“I’d learned ‘girl’ was a derogatory term if weaponized correctly. I knew I was a girl; was I the wrong kind of girl?”
When I walked into school on picture day in fourth grade, my crush surveyed my backwards hat and soccer jersey, laughed, and said, “Same old Molly. You won’t dress up for anything.”
This interaction wasn’t the first or last time someone shamed me for my style or attitude. Similar slick comments would become a running punchline throughout my childhood, as though everyone except me had been given a script with notes about my character’s profile. My parents learned early on to abandon any attempt to sanitize and soften me for church service, often letting me saunter into Sunday school in whatever tattered T-shirt and wrinkled pants I scraped off my floor. You could convince me to wash my hands, but good luck stuffing me into a dress.
Being labeled a “tomboy” became a defining piece of my identity. Pop culture figures like Tori Scott (Leanna Creel) from the hit TV show “Saved by the Bell” and Roberta (Christina Ricci and Rosie O’Donnell) from ’90s coming-of-age film “Now & Then” were two characters I could point to and say, “See! Girls can be like THIS, too!”
The term “tomboy” has rightfully fallen out of favor as our culture’s understanding of gender and the ways girls and women are allowed to show up in the world has evolved. Although patriarchal conditions still dominate our institutions, pop culture offers a space to explore changing tides and new norms. It wasn’t until I watched “Little Giants” and witnessed Becky “Icebox” O’Shea (Shawna Waldron) fight her way onto the football field and lead the Little Giants into victory that I finally felt seen.
Icebox showed audiences that girls didn’t have to shapeshift to chase their dreams or abandon their authenticity as they got older. Girls could play football, be friends with cheerleaders, keep dirt on their faces and have crushes on cute boys. I never landed my Junior Floyd (Devon Sawa), but repeated viewings of “Little Giants” validated my identity as a girl outside the norm during a time of harrowing transition in early adolescence.
Growing up, I internalized pernicious messaging about what it means to be a girl and hoped that one day, I’d move past that phase: I’d wake up with burgeoning breasts and an overwhelming desire to exchange my baseball cap for headbands and hit up the mall clutching “Seventeen” magazine.
It wasn’t a suppressed aspiration by any means, but there was a type of cultural gaslighting at play. It didn’t make sense that any foray into a girly aesthetic garnered both praise and passive-aggressive scolding. I was mocked and snickered at when I showed up in sweatpants and a Shaq jersey, but then I was reprimanded and punished through dress code violations when my long legs made shorts expose “too much.” Even as a child, I recognized a dichotomy of adults bemoaning the oversexualization of girls yet promoting the beauty standards behind it.
In the ’90s, the commercialization of girl power reigned supreme. I latched on to Sporty Spice since I was feeling uncomfortable, at 10 years old, with the tongue-in-cheek hyper-femininity embodied by the other pop princesses. Until “Bend It Like Beckham” came along, mainstream stories featuring girls in sports or girls simply existing outside the margins of cookie-cutter femininity were sparse. Rough-and-tumble, messy, loud girls had to scrounge for representation, most of which took the form of one-dimensional sidekicks, stereotypically (and usually offensively) gay-coded characters, or traumatized broken birds with paper-thin development.
Icebox wasn’t the first tomboy to grace our screens, but as a millennial, she was the one by which all others were measured. Despite Becky’s dominance during the tryouts, her uncle Kevin (Ed O’Neill) passes her over for a place on his newly formed peewee football team, the Cowboys. She watches as boy after boy joins the lineup, her disappointed dirt-stained face filling the frame as the camera zooms in.
“Even as a child, I recognized a dichotomy of adults bemoaning the oversexualization of girls yet promoting the beauty standards behind it.”
If my life were a movie, I’d have overlaid this scene with a guttural scream. I knew what it was like to outperform boys and receive little to no recognition, enduring derision and taunting in its place instead. After Becky’s dad (Rick Moranis) laments how unfair his brother is for passing her over just because she’s a girl, Kevin quips, “Maybe if you started treating her like a girl, she’d start acting like one.”
“What does acting like a girl mean?” I always wondered.
I knew from “The Sandlot” that “throwing like a girl” was an insult. I’d learned “girl” was a derogatory term if weaponized correctly. I knew I was a girl; was I the wrong kind of girl? I remember crying and praying to God at night that I wouldn’t grow up to be a “girly girl.” On “Saved by the Bell,” when gruff, leather-jacket enthusiast Tori rounded the corner of a Bayside High hallway in a tight blue dress, pantyhose and heels, I thought, aghast, “If it can happen to Tori, it might happen to me, too.” I clung so tightly to the tomboy label because it felt like everyone was trying to strip me of it, telling me I was wrong for existing.
In “Little Giants,” Becky feels like she has to choose between being a fullback, as he dad calls her, or a princess, as her mom used to call her. My identity wasn’t as clean-cut, but at some point toward the onset of puberty, it felt like I had to make a choice, lest I miss the opportunity to cement a social group and remain on the outside.
And like Becky’s cousin Debbie (Courtney Peldon), my sister was the cheerleader. Femininity came easily to her and made seeing myself within girlhood more challenging. Wasn’t I supposed to emulate my older sister? I idolized her in many ways, and I also envied how she moved throughout adolescence. Social niches and circles came easy to her as she dipped in and out of various friend groups, hair always perfectly styled, nail beds neat. Fitting in seemed like it was a hell of an easier path than constantly clawing at the doors to be let in, like a wet, stray cat no one wants.
Becky felt the looming presence of these expectations, too. Watching her witness her cheerleader cousin Debbie and teammate crush Junior flirting, I cringe with uncomfortable familiarity seeing the pain in her eyes.
I remember that moment for me: the one when Brian told my friend on a secret three-way call he would never go out with me because I wasn’t pretty and played rugby at recess. In my own way, I recreated the scene following the car wash fundraiser on “Little Giants”: Becky is sitting at home in front of her bedroom mirror, half-heartedly chanting Junior’s name in a mock cheer, brushing her hair and sampling lipstick. My version may have included some tears and the stuffing of my bra.
And like Becky, the catalyst for doubting my identity was supplied by outside forces; it didn’t start from within. Often, the seeds of self-doubt are sown by others who feel threatened by our deviations from their expectations and norms.
“He’s a quarterback. He’s probably gonna want some cute girl, not a teammate,” Uncle Kevin tells Becky. After Junior tells her she’s different, she’s not like the “other girls,” and she’s the “only girl [he] knows that can beat up [his] dad,” she asks her aunt to be part of the cheerleading squad. The thought also crossed my mind that it would be so much easier if I could just learn how to perform femininity in the ways my friends seemed to do so effortlessly.
Between elementary school and the end of middle school, the comments morphed from endearment to disapproval and hostility.
“I don’t know why your daughter dresses that way, she’s so pretty,” a teacher told my mom. In the awkward years of junior high, I oscillated between chasing a preppy, Abercrombie & Fitch aesthetic, failing at attempts to learn make-up, style and hair care from my friends.
In the days before endless YouTube videos or TikTok tutorials were only a click away, I decided to lean fully into the punk scene — a subculture accepting of all gender expressions where aspects of my identity could be not only tolerated but celebrated for being outside the mainstream — through heavy eyeliner, studded belts, ear-splitting screamo and mosh pits. This evolution happened to coalesce perfectly with the pop-punk, indie-emo explosion of the early aughts, and with the manifestation of a new tomboy-esque icon: Julia Stiles’ Kat Stratford in the teen rom-com “10 Things I Hate About You.”
A lot of times, I still feel like that little 10-year-old girl, standing in front of the mirror with socks in my bra, imagining what it would be like to be a real woman someday. I waited and waited, and in many ways, am still waiting. The adult femininity I thought would just drop into my lap one day never arrived. I thought that, one day, I’d wake up and know how to glide through a room, how to flip my hair over my shoulder like Kelly Kapowski, how to be demure but light up a room.
At the end of “Little Giants,” Becky arrives at her climactic self-discovery: She can be both a football player and a cheerleader, a fullback and princess, Icebox and Becky. For a movie, of course, this self-actualization conveniently comes when she’s 12. For me, it was more complicated as I wrestled with which expressions were costumes and which were real facets of my identity. Eventually, I became adept at enough traditional, and sometimes toxic, femininity to secure a job at a Coyote-Ugly-esque bar, exchanging gender performance for money and attention.
Of course, as a 30-something adult, I’ve had ample time to discover how I contain multitudes. My understanding of the spectrum of gender expression and identity has developed alongside our culture writ large. The make-up girlies on TikTok still don’t resonate with me. I’m a cis, femme-presenting woman who loves a comfy T-shirt dress — but it’s still probably wrinkled, and most days, I prefer leggings and sweatshirts. I still don’t brush my hair enough, and I never learned what the hell foundation is even for; I still bite my nails to the bit. I remain rough around the edges, too much, too loud. Icebox allowed me not to resent these aspects of my identity and personality.
Stories centering girls like Icebox — coupled with my parents’ acceptance — helped me avert an adolescent identity crisis. She was a character I could borrow a bit of audacity from, and she provided just enough validation for me to develop confidence as I became who I was meant to be.