Every Monday, The CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring the film, Tomboy.
Céline Sciamma directed this 2011 French film focused on a 10-year-old beginning to explore gender. While the child presents in a stereotypically masculine way, the viewer is neither given a name nor are gendered pronouns used with the main character for the first ten minutes of the film. The film starts off with a family of four moving to a new town during the summer. At the ten minute mark, the child meets a new friend, and introduces themselves as Mikael, with the other children accepting Mikael’s gender presentation as a boy without question. However, five minutes later we hear the mother call the main character Laure, and the character stands up from being in a bathtub, and we see that the character is biologically female. Throughout the film, the mother continues to refer to the main character as Laure and uses female pronouns, with one momentary exception when she is confronted by another parent. There is a tension that runs throughout the film, of what will happen if the other children discover that Mikael is biologically female.
Several startling things are present in this film, including how much the film focuses on children interacting, and how secondary the adults are. As the child actors are very expressive and realistic, it took me a little while to pick up on how often the adults just weren’t on-screen. Gender policing doesn’t happen until adults get involved, specifically the mother forcibly outing the child as Laure. The mother repeatedly says to Laure that it’s okay for her to pretend to be a boy, but not in public. Though the father comes off as a very likable and relaxed character, in particular when compared to the mother, he is rarely on-screen. Supporting Mikael the most is the younger sister, who at one point brags to a friend about how great it is to have an older brother. There is a confrontational scene between the other children when they find out Mikael is a biological female; a scene that is reinforced with darker undertones, which makes one wonder how differently the scene would have been if the kids were a few years older.
The viewer sees Laure/Mikael do many things throughout the film to suggest they are more at home with a masculine presentation such as: changing a pink string to a white one for their keys, practicing spitting, playing soccer shirtless, being uncomfortable wearing feminine make-up, altering a one-piece female bathing suit into just bottoms, having their little sister cut their hair short, and creating and wearing a little play-doh packer. Individually of course, many people would do these things, however all of these actions together represent Laure/Mikael’s yearning to be seen as more masculine.
Leaving the gender of Laure/Mikael ambiguous, the film enables multiple interpretations. One might think Mikael is truer to how the child wants to be seen, and how the child presents himself when allowed to present however they wish. Or, one could argue that Laure doesn’t know how to express herself in a masculine way without identifying as a boy, and thus conforms to society’s expectations. The film refrains from completely wrapping up Laure/Mikael’s gender identity at the end, leaving it as an unfinished journey.
I would highly recommend this film to anyone who wants to think about how gender identification, sex, and gender presentation interact. If you have access to a Netflix account, this film is currently on instant-watch.
We watched this film in Reading Queer Writing, a bi-weekly group that meets to discuss texts and watch relevant films about alternative sexuality and queerness. If you’re interested in attending a meeting, check out the Facebook group!