If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably known from a young age that you were… different. While your peers gravitated like heat-seeking missiles toward Britney and Disney princesses and the Spice Girls, you persistently sought out books about girls who spurned femininity and rolled about in dirt.
Sometimes it was subtle – our heroine is just so bored of baking and cleaning, and dreads the possibility of marrying some dull prince, and wants to read books! And go on adventures! And sometimes it was like, oh shit! Our heroine is going to chop her hair off with a sword and bind her chest and become a pirate and everyone’s going to address her as a boy for the rest of the book!
You spent your entire childhood inhaling these stories. Every one you could get your grubby little hands on. And then, when puberty hit (or when you first heard the words “lesbian” or “transgender,” whichever came first), it suddenly clicked.
These characters weren’t just fun entertainment; they were the bridge to a greater understanding. The first whisper of possibility that you didn’t have to like boys. That you didn’t have to look like a girl. That you didn’t even have to be a girl. You could be a boy. You could be something else. The sky was the goddamn limit.
With love, and in butch and transmasc solidarity, we shall now pay tribute to the plucky tomboy heroines of our youth. We owe them so much.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: A transmasc Niche reader brought up some great points in a discussion of this piece on Tumblr, and I wanted to take a second to acknowledge some of his concerns. First off, this piece may not be reflective of your own experiences, and that’s okay. It’s possible that, as a trans guy, you found tomboy characters to be more invalidating than helpful. The intent of this piece isn’t to equate trans men to tomboy cis girls, or to collapse transmasc people and butch lesbians into one category. All of us on the editorial staff at the Niche identify as transmasc or as lesbians or as something in the nebulous in between. We’re not about pushing the transphobic and lesbophobic idea that trans men and butch lesbians are one and the same; we’re just celebrating some common early childhood butch and transmasc experiences of ours.
Now, without further ado…
1. Kit Kittredge
The entire modus operandi of the American Girl series was to give young girls stories and toys that stood apart from the increasingly sex-saturated, fashion-obsessed milieu of the girls’ toy market. Bratz and Barbie could focus on glitz and glamour and getting guys, but not American Girl. Oh, no. These books followed a common formula: a girl is frustrated by the strict, misogynistic limitations of her time; she rebels against these norms; she forms a close, lasting friendship with another girl; she never talks to a boy unless to rebuke him for being sexist.
Like, one really wonders if American Girl exists solely to push a benevolent lesbian agenda on the youth of America. At one point in the mid-2000s, they were actually manufacturing and aggressively marketing Best Friend dolls for a few characters. Rare is the capitalist ploy that also dismantles heteronormativity, but by God, American Girl pulled it off.
So while every American Girl was gay, the gayest and butchest of all was Kit Kittredge. Kit’s a nickname; her full name is Margaret Mildred Kittredge, but she finds that just as stuffy as the frilly pink decor her mother’s chosen for her bedroom. By the end of the first book, she’s moved out of said bedroom and into the attic, where she sets up her typewriter and tacks up newspaper clippings of her favourite baseball players. In the Christmas book, she has a fight with her best friend Ruthie. They reconcile after Kit writes a book for Ruthie, in which Ruthie appears as a glamorous film star princess and Kit appears as Amelia Earhart, and they fly in a little plane together. I genuinely have yet to see a better butch/femme relationship in any form of media.
The coup de grace, of course, is Kit Saves the Day, which sees Kit pulling an iconic transmasc stunt and dressing as a boy to ride the rails with her new hobo friend, Will. They’re caught and thrown in jail; when Kit’s bob falls out of the cap she was using to boy-ify her appearance, she’s carted off to the girl side of the prison. There, she fakes period cramps, escapes out the bathroom window, and walks across a rail bridge – nearly getting run down by a goddamned train – in order to return home and get her parents to bail Will out. The little outfit up top is the doll approximation of the disguise Kit wears in the story. Definitely the most butch ensemble available in the American Girl catalogue, although the limited-edition baseball uniform they made for her (see right) sure comes close. I grew up to be a non-binary lesbian leftist journalist, and it’s like, all Kit’s fault. Kit, you legend.
2. Ramona Quimby
Ramona is the quintessential plucky tomboy heroine who rolls about in dirt. Among the gayest things she does: receiving a doll and naming it Chevrolet; hopping in puddles on a rainy day and getting her boots stuck in the mud; drawing the Q in her name as a cat with whiskers.
Oh, man, and then there’s the whole thing where she gets really, really fixated on her classmate Susan, and on Susan’s perfect, curly, springy blonde hair, and she proceeds to devote a patently insane amount of time and energy to pulling on this girl’s curls and making them go boing. As per this summary of the first Ramona novel:
There is a girl named Susan who has beautiful curly hair that Ramona longs to pull… when she is caught pulling Susan’s hair again she is told that she should stay home until she can quit pulling hair. Indignant, Ramona throws a big fuss, and kicks the wall with her heels, and ends up staying home from school until she can calm down.
Seems gay, Ramona.
You can literally sense Disney pulling back from the brink throughout this movie. Because, like, being a Disney movie, Mulan needs to end up with a studly love interest, but the nature of the story necessitates that at least some of that love story needs to develop while Mulan is disguised as a warrior dude. So Li-Shang literally just thinks he’s gay for a hot minute, before Mulan’s hair magically re-grows and she hops into that tasteful teal dress at the end.
But yeah, this movie gave us everything. The O.G. cutting-hair-with-sword shot. The part where she sings, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” with half her face bare and the other Sephora’d into oblivion. And this groundbreaking gay transmasc romance.
4. Spinelli from Recess
God, remember that one episode where Randall leaks that her name is actually Ashley Spinelli and the Ashleys try to recruit her into their hyperfeminine girl cult and force her to wear a cloche?
And she’s like, “Uh, I think the fuck not,” and goes back to her beanie and leather jacket? And she swears on her mother’s grave to beat into oblivion any individual who refers to her as Ashley from that point on?
I mean, it’s just not subtle.
5. Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia
In true lesbian fashion, she dies halfway through.
6. Scout Finch
Exudes butch vibes, fights for racial justice and disability rights, and spends all her time hanging out with a Truman Capote avatar in a true show of butch/transmasc and femme gay solidarity. Scout Finch is the pinnacle, the rich source of life and vitality from which all other plucky tomboy heroines flow.
7. Jo March
Adam already has us covered here, in terms of ranking the various film portrayals of Jo according to butchness. There is, of course, the really depressing matter of Louisa May Alcott being forced to marry her butch self-insert protagonist off to a sixty-year-old man, but let us not speak of it.
Instead, have this quote from Alcott:
I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.
Check and fucking mate, cishets.
The Legend of Korra deserves props and then some for not only giving its almighty protagonist a character development haircut, but ending the series with her walking into the ether hand-in-hand with her girlfriend. Like, in canon, explicitly romantic, no no-homo-ing. You can take this butch all the way to the bank, and drink the salty, delicious tears of bitter Makorra shippers while doing so.
9. Kel from Protector of the Small
To be honest, I barely remember the plot of these books, except that young Kel progresses through round after round of brutal training to finally become A Lady Knight. But while I can’t recall plot specifics, I absolutely remember the impact that this series made on me: blockbuster books about a young girl who, in total defiance of the ongoing reign of Disney princesses, wore her hair short and bound her chest and learned to use a sword. And there was none of the unappealing aggression of the boy heroes I’d gravitated toward. She wasn’t in this for glory; she was strengthening herself to help those who couldn’t help themselves. A true landmark, a total icon, and #HairGoals.
19 thoughts on “Nine Plucky Tomboy Heroines Who Made You the Butch Lesbian or Transmasc Icon You Are Today”
I think you might be mixing the Alanna series and the Kel series together a little in your memories, because I’m pretty sure Kel never bound her chest or anything like that? Alanna is the one who switches with her twin brother and disguises herself as a boy to become a knight–Kel comes later and is openly a girl. (She even makes sure to wear a dress to every dinner to rub it in the boys’ faces that she’s a girl and that their bullying hasn’t gotten her to quit yet. I loved that part so much.) Kel is the one who’s in it to help people, though, Alanna’s more like “screw this I wanna stab things”.
oh mood. i read the lioness and tbh i have no idea how as a kid i was so dense as to realize fantasizing about binding my chest and showing up to school and having people be unable to tell what gender i was and also being more into thom’s whole magicboy gig than alanna’s faux-mulan warriorlady thing meant that mayhap i was Not? a girl? hmmm anyway all tortall books defined my childhood and gender identity (mage, probably) and circle of magic takes it even further with canon lesbian smithmage daja
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LOVE your choices, but if we’re including anime I’m bummed there’s nobody from Sailor Moon (ass kicker of men Jupiter comes to mind, and later Uranus, whose sexuality they DID censor out of the dub.)
As far as literature goes, might I recommend Francie (the Kit Kittredge type of Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”) and Karana, who jumped off a boat after her brother, was marooned on her home island, and literally survived without male assistance in “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”
And where oh where is Miss Sandy Cheeks?
Oh my god, the mulan thing. Like throughout my entire childhood I was in a constant state of outrage because all of the Mulan dolls i had ever seen showed her in her fancy ‘femme’ outfit and tiny soft butch bisexual me was having none of it. I wanted to dress up as mulan when she fights the huns, not when she sings her sad song about being in the closet.
Mine was Jacky Faber of the Bloody Jack series. It’s been so long since I read it, but she ran away from home to join the navy disguised as a boy, had a generic romance with an officer’s son or something, was eventually discovered and continued to dress masc because she didn’t give a fuck, broke up with said officer’s son because he needed a proper wife and she wasn’t about that life, became a pirate captain at some point, dated a couple girls I think, and generally lived her life while blatantly ignoring gender as a concept and being annoyed when other people got in the way of this.
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when i was like nine i lived and died for this medieval book “catherine, called birdy”
OMG! I realize I’m seeing this over a year later, but SAME. I loved her and the book. I can still picture the cover and remember some of the shenanigans
Oh god, these are all pretty accurate. A regional-specific example I wasn’t sure I’d see here was the Mandie mystery books(I think I still own like… 30 of them). The books were set in North Carolina in the early 1900s- 1912ish I think? Anyway, there were a lot of Christian themes and some forced het stuff, but the main character was also part Cherokee, which figured pretty prominently in the books, and her best friend Celia did like, everything with her. They were The Dynamic before I knew what The Dynamic was. Anyway, they were pretty gay, and even though Mandie still did a lot of feminine stuff (like going to a ladies boarding school), she really did embody that true butch spirit.
oh word! the church my grandma went to gave me some mandie books (i’m from australia tho so i guess they had a farther reach than u thought) and she is not straight!!
em pippi longstockings and her gf annika?
i’m a trans gay guy and god mood with mulan like little me was not subtle at all about liking every “girl gets to be seen by everyone else as a man and referred to as such and has a romance with another guy” stories sometimes i want to smack myself for not realizing sooner lmao
as for ones not on this list deryn/dylan from the leviathan book series was a formative character for me too! lots of similarities with mulan except its three whole books of them presenting as a man. canon can eat it they’re a trans man in my heart. and for all the wlw out there a girl kisses deryn. in canon! and said girl Knows deryn’s a girl!
Oh word? It’s dylan/alek or deryn/lilit all the way, much in the same way that it’s anshel/avigdor or yentl/hadass and cesario/orsino or viola/olivia
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I am morally convinced that Rosa Diaz of BROOKLYN 99 is a grown-up Spinelli whose family has decided to convert from Italian-American to Hispanic-American for some reason known unto God.
Tell me I’m wrong, I dare you!
hello as somebody who only just belatedly realized they’re queer, yet who’s had Scout Finch as their internet avatar for YEARS …
… this post Called Me the Frick Out.
For every italian is the Fantaghirò 1991 movie franchise, losely based on the tuscan farytale “Fanta-Ghirò, beautyful person”. It’s incredibly camp and really cheesy but that’s what makes it so special.
Plus it may seem trashy now but the special effect at the time were good , not as good as in American blockbusters but still quite good, and above all, at the time having a heroic yet flawed female protagonist that always saves the day and grows without ever “conforming” was no small thing here.
And the first movie is insanely gay or, well, insanely bi: since is based on a “tomboy heroine goes on aventures in crossdressing” farytale we get to see King Romualdo spiraling into a full blown sexuality crisis onscreen. Fantaghirò even has a cool genderfluid mentor.
(“MusicZiggurat” uploded all movies on YouTube with english subtitles, here Is the link to pt 1 of the first: https://youtu.be/NwuM4eAn_Zk , just pretend the 5th one doesn’t exist)
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More about Kit!