Friday, March 6, 2015

Michelle Ann Abate Presents on "Lil Tomboy"

[editor's note: The Clarke Historical Library will be closed this Saturday, March 7 and next Saturday, March 14 due to Central Michigan University's spring break. We will be open Monday, March 9 to Friday, March 13 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Saturday hours will resume] 

by Frank Boles

On March 3, Michelle Ann Abate spoke in the Park Library Auditorium regarding gender roles in the comic books of the 1950s. She took for her subject the comic, “Lil Tomboy” which was published between October 1956 and December 1959. Lil Tomboy was the story of an elementary school age girl who hated dolls, loved football, flouted authority, indulged in behavior that was easily classified as “delinquent,” violated the Comic Code Authority, a voluntary set of rules created by the industry in 1954, and got away with all of it. Put simply, Professor Abate wanted to ask, "How did she pull it off?"

This question is particularly interesting because of the stereotypes we generally believe about the 1950s. It was an era when society favored stay-at-homes moms similar to June Cleaver, the always well-dressed baker of chocolate chip cookies, and mother of two sons in television’s hit show Leave it to Beaver. But much like Theodore “the Beaver” on the television series, Lil Tomboy was always getting into something. The Beaver’s antics may have been the stuff of a great television sit-com, but girls weren't supposed to be “getting into something.” Indeed, in the first issue of Lil Tomboy, a friendly neighbor is explaining to Lil Tomboy’s father how lucky he is to have a girl, since they are so much easier to raise then a boy.

Lil Tomboy, however, is a handful. When she is sent to the doctor for “treatment” (a fairly standard 1950s fictional fix for socially deviant behavior) she upsets the office routine so much the doctor declares her “hopeless.” She decides she wants to play football with the boys, who tell her to go play with her dolls. She responds by throwing dolls all the boys with pinpoint accuracy and flattening one of her critics with a stunning tackle. She’s a delinquent, sneaking into the circus and the movie theater, and bringing home the monkey she steals from the zoo (locking the zoo keeper in the monkey’s cage, for good measure). And she mocks the policeman who gave her mother an unfair traffic ticket. “Go blow your whistle,” Lil Tomboy tells the cop.

Lil Tomboy not only gets away with all of this, but despite her behavior, she remains firmly centered in a loving family. The doctor may declare her hopeless, and the cop and the zookeeper likely weren't fond of her, but her parents accept that diagnosis and her subsequent behavior, always declaring that they love her “just the way she is.”

Through the story of Lil Tomboy, Professor Abate cast an interesting light on the 1950s. Lurking not very far underneath the fa├žade of traditional gender roles was the makings of what would become the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Lil Tomboy was ready to move into a “man’s world,” just as so many of the girls who read the comic would a few years later. Lil Tomboy’s parents loving support signaled to the girls who read the comic that the change would come about and that it would be society that changed to accept women in a broader context.

Professor Abate’s presentation was made possible in part by funds made available through the John and Audrey Cumming Endowment, which supports presentations regarding children’s literature and Michigan history.