The victims of the gender sorting machine
How do movies affect you in the long run? What traces do they leave in your being? Do they somehow change the way you see the world, do they leave a message you can’t completely disregard of?
In most cases I suppose they don’t. At the best movies make us laugh or cry a few times, offering a few hours of escape and entertainment. In worst case we’ll curse or scoff at them, feeling we could have spent the time in a better way. But we move on with our minds and values more or less unscratched and there’s nothing wrong about that.
However sometimes – on rare occasions – I come across a film that really leaves me thinking. A movie that puts a spotlight to a corner of life that I wasn’t aware of before. That kind of movie doesn’t make life easier; if anything it complicates things, adding nuances and perspectives. It provides questions rather than answers.
Tomboy is that kind of a movie.
Laure and Michael
It tells the story about the 10 year old Laure, who moving to a new neighborhood decides to present herself as the boy Michael. She/he spends the summer playing football, being “one of the guys”, while also spending time with the girl Lisa, who takes a fancy for Michael, who “isn’t like the other boys”. But the summer goes towards an end and the act will have come to an end, though not by the choice of Laure/Michael.
Roger Ebert claims that there isn’t any tragedy in this. “The world of these children is balanced at an age when identities are in constant formation. We’re not dealing with “Boys don’t cry””.
Now, I haven’t watched Boys don’t cry, so I can’t make that comparison. But my response to Tomboy was a bit different. The turn of events, while not completely without of hope of a better future, still left me devastated.
I cried over her parents, which are loving and kind, but a bit clueless about how to handle the situation. I cried because we live in a society that is like that toy where you put wooden pieces through holes into a box. There are only two sorts of pieces that will work – the accepted ones. And if you, like Laure/Michael, doesn’t fit into the hole, society takes the piece and cut it and tries to reshape it until it does.
This doesn’t just happen in extreme families and societies filled with crazy extreme religious bigots. This happens among normal people who consider themselves open-minded and liberal. They don’t do it out of malice. But who is prepared to take the fight with the school to say that your daughter Laure wants to be a Michael, at least for a while? Would I do that? I frankly don’t know. This is how society is built. This is how we do it, how we’ve always done it. There are two genders – boys and girls. And don’t you dare try to go across the border.
I’ve always been opposed to generalizations and stereotyping about genders, either it comes from conservatives or ultra feminists. The idea that men are from Mars and women from Venus gives me rashes. What matters is that we’re human beings. Why do we necessarily have to do that sorting thing in the boxes? I think it hurts more than it helps.
Gender neutral pronoun
On the other hand I’ve never been a front line fighter, advocating complete gender neutralization.
In Sweden we’ve had a debate over the last year, where people have made serious efforts to launch a new, gender-neutral pronoun, “hen”, which is a mixture between “hon” (she) and “han” (he).
While the language obviously isn’t changing over one night, this idea seems to have had at least a little bit of success. For instance I’ve read articles about preschools, where the staff doesn’t say “he” or “she” anymore about the kids, but use this neutral word or other ways to describe them without making a statement about the gender.
To be honest, I’ve found the whole idea quite ridiculous. It seemed artificial and in worst case I thought it might give the kids ideas strange ideas about their sex being something shameful, “not-to-be-mentioned”. It was like reducing the two holes in the box to one hole, when what we needed was a multitude of holes or even better – no bloody holes at all.
However now, with all those questions swirling in my head, I’m not so dead certain about this anymore. I’m still not convinced that gender-neutral pronouns is the way to go to help kids like Laure/Michael. But at least I won’t ridicule and completely dismiss the idea they way I used to.
Tomboy has given me a reminder about what pain and troubles the gender sorting machine causes in people’s lives, especially for kids. While adults can face prejudices and difficulties too in some parts of the world, at least where I live, we grant them the right to dress as they want, to identify with the gender they want to, to go through surgery and name changes. But how do we grant kids the right to be who they are, to let their sense of belonging to a certain gender develop naturally from their inside rather than as a result of the pressure society puts on them? How do we give them space and freedom and prevent them from being locked into boxes solely depending on their name and the way they pee?
Those are questions that come into mind after watching this film. I don’t have any answers. But at least they have been raised. That’s a beginning.
Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, FR 2011) My rating: 4,5/5