what you stand for, I like your style, I like your pictures (I just like you)”. Women are the experts at this form of support.  Not that we need validation for who we are, but it’s quite nice isn’t it. I see this in blogging all the time, when likes and thoughtful comments are left by people you’ve never met. They’re not just left by women though; many of the detailed and thoughtful comments I’ve been sent were from male bloggers.

What do you think? Do you have a girl-gang, or does the very idea make you run for the hills? Do women provide each-other with a very special kind of support, or are we stronger as individuals? Are we giving support to strangers more readily today than the internet-is-the-death-of-society brigade would have us realise?


12 thoughts on “Gang Warfare: The Sisterhood Versus The Tomboys

  1. I didn’t think I was into girl-gangs..but the truth is my crib is multiple: I have a group from university, a group from NCT and sharing babyhood together, I have my school mum group and my Creative Coffee group…all incredible women I love. There are the whippet trendy mums at school who where their thinness like a designer label..and whilst I’m happy to chat, their brittleness is always a presence. My Creative Coffee friends are the utter opposite, they wear their aprons with pride because they are creating – not because they are women, but because they see the beauty and recognise the joy. I think I sit somewhere in the middle..a slightly bohemian trendy who refuses to be drawn in to Queen Bee battles..I’ve learnt contentment is a powerful force, and where ever if comes from it should be embraced and encouraged…when you find a group of people with a similar outlook, it’s a special thing and needs to be treasured xxx

    • Interesting that you enjoy spending time with so many different – even disparate – groups, Kate. I’ve done this myself in the past, though perhaps more out of curiosity than through identifying with them. The idea of finding and then holding onto a group of people with whom you identify is very appealing… perhaps I should work harder to turn my tomboys into a gang?! Jx

  2. There is nothing like the friendship of sisterhood! Like you, I was a Tomboy in my youth and much preferred hanging out with the boys – when I first met my husband, I was the only female in a select group of five and that suited me at the time – talking about carburettors was so much more interesting than worrying whether I was wearing the right shoes.
    However – I still maintain friendships with girls I’ve known since I was eleven; have a couple I first worked with; a group who I met when we became parents; a couple from a writing group; a commuting friend and several present day work friends – all female. When I had a significant birthday ( ;( ) I had a lunch party for twelve girl friends. Some had never met each other but all got on like the proverbial house on fire.
    So yes, girl gangs work – and as you get older, you will find that you’ll value them all the more. Enjoy that hen party!

    • Thanks Jenny, I’m looking forward to that hen party more and more as it approaches! I think it’s quite telling that tomboys – even former tomboys!- pick and choose their girlfriends to a greater extent than I see my girly friends do. Finding those kindred spirits is such a rare occasion (for me, anyway) that I agree they should be grabbed hold of, and if possible brought together. Jx

  3. The very idea of girl-gang gives me nightmares. I’m known to run away from women-only lunches or parties until I was no longer invited. Like you, I’ve always been a tomboy – your description covers me fully – and, to be honest, have never grown out of it. I don’t care for conversations involving wo/men as the stronger gender, simply because I believe strongly in gender equality. By extension, I would gladly exchange views over a glass or four of a good red, or offer my support to someone not because of his/hers gender but because I find them interesting, inspiring, intriguing, funny, good natured people. But in small, intimate groups please!

    • Yes I agree – being in a large group seems to affect the mentality of the group members, and exacerbates those features they share. Not always a good thing! Jx

  4. As a bit of loner throughout my teens, I was never naturally attracted to large groups. I choose my friends wisely and so the girls I have in my life are good ones. My three or four great female friends still use a word from our schooldays to describe a certain type of woman that we just don’t gel with: “dootsy”. Don’t know its origin but it signifies a girly, hair flicking, simpering, floral brand of femininity, a woman who would drop her friends as soon as a man enters the room…all the things we didn’t want to be. As I’ve grown older I’ve become suspicious of the word “feminism” because it’s thrown about in such an intimidating, isolating way. In some circles if you express doubt about the word, women rally into tribes like bullies to convince you what you need to do to set your thinking straight. I don’t think men are from Mars and us from Venus, I don’t want to celebrate vast differences in the two sexes, I want to understand other human beings if anything.

    • YES Jackie, I completely agree! Feminism does create a distance between the sexes, which so many of us – male and female – don’t want. I worried a great deal before publishing this blog post, knowing that the feminists I’m friends with would take umbrage, but decided to go ahead with it for that very reason – we none of us should be denied a voice, even if we don’t conform to the prescribed opinions of the masses. I may be wrong, but the idea of a sisterhood feels like conforming – we all become just ‘women’, made faceless by our gender – rather than individuals. Jx

  5. I’ve been brewing replies to this in my head for over a week, as I am very passionate about it as a subject, as well as also finding it quite fascinating. I don’t think I have the time to properly respond now as I need to go and tidy my studio before work, but I want to try (or begin to try!). My views on the matter have changed quite a lot over the past few years, I think previously they would have aligned much more with your own perspective. I would never have said before that i was a feminist. The trouble with identifying as anything is that everyone has their own personal understanding of what a word means and the attitudes behind it. I say I am a feminist because I do believe there are ridiculous, ingrained stereotypes that permeate many aspects of society, subconscious prejudices that we are all susceptible to and i feel I have become increasingly aware of them as I get older. I also believe they effect (affect? I need another cup of tea!) men just as much as women. For me, being a feminist means being passionate about people; men, women, those who choose not to identify as either gender etc, though I must confess I don’t delve as deeply as some into LGBT rights in a feminist context. It has nothing to do with promoting women as a superior gender. I have always instinctively fought against gender stereotypes in defence of both women and men.
    I do think sometimes my own understanding of feminism might differ slightly from ‘mainstream’ feminist views, but I think if saying ‘I am a feminist’ begins a conversation on the issue then that’s a positive thing. I do find myself disagreeing fairly regularly with some feminist viewpoints that I come across but equally I find myself raging on a daily basis against gender stereotypes you see in the media. It is hard to argue that discrimination against women is not an ongoing and deeply worrying issue in many parts of the world. In terms of our own society I think there are a lot of stupid boxes for genders which we would be better off without. Maybe for me saying I’m a feminist is basically saying ‘I think we should think about each other more intelligently and kindly’.
    Ok I really need to go and tidy my studio, I will come back to this…hesitant to press ‘post comment’ as I haven’t actually responded specifically to what you said in your post, but it’s kind of a rambling start!

  6. Hi Kay, I suppose on the feminist issue my argument would be that you don’t need to be a feminist to be a nice person! Indeed, as Jackie said, feminism is often used to bully or intimidate, which is obviously deeply negative. The best way to get rid of negative gender stereotypes is to break them – something that we must action in our daily lives rather than talking about them. I learnt a long time ago that if people don’t want to be educated then there’s nothing you can do about that other than to show them that they’re wrong; telling them doesn’t work. D’Souza’s article is exploring the idea of a sisterhood, and girls ganging together to gain strength, and though I don’t begrudge people that I don’t think we need to – I’d rather be an individual than labelled as part of a girl-gang.

    I’m really interested that your perspective changed recently though, and am curious as to what factors you think had a bearing on this, as I’ve noticed this happen to so many of my friends recently! Why do you think this is? Jx

  7. Pingback: My Stag Weekend: Fancy Dress, Cocktails, and a Private Scottish Castle | Cocktails and Country Tales

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