The French independent film Tomboy (2011) follows a ten year old girl named Laure who has questioned gender her entire life, and always desired to fit in with the boys. Tomboy challenges whether gender is something we are born with or rather something that we are socially conditioned to understand, with a further exploration of navigating being so young and questioning gender identity.
The way that Laure is portrayed throughout the film does not draw attention to the fact she is a girl until a moment arises where gender is something that must be considered. The audience views her as a boy until otherwise noted. For example, it is not until 14:23 when the mother calls for “Laure” to get out of the tub, and Laure stands to reveal she is a female to the audience. Up until this moment, there had been nothing mentioned to otherwise indicate Laure is a female; she is dressed in sport shorts, sneakers, and a wifebeater, and there is no physical indication since she is prepubescent. When Laure meets the neighborhood kids, she introduces herself as Mikeal (10:06) and blends in perfectly as a boy. The audience continues to view her as a young boy rather than a young girl and as the kids play soccer, Laure is able to take off her shirt and play on the skins team without question. It is not until 27:17 when the kids take a bathroom break where a problem occurs and the audience is reminded that Laure is still a girl physically, even if she tries to identify as otherwise. Another time gender is noted is when the kids go swimming and Laure has to cut her girl bathing suit into a boy bathing suit. She goes as far as to create a play dough penis so that she fits in with the boys. When she is putting in the penis, the audience sees her as Laure, but when she is seen with the other children playing in the lake, the audience sees her as Mikeal again. This demonstrates that gender someone identifies as does not necessarily have to be the gender they were assigned at birth. The children in the film believe that Mikeal is a boy until they physically see that she is a girl when the mother forces her to wear a dress and reveal herself (1:06:00).
Tomboy does indulge in gender stereotypes, portraying boys and girls as opposites throughout the film, which makes it easier for the audience to view Laure as a boy when she is pretending to be Mikeal. Laure and her younger sister Jeanne are portrayed as completely different people in the film, even though they are both physically the same gender. Laure, who identifies as a boy, is given a room with blue walls “just as she wanted” (5:30) and has short hair and boyish clothing, whereas Jeanne, identifying as a girl, is given a bright pink room (7:36) and is often seen wearing tutus, and has long, curly hair. Jeanne sings a little song in the bathtub about school, which also portrays several stereotypes:
“A young girl falls in love with a boy who plays rock n roll, at the end of the school day,
all the girls are wearing makeup and the boys are bored, the two twin sisters are
squabbling.” (Tomboy 12:51)
The cliche stereotypes of girls wearing makeup and the boys being bored with school that are mentioned paired with the fact that Jeanne is only six years old shows that she has already been influenced by these gender roles in her life, which implies that Laure has also experienced them and defies them anyway. This argument demonstrates that gender roles are taught, sometimes unnoticeably so.
However, it should be noted that while Jeanne had learned these previously mentioned stereotypes, she also is capable of learning new things about gender. When she learns what Laure has been telling the kids about being a boy, she embraces it and calls Laure Mikeal when they are with the neighborhood children, and she tells a friend how much she loves having a brother, (53:05). Jeanne completely accepts Laure as Mikeal and tries to stop her mother from making Laure tell her friends the truth. The mother of the girls in the film is not so accepting of Mikeal. She tells Laure, “I don’t mind you playing the boy. It doesn’t even make me sad. But this can’t go on,” (1:08:0). It should be noted that the film is in French, so in this translation the mother is referencing that she does not mind that Laure is a tomboy, but that she cannot be an actual boy any longer and that it simply is not right. This shows that the mother has learned what gender norms are expected for a girl, and that she is trying to make Laure fit into these norms rather than allowing her to defy them.
Through small moments in the film, the director of the film shows that Laure is just a child who is experimenting with gender identity. For example, when she makes the play dough penis and is examining herself in the mirror, it is clear in her face that she is happier than when she did not have the fake penis. After swimming, she puts the penis in a small box with all of the teeth she has lost, a symbol of her youth (49:30). Another instance in which her youth is shown is when she is playing with Lisa, her girl friend, as Mikeal, and Lisa suggests doing Mikeal’s makeup. When Lisa finishes, she examines Mikeal and says that she would be a pretty girl (39:13), and Mikeal’s expression is obviously upset. When Laure goes home with the makeup on, the mother is overjoyed, but Laure just looks miserable with it on. One of the final and most pressing examples of gender identity in this film is just after Laure is forced to reveal that she is a girl to all of her friends. She runs into the woods in the dress, (1:12:00) and pulls it off to be back in her boy clothes. She hangs the dress on a tree and leaves it there. Although the action is small, it speaks to the audience that even though she is only ten years old, Laure has a strong sense of her identity and knows that she is not happy as a girl.
Tomboy is a film by Celine Sciamma made in 2011 that challenges whether or not gender is something that people are conditioned to learn or that people are born knowing. Sciamma also explores what it is like to be so sure of your identity at such a young age where no one has explained what it means to be a transgender. The simplicity of the film emphasises the young Laure’s emotions and understanding of gender. Because the majority of the characters in the film are children, the film shows that children are more receptive to the confusion than the adults. In the film, Laure’s parents are upset and confused by her lie, yet Jeanne and the other children embrace the truth quickly, which further shows that gender can be relearned. This portrayal of gender is simple, but speaks for the transgender community in a positive way.