Film Review: Tomboy (2011)
Ten-year-old Mikael, portrayed by award-winning actress Zoé Héran, is a transgender boy who has recently moved into a new neighborhood with his parents and younger sister, Jeanne. Directed and written by Céline Sciamma, Tomboy (2011) is a French drama about the complexities of gender, the experience of a gender non-conforming child, and the taboo surrounding his identity. The summer ahead allows Mikael the opportunity to present himself as a boy to the neighborhood children; however, his parents are unaware of their child’s decision to do so.
When Lisa, a young neighbor, comes calling for “Mikael,” Jeanne is perplexed but soon realizes what her older sibling has done. In exchange for keeping the secret of her sibling’s gender preference from their parents, Jeanne is allowed to play with her older sibling and his friends. It is through this experience that Jeanne comes to recognize that Mikael is happier when he is allowed to be a boy. At home, his parents allow him to be a “tomboy,” but they still view him as their daughter. They continue to refer to him by his given name, Laure, and allow him to dress in boys’ clothes and decorate his new room in a masculine fashion. Even so, Mikael’s mother continues to buy him pink shoes and questions why her child mainly hangs out with boys. After several near-revelations, it is finally exposed to Mikael’s friends that he was born female, much to his dismay.
Although this is a French film, it offers universally invaluable insight on the experience of a ten-year-old, who is obviously old enough to understand gender expectations and recognize that he cannot comfortably conform to them. Mikael’s interactions with his peers force viewers to question the assumptions we make regarding gender roles and each sex’s “natural” strengths, weaknesses, and proper “places” in society. American culture has been far more sluggish in understanding the complexities of gender than other facets of the LGBT spectrum. When an adult chooses to dress in a way that violates gender expectations, many people are perturbed, yet they still recognize that adults have the freedom to express their genders as they please; however, when children “who don’t know better” express those same desires, society discourages them. Jeanne’s reception of her older brother is warm and welcoming, suggesting that young minds are malleable to ideas of gender fluidity, which further emphasizes that strict gender codes are artificial constructions.
The conclusion of Tomboy (without spoiling too much) offers a rather pessimistic view of the way in which sex and gender are currently conflated. Mikael is not fully understood by his mother or father, but their overwhelming love for their child makes the final scenes of the movie just that much more painful. Although Jeanne impulsively meets her brother with nothing but love, we understand that the world is less accepting. Furthermore, her reaction to Mikael voids the common argument that is used to combat same-sex unions, freedom of expression for LGBT individuals, and gender non-conformity: “How do I explain this to my kids?” The gender binary is evidently arbitrary to children; it is their parents who struggle to grapple with the identities of their children and LGBT individuals.
If you are unfamiliar with gender non-conforming individuals or are interested in the transgender experience, Tomboy is an excellent introductory film to the subject. Tomboy is currently streaming on Netflix.