The Concept of Tomboy Girl in Shrek

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Table of Contents

  • The Definition of a Tomboy
  • The History of the Word
  • The Plot of the Film
  • Destroying the Classic Archetype
  • The Tropes
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

The Definition of a Tomboy

The tomboy is the word that best defies the image of a girl in overalls and boyish hat, with short hair and playing soccer or baseball. Here are some definitions of tomboy, given by different sites and dictionaries:

Derived from the term 'tomcat' for a male cat, the Tomboy is a major character archetype, and yet is also a somewhat vague concept.

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A tomboy is a girl who has tastes and behaviors usually associated with boys. Because these associations are culture-dependent and tend to change, what exactly constitutes a 'Tomboy' is subjective. Especially historically, any girl interested in science, mechanics, sport, or combat has been called tomboyish.(tvtropes)

The word "tomboy" in the sense we understand it now – "girl who acts like a spirited boy" (The Guardian)

The tomboy conjures an image of a girl in overalls and baseball hats, wearing short hair and nondescript shoes. She probably isn't into Barbie. When the term "tomboy" first appeared, in the mid-16th century, it actually was a name for male children who were rude and boisterous.(The Atlantic)

A girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys.(Oxford Dictionary)

The History of the Word

But where does this word come from? When did it start to have the meaning that we use today? Well, it seems that its beginning lies in the 16th century, when the word was used to identify and describe male children who were rude and boisterous. But by the turn of the 16th century, the word changed into a feminine meaning in what we call: a "wild, romping girl, [a] girl who acts like a spirited boy."

The tomboy that we are referring to nowadays has a progressive, positive meaning as it encourages gender exploration, and crossing the borders of gender norms. However, it was not the case of the 18th century when the Victorian tomboy had none of these traits.

By the 19th century, as the abolition of slavery neared, there was a real concern over the physical and mental health of white women as the restrictive feminine clothes didn't allow women to move too much or to exercise. Moreover, the large numbers of immigrants in the US and the UK represented a fear for the white elite as they thought that the whites will become a minority. Therefore, white women were encouraged to get engaged in outdoor activities and sports and to have more active lifestyles. There was a general wide-spread belief that the active lifestyle would prepare women for motherhood and for the high demands of a marriage.

The image of the tomboy girl was everywhere in the pop culture. Images of women dressed more like men, with short hair and not so feminine attitude was wide spread. This movement coincided with the first waves of feminism movements. At that time women were fighting for their rights as they wanted to abolish the patriarchal order and to be considered more than suffrage.

Psychoanalyst Dianne Elise notes in her essay "Tomboys and Cowgirls: The Girl's Disidentificationfrom the Mother," explains that a number of girls who displayed a tomboy attitude in their childhood became lesbians rather than the ones who acted in a more feminine manner. However, it seems that most of the girls stop being tomboys at the time of their adolescents but, "when young girls become sexualized and inherit a new set of gender-conforming expectations. Yet these expectations can be damaging to a girl's self esteem and self respect, no matter her sexual orientation. Lesbian tomboys, have found a workaround: The identity becomes a role of self respect." (Elise Dianne).

The image of tomboy girls first appeared in literature in Harper Lee's 1960 novel To kill a mockingbird that presents the tomboy character Scout Finch, and later on in the film industry in Freaky Friday (1976) and in advertising. In the 1970s, during the women's liberation movement, advertisers used the tomboy stereotype for advertising purposes. However, what advertisers did was to promote the new, free-spirited, liberated and active woman. Examples of companies that promoted the tomboy girl were LEGO and a company that sold maxi-pads called Stayfree. Both of them appealed to the new type of woman, and underlined the idea that girls are beautiful even if they play with blocks and build instead of playing with Barbie dolls. The maxi-pads company emphasizes the idea that a woman can be free and do activities that are specific to men, even when they are on their period. These simple advertisements have a very complex meaning and encourage and promote the women liberation movement.

Nowadays, the idea of tomboy has definitely changed its meaning as the ideology around gender has changed and progressed. According to The guardian,The idea of a tomboy fails to take into account the more contemporary idea of gender as a spectrum rather than a rigid binary. It also fails to acknowledge that for some, presenting as masculine is a fashion choice or a phase while for others it is the expression of their gender identity. Moreover, the characteristics for which a girl was considered to be a tomboy girl in the 16th century have changed totally. The contrasting love for outdoor activities is not strictly masculine by modern standards; neither is short hair, trousers wearing or caps; being assertive and scrappy. None of these traits are exclusively or innately masculine nowadays.

In the present work, I am going to analyze a female character who has the characteristics of a tomboy girl. The female character I am going to talk about is Fiona, the female protagonist of Shrek. In what follows I am going to make reference to the first Shrek film.

The Plot of the Film

Shrek is a 2001 Dream Works Animation film, based on the 1990 William Steig book that bears the same name. The film features Shrek, the male protagonist (Mike Myers), an ogre who lives happily alone in his swamp. He regularly frightens away the villagers that come and spoil his lazy and cozy life. His perfect peaceful and quiet life is rocked when his swamp and home is invaded by fairytale characters simply seeking refuge after being cast into exile by the cruel-hearted Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Shrek starts a journey in order to get his own home and swamp back and so he confronts Lord Farquaad. He agrees to free his swamp if Shrek rescues Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon guarded castle so that Lord Farquaad cand marry her and become a true king. In company of his newly-made, self-proclaimed best friend a talking donkey called Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek sets off in his journey in order to find his peace and enjoy his lonely-living life in the middle of his beloved swamp. The encounter between Shrek and Fiona seems very much like in the classical fairytales at first. Fiona, feminine princess already knows she will be rescued by the charming prince and waits to be rescued, kissed so that the magic dark spell to be undone. However, things happen to take a nice, unexpected turn when she realizes that Prince Charming is not at all a prince and that none of what she was expecting to happen will ever happen to her. From this point of view, the film is an Affectionate Parody as "Fiona is initially portrayed as the archetypal princess from fairy tales, speaking formally in matters of courtship and presenting high expectations of how she is to be rescued, who is to rescue her, and so forth." (

Destroying the Classic Archetype

In the very beginning of the first Shrek film, Fiona is presented as the classic archetype of the perfect, virginal, nice princess waiting passively for her prince in armor. She reacts passively; she does not stand up for what she wants at the very beginning. She is thought that she has to accept her destiny whatever that might be. But, once she is out of her tower, she becomes more like an open-minded person. Step by step, she proves to be more of a boyish kind of girl, rather than a feminine princess. Everyone in her company is shocked by her behavior. If at the beginning of the movie, the only one who wants to know and to meet her in order to get married and to become a king is Lord Farquaad, after revealing step by step the unknown parts of her character, Fiona starts to be liked by Shrek for what she truly is.

Step by step, Fiona falls more and more into the category of tomboy princesses. As the film goes on, she is more and more assertive, adventurous, and autonomous. Terry Rossio, the screenwriter underlines that the major characters in this story are organized around the idea of self-esteem. He explains that Fiona seeks validation from others because "she thinks there's something not correct about herself' as up to a certain point she lives her life according to stereotypes. She has been taught that if you "look a certain way and act a certain way and put the right dress and slippers on a handsome man is going to come', but after being rescued from the tower, she realizes that all these were nonsense and therefore she stopped listening to all that. This was the point when she started acting as she wanted to, and being the person she really was.

C. Diaz, Fiona's voice in the film underlines in one of her interviews that Fiona does not have to be rescued. She can rescue herself from the tower if she wants to "she's never depended on anyone to rescue her, which is a different message from Snow White and Rapunzel... She was capable of getting out of the tower herself' and 'took on Shrek as her partner rather than as her rescuer.' A proof that she could have released herself from the tower is the moment when she fights and beats Robin Hood with his men, to Shrek's shock. This is also the proof that Fiona is depicted differently from classical princesses.

Fiona represents what tomboy girls represent as she has a desire to explore, she is independent and characterized by assertiveness, these all are traits of masculinity and, at the same time, they represent the progression of female characters. Fiona is therefore, an empowered, positive role model for young girls of the 21st century.

The Tropes

As far as tropes are concerned, Fiona can be considered an Action Girl "a female badass who is tough and kicks butt… She faces dangerous foes and deadly obstacles, and she wins". ( Fiona is seen as an action girl when she fights Robin Hood. Everyone around her is stunned and shocked by the way she defends herself and everyone around her. Somehow, she is an Action Girlfriend who covers for her non-action boyfriend. She is unlike other princesses in classical fairytales as she is expert in hand-to- hand combat and Martial arts.

Another trope in which she can be included is Adaptational Attractiveness. In William Steig's book, Fiona is described as a horrible ogre while in the film she isn't actually that repelling. The definition of Adaptational Attractiveness according to the website is "when someone who was originally fat, plain, or even downright ugly is played by a much more conventionally attractive actor — or, in non-live action media, is drawn/animated in a similar manner. This also applies to clothing: characters whose attire is described as grotesque will become fashionably dressed." She is an ogre, she is not tall but, unlike Shrek, who is really deformed and has that big belly, prominent gut and top-heavy build, she seems to be quite well-built muscular for an ogress. Even C. Diaz describes her in positive words: "I thought she was beautiful. She had big eyes and she was round and soft and delicious.' What is more, she can be included in the trope Big Beautiful Woman because, even if she is a thickly proportioned ogress, Fiona is still a cutie. She might not resemble her mother physically because of the spell, but if we analyze Fiona's mother discourse we can notice that they are both assertive and they both talk to their husbands in a similar way. Moreover, Fiona seems to have inherited her fighting skills from her mother; like parent, like child.

Fiona is subject to many tropes as we have already noticed. She is a Lad-ette, Shrek being the one who helps her uncover this unknown side. She likes sports, when the situation asks, she swears, fights like a man. After her final transformation into an ogress, she is often hygienically challenged. While in any male company, Fiona does not let them forget she is female. She does not dress up in a very elaborate feminine way nor she uses too much make-up or combs her hair in a very elaborate way but she does not dress in truly cross-dressing way either.


In conclusion, we can emphasize the idea that the concept of tomboy girl has changed its meaning since its appearance in the 16th century. If in the 16th century it had nothing to do with women or girls in general, in the Victorian Era changed it meaning due to a social a racial fear. Nowadays, however, it has a progressive and positive meaning which stands for assertiveness, individualism and autonomy in a girl's or woman's behavior and way of being, characteristics that can be seen in the female protagonist of Shrek film, Fiona. She stands for the active, assertive, intelligent woman who speaks up for herself and who defends herself when necessary. Through all the presented characteristics, she is a charming tomboy with tropes such as action girl, big beautiful woman, adaptational attractiveness and lad-ette.


  • last accessed on the 5th of February 2019

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