Today's tomboys not getting on so famously

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Libby Purves is a novelist and broadcaster. She presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4

A television company has commissioned a play in which Enid Blyton's Famous Five appear in middle age to solve a grown-up mystery. Presumably they will now be fuelled with lashings of Pinot Grigio rather than ginger beer, and dressed in Blyton-kid-grown-up outfits from Boden. But most intriguing is the speculation about what will have become of George, the tomboy.

The others are pretty obvious. Julian was a pompous sexist git, so he'll be in the City. Anne, forever cutting sandwiches and being nervously maternal, will be a "yummy mummy" with a huge four-wheel drive that makes her feel safe on the school run, but which she cannot reverse. Dick, being the noisy joker and greedy eater, will be a television executive with thinning hair and desperate bonhomie. Timmy the dog will be dead, replaced by a woefully undisciplined gundog for Julian's shooting weekends.

But what will have happened to George? That's the hot discussion on the web and round the tables. She dressed as a boy, climbed, ran and tore her clothes. One common blog view is that she will have grown out of it and gone girly. Another is that she will be "a vet or an animal activist" or camping outside Heathrow with a vegan pasty and a grudge against the 21st century. Another says "A butch lesbian... or a supersexy bisexual?"

It set me thinking about what does become of tomboys. I was one, refusing to wear vile velvet party dresses with prissy collars instead making bows and arrows in the garden. However, in my teens I became as mini-skirted and hair aware as any girly-girl. I only reverted to type when I discovered sailing, where you are allowed to wear crumpled canvas and have calloused palms indeed valued for them. Other tomboys of my youth gave up tree-climbing but sublimate their ballsy tendencies by running publishing houses or City banks.

But what of the new generation? Fifties and Sixties girls such as George had plenty to rebel against: bans on trousers at school, expectations that they would be nurses rather than explorers. Julian was forever saying that the girls must wait ashore while he and Dick swam to the island to foil the smugglers so much so that I had to reverse some of the names when reading the stories to my own children.

But the modern girl is urged to be everything: sporty, brave, up the rigging and off to the Pole, while maintaining a flat midriff and glossy hair. Girl Guides learn about contraception; glamorous pop divas show off their muscles. It's a lot to live up to. Now we hear that girls are keener on university than boys, and when they get there will row as energetically as any Old Etonian. Too exhausting.

So perhaps the only available form of George-like rebellion now is to be bone idle, indifferent to everything, scared of spiders, and scruffy with it. "I am not Supergirl, I am not even Adequate Girl. And do you know? I don't care." So there are perils in urging the young to aim high.

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