[SPOILERS for The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, by Gene Kemp]
(I’ve provided the warning but if you don’t already know the twist then the title/topic of my post has probably already given it away anyway. But still, go and read the book for yourself!)
So the whole TERF canard of “I was a tomboy but these days they’d have said I was trans instead” has been cropping up again recently on twitter.
Every time I hear this, I think of one of the most powerful stories I read as a child that brings assumptions about gender into focus, and one of the most famous fictional tomboys ever.
Theodora Tiler, universally known as “Tyke”, and never referred to in the third person (so that pronouns are never revealed).
At the climax of the book, the end of the penultimate chapter, Tyke has climbed the school tower with the intent of ringing a bell that hasn’t been safe to ring for decades due to the tower being unstable. In the heat of the moment, a senior teacher shouts, “Get down from there at once, Theodora Tiler, you naughty girl!”
I am sure that this must have been analysed to death from all angles and all interpretations of queer, trans, feminist and whatnot. I am sure I have nothing new to bring except my own responses and viewpoint, and much of what I say will either seem terribly ignorant or unoriginal. I am not aware of any “Voice of God” statements by Gene Kemp about these issues as they relate to Tyke Tiler. Perhaps if “Turbulent Term” was written today then Tyke would have been written as trans, I don’t know.
What we do know is that Tiler is universally known not by the “girl’s” name Theodora, but as “Tyke” throughout and by everyone, except for the one moment described above, and is stereotypically “boy-like” in behaviours and interests (so that, growing up as a MAAB person, I recognised a lot of my experiences as a child in the less extravagant exploits described). My interests and ambitions were not the same, but I saw myself in Tyke.
Knowing what I do now, about my non-binary genderfluidity, maybe I saw even more than I knew at the time?
The story was written in 1977 so Tyke would be about 12 years older than me now had Tyke been a real person – say, 50-ish years old this year. If you listen to trans people of that age, you may realise that for many, to be themselves was a long struggle and only really achieved later in life for many of them. So I wonder what Tyke Tiler’s life might have been like: after ‘O’ levels (finished in perhaps 1982), maybe ‘A’ levels (1984) and university (1987). (Compare my post about politics for different ages! See the comments about feminism for a 50 year old for some context) Tyke would have been known as Theodora and identified by others as female regardless of how Tyke identified. I know from personal experience that we cannot project forwards from childhood behaviour and personality to career choices or behaviours later in life so trying to map out a career for Tiler seems pointless without the author’s Word of God.
It is possible to picture a present-day adult Tyke Tiler in so many different ways: lesbian/gay, straight, bi? Professional, or hourly wage? Parent? Trans or cis? All combinations are possible.
But we can play some games of “what if…?”
What if Theodora was a cis tomboy, growing up to be a cis woman?
Pronouns would be “she/her/hers”, and she would probably be Theodora for her adult life, or possibly some other shortening such as Thea. Theodora Tiler would be a part of the battle for equal opportunities for women (and perhaps lesbians). She might have been part of the 80s wave of social justice campaigners, into rave music, experimenting in various ways but eventually settling down in the 90s and by 1997, in her early 30s. she would be confident of who she was, if she’s in a career then reasonably well-off, probably with a long-term partner. However she presented, she would be accepted as herself – as Theodora, or Thea, Tiler. She would probably feel confident in her sexuality and her gender and her turbulent term would be a set of great anecdotes to entertain friends and maybe children.
And in 2017, she might claim that “I was a tomboy but nowadays they would make me trans”.
What if Tyke Tiler was trans, growing up to be a trans man?
Tyke would grow up having to navigate conflicting identities. Pronouns would be difficult to judge, as Tyke would probably be known by “she/her/hers” for much of her life but would most likely prefer to be he/him/his. In Tyke’s life, it would probably work out as “she” until some point labelled “transition” and then use “he”. I’m going to revert to “they/them” for the following (based on my “Language” guidelines, this is because our various Tyke Tilers are all hypothetical and not referring to a singular actual person)
The trend for women to wear masculine clothing was well underway by then and Tyke would have been able to dress in ways that felt natural to their identity but would largely have been assumed to be cis female as a result of those same trends, with people more likely to assume lesbian than trans.
The Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 and this is likely to be an important event in our hypothetical trans Tyke Tiler’s life. They would be in their late 30s and probably also at at time in their life where the means to seek surgery of various kinds to fit their body to their gender would be available. They may have already been using hormones, or might only really have found a way to reconcile the conflict between public perception and self-identity through publicity. It is possible that Tyke Tiler might have left behind the name Theodora forever and been recognised as male (perhaps under that old nickname, or some other male name chosen at some point).
In 2017, trans man Tyke Tiler would hopefully have achieved the goal of becoming themselves.
What if Theodora Tiler was a cis girl in 2017?
I’m not very well placed to talk about this, being neither 11 nor having experiences of being young and a tomboy. Through riding on buses packed with schoolkids, paying attention to some of the media output aimed at them, and with some reference to the behaviours I remember from 25 years or more ago that seem to be reflected in those other sources, I can take some guesses.
I would expect, the most common reaction would be to use lesbophobic language and assumptions (regardless of whether Theodora was lesbian, straight or bi, or not even aware of her sexuality yet at age 11). Some gender-policing language would also be common, even from friends: “You’re such a boy!” But Tyke never claims to be a boy herself, and the meaning would be the same as calling someone a tomboy.
As far as “authority” and “family” goes, Theodora would face much more testing than her 1977 counterpart would have, but since a key plot point in 1977 is a test (I believe a Cognitive Ability Test, rather than the Standard Attainment Target tests or whatever they’re called nowadays) then we can assume a lot of the action would be similar, though Tyke might have to hack a school computer or something instead of just stealing a paper copy.
While Theodora’s interests might be stereotypically masculine, that is unlikely to play into authority figures’ responses to her: their main concern, as in 1977, would be discipline and safety. Their concern would not be gender identity but turbulence. My recollection of the details of the story are not perfect but I remember Tyke’s parents in the novel as broadly supportive of her interests, if not always her wildness. It is not hard to imagine parents with the same mixture of concern and supportiveness, allowing Theodora to just be herself.
The suggestion anyone would view Theodora Tiler as trans instead of tomboy is frankly a stretch of the imagination that I can’t quite make!
What if Tyke Tiler was a trans boy in 2017?
This is where it gets tricky. Since in the novel, Tyke never claims to be a boy, it seems hard to say whether or not he would be out as trans. But we also can observe that if 2017 Tyke is trans, no one misgenders him until that key “reveal” where the teacher calls him “Theodora Tiler, you naughty girl”.
Trans folk dream of having such an accepting school environment!
Everyone throughout the novel, from peers to parents to school teachers and authority figures, accepts Tyke as Tyke, apart from that one teacher who calls out “Theodora”. In fact, even as a 9 year old reading the story for the first time, the biggest shock about that big reveal wasn’t that “Tyke Tiler is a girl” (though that was a big surprise), but that the teacher called Tyke by a name that Tyke had clearly rejected.
In this reading, of course, that teacher would come across as a transphobe. In order to get as far through the book as we do without it being an issue, we have to imagine the teacher suppressing her anti-trans feelings in order to comply with equal opportunities guidelines but at last, the outburst comes in the heat of the moment and her true feelings are revealed.
* * *
So, yeah. My take away from these four hypothetical scenarios is that it’s really hard to imagine a cisgendered Tyke Tiler being misgendered by the people around her. The way the story is told is deliberately to lead the reader to misgender her in their mind until the big reveal, and the fact it remains effective says something about how attached people are to binary gender and signifiers.
Trans folk are not stereotypes of either gender and are only forced to enact such roles in order to achieve societal acceptance when cis folk can be tomboys or “metrosexual” and no one challenges their right to be women or men as they claim to be.
There is, however, one more fictional “tomboy” I want to think about.
In the Famous Five, George is FAAB but is written explicitly as wanting to be a boy, to the extent of rejecting the name Georgina and insisting on being called George, and defiantly wanting to be seen as masculine – not just an equal to the boys but competing to be a boy. At least, this is how it came across very strongly to me.
The Famous Five novels follow the team of four children and George’s dog through several years of early adolescence and George’s identity remains pretty fixed throughout.
Others have noted this before, although as Wikipedia points out, the depiction is unlikely to be intentional as Enid Blyton says George was “based on herself”, and was a conservative writer (with racist language all over the place, for example).
Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine a person like George being out as trans in the modern day. When the books were written, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain so to be trans would still have been a great risk. The language to express gender dysphoria was completely couched in the language of psychological disorder and paraphilia. Whether “Word of God” counts for anything here is a question, of course.
(On a personal note, while I disliked George’s often combative attitude to other people, of the Five, she is the one that I most wanted to be like and most wanted to see do well. While Julian is set up as the “leader” and felt like the paragon of masculine ideals, I was drawn more to George as a symbol of “me”. Again, as a MAAB person, might be worth considering that in light of my acceptance of my genderfluidity and nonbinary identity?)
But what if George was a young person today? Would people really “make” them be trans?
I don’t believe so. People probably would use “George”, although not everyone would (just as George struggles to be accepted as George in the Famous Five books). Since George insists on being “Master” and not “Miss” we can guess that their pronouns would either be he/him/his or they/them/their (assuming none of the later coinages such as those that I prefer to use unless otherwise directed). But it is far more likely that George would face just as hard a struggle to have these terms of address accepted as they did having people say “Master” instead of “Miss” in 1942.
A genuinely trans-accepting school and medical system would not question George’s wishes. People would call them George, and use whatever pronouns George asked to be known by (we don’t tend to use formal titles for young people any more, but in the current system George would still probably be recorded officially as Miss Georgina Kirrin). The point is that George would be allowed to lead the way.
Suppose George wanted to be “master”, and “he/him/his”, and goes to great lengths to appear masculine or male, but still says “I am not a boy, I am a girl who wants to look and act like a boy”, then no one would insist the opposite.
And that’s what it comes down to. That’s what shows up the whole fallacy in the lie told by transphobes about tomboys being misgendered and forced to be trans.
It’s always led by the person themselves. George likes to be called by a “male” name, wants to be given the male juvenile term of address, takes great effort to change their physical appearance to something more “male” (we can appreciate why it couldn’t be depicted in children’s books from the 40s and 50s, but I do wonder if as they went through puberty, George began to bind her breasts?), likes it when someone thinks she’s a boy. We might very well want to have that dialogue with them at that point, and ask, “do you see yourself as a boy, or in between, rather than a girl?”
But true trans acceptance means taking George’s answer.
And that’s how tomboys would never be mistaken for trans boys. No one would think Tyke Tiler was trans unless they said so, and while the stereotypes might lead the reader to (mis)gender Tyke, Tyke never says anything about their own gender identity. We wonder about George because George does talk about these things, and takes deliberate efforts to appear masculine.
They’re both identified as tomboys, but only one of them talks about wanting to be a boy.