The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The victims of the gender sorting machine

with 16 comments

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.

Raising questions
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

Written by Jessica

April 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Tomboy, Uncategorized

16 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Gender-neutral pronouns just sound like a way to ignore the issue. I doubt the teachers are thinking in a gender-neutral or sex-neutral manner and the children are not either. At some point they are going to have identities and need to be used to that. What the specific identities will be, that’s uncertain, but they’ll have something. Pretending there is nothing at all isn’t going to help children sort out their identities.

    Maybe they could ask the children what they want to be called. Maybe they’d prefer to be refered to by names.


    April 10, 2012 at 3:31 am

    • I definitely don’t think it’s the one and only way to fix it. i just wish society didn’t make such a huge thing of genders. If Laure likes to call herself Michael and play football with they guys there shouldn’t really be a problem. In the ideal world.


      April 10, 2012 at 8:26 am

  2. Oh dear, I fear I could ramble on for days about this topic (and probably have, from time to time.) So I will try to focus on just the part with the gender neutral pronouns, yes!

    In general the focus on the ‘label’ and the ‘connotation with the label’ is something and changing one or the other is many people’s solutions to problems. It also leads to more confusion, like how ‘tranny’ is considered to have the same connotation as ‘nigger’ by some,and adopted by others (I guess kind of like ‘nigger’ there too.) Or how geek has gone through a similar thing. It’s now ‘cool’ to be a good, but still ‘bad’ to be a nerd? I don’t get the focus on the term, or the label. I do think we need to identify things, but I find myself hearkening back to the cheesy old line “a rose by any other name…”

    I’m glad there’s a word for rose, but should we really focus on the word rose, focus on the ‘feelings associated with the word rose.’

    Words only have the power that we give them, and while having perhaps a gender ‘neutral’ pronoun (which would certainly make conversations easier than having to substitute an appropriate noun like ‘transgender’ every time.) makes writing and speaking about it easier, it doesn’t change what the person is or how people feel about the -subject- not the word.

    In other news, I like pie. (Because if I didn’t find a way to stop myself I’d keep going.) Be safe!

    Holly "Digit" Dotson

    April 10, 2012 at 3:55 am

    • Yeah I’m with you. Messing around with words doesn’t necessarily lead to the desired results. I’m glad to see how the gay community has conquered the word gay rather than trying to find up different words. It’s an example to be considered.

      “Girl” and “boy”, “Laure” and “Michael” don’t need to be so loaded with expectations and limits as they are now.


      April 10, 2012 at 8:29 am

  3. I quite enjoyed this one as well. The director has an amazing ability to coax natural performances from very young actors whilst tackling difficult subjects.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    April 10, 2012 at 4:43 am

    • Yes, the acting is fantastic. I had so much to talk about that I didn’t bring up this aspect of it but I’m glad you did. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching people acting. It’s almost like a documentary gently observing their natural playing.


      April 10, 2012 at 8:24 am

  4. Since you liked this one, maybe you should try the french Ma Vie en Rose? Same situation, only about the even less socially acceptable transistion of a boy wanting to be a girl (or at least be able to wear dresses).


    April 10, 2012 at 9:13 am

    • I haven’t seen that one but I’ve heard of it. I should check it out.


      April 10, 2012 at 10:44 am

  5. I have been meaning to see this for a long time. I really must get on the case this week. Thanks for reminding me Jessica.

    • Go ahead! You won’t regret it. It’s a smallish film, very short, not a huge budget etc. But what there is is very good.


      April 10, 2012 at 10:45 am

  6. […] We talked about films we’d seen lately, in my case Tomboy. […]

  7. I loved this movie.

    From the beginning you know that it can only end in tragedy. Sure it will work for a few weeks but in the end, they will find out and being kids, they’ll tease the heck out of her.

    I was happy to see that it didn’t end in complete tragedy, ending with a beautiful shot where the two kids start again from the beginning.


    May 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    • Yay! I’m glad you got to see it and loved it. And yes, you’re right, it came with the concept so to say that it wouldn’t work out in the long run. Still: sometimes I can’t refrain from making up my own wished endings in my head after watching movies. And this is one of them. I wish she/he could call herself Michael as much as she/he liked for the rest of her life without anyone fretting about it. In my alternative ending that’s how it is.


      May 17, 2012 at 8:31 am

  8. I thought I had commented but maybe it was on the forum. Having now watched it, I was kind of amazed by how absent from the film’s world the notion of transgenderism is…this didn’t strike me as a film about a tomboy as a film about a boy. Anyway, on the topic of neutral pronouns, I agree that it is folly to force everyone into that one camp. For me the value of gender neutral pronouns is for them to exist alongside the masculine and feminine for those who don’t feel they fit in either, like myself. On the other hand, for someone like Mikael, I’d be inclined to just use the masculine pronouns though for clarity I didn’t always in my review.


    May 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

    • All the labels are of evil, aren’t they? It can be fluent, can’t it? As you I think that Michael is most of all a he, regardless of genetalia.Maybe that will change over time; it’s nothing we know about for now. But the choice really should be his and noone elses.


      May 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm

  9. […] Tomboy A beautifully made film about every person’s right to be themself, using any kind of gender identity wihtout being questioned and harassed for it. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: