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Continued: Tomboys in tutus

A new version of Dora the Explorer is launching in the fall, aimed at girls ages 5 and up. She's older, and her interests have shifted dramatically -- from travel and adventure to clothes and shopping. You can plug her into your computer to change her fashions, hair and eye color. Based on the new Dora, it appears that as girls age, they go from being intrepid, bilingual adventurers to superficial shopaholics.

"Classic" Dora is one of the only role models for little girls who isn't teetering around on little plastic heels or Bratzing it up with her skanky doll cohorts. She is marketed to both preschool genders. She's what, in the old days, would have been called a tomboy.

Is the tomboy an endangered species? Defined by Webster's as "a girl who behaves or plays like an active boy," the word itself is antiquated. Grown women who were once tomboys look back fondly on the likes of Harriet the Spy, Scout Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and real-life groundbreakers Amelia Earhart, Althea Gibson and Katharine Hepburn. All were icons of bygone generations when gender roles were rigidly defined.

Today, qualities such as athletic prowess and courage aren't considered the primary domain of boys and men. But there's still a cultural disconnect between the idea of "girlishness" and competence that modern girls do their darnedest to turn sideways.

Little girls love to wear pink tutus. They might even climb trees or kick soccer balls in them (that's the great thing about tutus; they leave the legs free for kicking). Through about second or third grade, girls have no problem wearing pastel frills and sparkly shoes while engaging in the same activities that boys do. It's when they hit the tweens -- now broadly defined as ages 8 to 13 -- that things get confusing.

Girls have more athletic options than ever and are outpacing boys in college-graduation rates. But in a parallel universe, the pressure to decide whether you're a "girly girl" or not before you're 3 feet tall is compounded by the avalanche of ultrafeminine dolls, clothing and other products pushed at them by marketers, as if to say, "You might not be thinking about gender roles yet, but it's never too soon to buy as though you have."

This promotional strategy isn't driven by an evil desire to create mass youth anxiety, just an evil desire to acquire some of the $40 billion in tween spending power and instill lifelong shopping fever early -- as well as anxiety about appearance and attractiveness to boys, which leads to buying more products.

Shifting gender roles

But tween girls themselves aren't necessarily getting on board. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times quoted girls and trend watchers on a new lean toward more modest dressing, choosing clothes they can be active in on the playground.

Scarlett Thompson, who plays the title character in the upcoming Children's Theater production of "Ramona Quimby," has noticed the pink 'n' pretty pull of commercials aimed at girls her age. She said that she likes Ramona, a still-beloved classic kid's lit character, because she thinks for herself and stands her ground -- traits associated with boys and tomboys, but not girly girls.

"She's the only one who doesn't like her aunt's fiancé, who is a dork," Thompson said. When another girl starts pretending to cry to get attention, Ramona "refuses to apologize."

Clinton Turner Davis, the play's director, would just as soon the term "tomboy" be done away with altogether. "I never liked the idea of arbitrarily assigning roles based on gender," he said.

Neither does Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports. "A term like 'tomboy' limits a range of behaviors for both boys and girls," she said.

Davis noted that it seemed like "people started using the word less about the time action figures for boys -- which are dolls -- came out. It would be interesting to poll some of the female leaders of our time -- Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice -- and find out how many of them identified as tomboys."

Many of them, no doubt, did because they possess qualities formerly associated with being "more like a boy" -- intelligence, curiosity, courage and leadership potential. The good news: If the word tomboy seems outdated, it's because those traits really are now viewed as more gender-neutral.

Gender roles are shifting, LaVoi said, but "remnants like the word 'tomboy' and the glass ceiling in corporate America, mechanisms of containment for girls and women, are still at play."

Pressure to look good

Sixth- and seventh-grade Girl Scouts at Anne Sullivan School in southeast Minneapolis also offered evidence that some old standards are still around, and others aren't. Many of them knew what the word "tomboy" meant, and none would use it to describe themselves. Instead, the talk turned to what's different for girls and boys.

"Girls have to stay on top of their game about how they look and being clean all the time," said Shamira MensanTeajaha Granger. "Boys come to school smelling like anything."

Do you have to be a girly girl to be attractive to boys?

"You have to have a Coke-bottle shape and wear cute clothes and makeup," said Diamond Dionne, who later said that "you shouldn't let a boy control you."

And what do boys have to be to be attractive to girls?

"Smart, but not too smart," said Aaliyan Crawford. "Don't be correcting everything I say."

Boys tend to hang more labels on girls than vice versa, said Kathy Shuburg, "like sluts or dogs."

"Or the b-word, too," said Dafiso Shire.

The girls added that they prefer shorts to dresses and put more stock in TV heroines such as Raven "because she's an open-heart girl" than Miley Cyrus. Many of the girls were proud of their achievements on the basketball court or in reading.

The consensus: Girls feel more pressure to look good than boys -- but not necessarily all pink and lacy. They still have more responsibilities around the house, such as helping with cooking and cleaning, than their brothers do. They also have a lot of chutzpah and ambition.

In at least one part of the world, tomboys are still seen as so threatening they are outright banned: Muslim clerics in Malaysia declared it illegal for girls to wear short hair or dress like boys.

Protesters on the blog "Packaging Girlhood" would like to ban that new incarnation of Dora the Explorer. Let's wait and see. Most tweens are likely to consider her kid stuff.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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