It has been one year since the death of Harper Lee. Reading the news last year, I recall feeling a sad inevitability: all of her generation is passing. She is rightly praised for how her works illuminate the human character, at its best and its worst, in the context of racial inequality. I’d like to praise her for something else, though. I’d like to praise and thank her for her tomboy, Scout.
I’ve always thrilled at the mention of Harper Lee. She was from small-town Alabama; I was from just across the river in small-town Georgia, one generation later. As an adult, I came to understand the power and significance of the grown-up themes in To Kill a Mockingbird: racial injustice, judging and misjudging others, things being not what they seem, the metaphor of the mockingbird. But these were not my first reasons for loving the book and its author. My first reasons for loving Harper Lee had to do with my own childhood, for I, like Scout, was a tomboy. In the character of Scout, Harper Lee handed me my first full look at myself through the lens of literary invention. Scout was a girl who had no interest in being a girl, and Lee painted her magnificently, from the frayed hems of her dusty denim overalls (just like her brother, Jem’s) right on up to her granite-faced scowl of defiance. Lee captured the essence of the tomboy. She handed me a mirror, fleshed out by the able and adorable Mary Badham in the 1961 Oscar-winning movie.
Always, for me, the term ‘tomboy’ evoked confidence and plucky strength. The image was of someone easily competent with tools, or playing sports, someone native to the world of boys. Absolutely it meant someone vastly more comfortable in cleats than pumps, whose heels never lost contact with terra firma. Harper Lee reminded us that tomboys are not afraid of dirt. We treasure scrappy and unkempt, and leave the lip-gloss to others.
I first became aware of To Kill a Mockingbird when, at about age nine, I saw the movie on TV for the first time. This was long before Roku or DVR’s, or even videotape rentals. I had to soak up every fascinating detail of Scout’s attitude, sass, rowdiness and gender rebellion in one intensive viewing, for there might not be another chance to see the movie again for years. By the time I did see it again, I was in my 20’s, and the heart-pounding courtroom scenes and fiction-delivered indictment of my Southern heritage of racial injustice dominated the story for me. It wouldn’t be until many years later, viewing now as a self-understood lesbian, that I would at last see myself full circle in Scout. And, by this time, I was convinced Harper Lee, too, was a grown-up tomboy and lesbian. I cherished the kinship.
Other tomboys would make their way into TV and movies, Frankie Addams and Idgie Threadgoode leading the way. But Scout took me there first. Because of Harper Lee, I got to see, recognize and claim my identity as a tomboy: fully girl, fully boy. I stood the middle ground foursquare.
The joy is that society accepts us when we’re young. The agony is that they expect us to outgrow it. And some girls do, trading in overalls and spit for prom dresses and hairspray. But there are those of us who never have, and never shall, outgrow it. “Tomboy” fiercely defines us, even well into adulthood. In a world where the infinite spectrum of gender identity is only beginning to emerge, and where language is challenged to include us all, ‘tomboy’ provides the perfect short-hand for those of us who, while born female, can stand in the divide between the sexes, bridging the two, shattering the stereotypes of each. We share this breach-mending super power with all our queer brothers and sisters who live alternatively to the gender roles into which society might wish to box us. Harper Lee wrote long before our culture was ready for open conversations about the humanity of transgender persons, asexuals, or even gay men and lesbians. Tomboys were not her point. But she nevertheless let us in on a family secret: tomboys exist. There really are girls in the world who care not one whit about high heels or make-up or retreating demurely and passively into polite silence when injustice rages about us. And the secret lurking behind the secret is, it’s not just for little girls: we grown-ups feel that way, too.
I love being a tomboy, and I embrace it, as I would have loved to embrace Scout herself, and Harper Lee, most of all. Thank you, Ms. Lee. On behalf of all of the tomboys out there now and forever more, thank you.