The tomboy trap

Come this fall, you’ll be seeing fairies everywhere (and not the gay kind). Walt Disney Pictures officially announced the October 28th release of Tinker Bell, the first in a four-part feature-length DVD series all about Peter Pan’s tiny sidekick and her fairy friends. The voice cast stars some or our favorites, including America Ferrera, Anjelica Huston, Lucy Liu, Raven-Symoné and Kristin Chenoweth.

All the Disney hype is centered on the fact that this is the first time the audience will get to hear Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman) speak. But I’m more interested in the character of Fawn, who is voiced by none other than Ugly Betty herself. (She’s the one next to Tink in the picture below, wearing the pants and the “sensible” shoes. You can see where this is going, right?)

Even better than her more butch appearance and demeanor is the way she’s described in an early press release: “This rascally tomboy is full of mischief and mirth — she loves to tweak Iridessa [Raven-Symoné] just to see her glow. Fawn is always ready to play and the more rough-and-tumble the game, the better.” She loves to “tweak” her, huh? Is that what the kids are calling it these days? Sorry, I dyke-gress.

Don’t get too excited about the possibility of a Fawn/Iridessa pairing just yet, though. If pop-cult history is any indication, Fawn is just another in a long line of what I like to call the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” tomboy. Everything about this thinly veiled lesbian character — her clothes, behavior, interests (usually playing sports) — screams “butch,” but the writers always fall short of outing her. Instead, they slap on the non-threatening “tomboy” label and either set her up in an awkward boy-crush or strip her of her sexuality all together. And this play-both-sides-of-the-fence formula seems to work magic: Lesbians adopt the tomboy as one of their own — hey, it’s not like we have that many openly gay characters to relate to — and the general viewing public also embraces her, since she’s never revealed to be anything more than a bit on the boyish side. It’s a win-win situation for the producers. But we, of course, have to settle for lesbian subtext and watered-down versions of ourselves yet again.

One of the best examples of this kind of character is Peppermint Patty from the Peanuts cartoon. The baseball-playing (wink, wink), Birkenstock-wearing (nudge, nudge) tomboy is considered just one of the guys. She even calls her bud, Charlie Brown, “Chuck.” But she also has a special nickname of her own that’s given to her by her best friend, Marcie: It’s “Sir” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge times a thousand). Marcie follows her around in awe, hanging on her every word. And in return, Peppermint Patty is fiercely protective of Marcie. Sounds a little like the makings of a first crush, doesn’t it? Well, they do have a secret thing for someone, but it’s not a girl—that would be too controversial for the mainstream audience to watch with their impressionable kids (I guess the slutty-looking toons from Bratz is more their speed.) While it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that Marcie and her sir are crushing on each other, we’re led to believe they somehow like blockhead Charlie Brown instead.

Now, I could probably let a sexually ambiguous cartoon character slide every once and again…if that’s where it ended. But the tomboy issue isn’t just confined to children’s entertainment. We’ve seen this character type pop up dozens and dozens of times in teen and adult TV shows (Jo from The Facts of Life, anything starring a young Kristy McNichol) and movies (Idgie from Fried Green Tomatoes, anything starring a young Jodie Foster).

I’m not saying all tomboys grow up to be gay, but some do (and probably more than not). So, in the interest of fairness and realism — two things we know Hollywood really cares about — it’s way past time to let a tomboy or two come out of the closet on the boob tube and the big screen.

What do you think? Is there a TV or film character you want to switch from a tomboy to a tomboi?