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Transmasculine Identities And The Paradox Of Language: 'Tomboy', A Reflection

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

by Julian Holt

"The main character's identity is left ambiguous. Perhaps this is because some parts of the human experience fall outside of language and categorization."
'Tomboy' Dir. Celine Sciamma (2011) Still: [FILMGRAB]

Tomboy (2011) is an LGBTQ+ French film by Céline Sciamma, that raises questions surrounding the often-complicated intersection of gender expression, sexuality, and identity.

After moving to a new neighbourhood, Laure, a gender nonconforming child, meets a group of local children who assume Laure to be a boy. Laure takes this opportunity to go by ‘Michael’, presenting as male around these new friends while hiding this part of their life from their family. Simultaneous to exploring their gender identity, Michael also starts to think about sexuality when they share their first kiss with a girl called Lisa. After a summer of exploration, balancing between their ‘male’ and ‘female’ counterparts, they are found out by their mother and subsequently forced to out themself as ‘Laure’. I will hereafter refer to Laure/Michael as ‘LM’ and use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them.

As a trans viewer whose own experiences closely match the main character’s, I read the experience as a specifically transmasculine experience, though the film does not make this explicit. Tomboy is a narrative of exploration and ambiguity over conclusion and clarity. This is true to life in that the question of one’s identity is often fluid and evolving, whether you assign labels to yourself or not.

Despite the clashing binaries of masculine and feminine that battle for dominance in the main character’s journey of self-exploration, their identity is left for you to read between the lines. Perhaps this ambiguity is because they do not ultimately identify with either binary, or that some parts of the human experience fall outside of language and categorization.


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Reading between the lines of binary code

Tomboy is full of visual binary metaphors for masculinity and femininity, from the red and blue lettering of the title to LM’s androgyny that is in stark contrast to their little sister’s more typical femininity. There is also a distinct separation between LM’s home and social life. At home they are known as Laure and demonstrate moments of softness and vulnerability. With new friends, they are wilder and more boisterous as Michael. There are a variety of ‘gendered’ situations LM experiences as a boy, such as joining a game of football where LM plays shirtless without raising suspicion. But even at home, the gender binary is still present as they play a game with their family where the cards represent sons and daughters.

Another gendered binary that cages the context is language. The film is French; like other Romance languages, nouns are split into masculine and feminine. People are typically referred to with the pronouns ‘il’ (he) or ‘elle’ (she). Even with the rising demand in francophone countries for gender-neutral pronouns, such as the recent neo-pronouns ‘iel’ and ‘ille’ – combinations of the masculine ‘il’ and feminine ‘elle’ – there still exists the problem of conjugation when an adjective is introduced to the noun, e.g. ‘il est content’ or ‘elle est contente’ (‘he/she is content’). Sooner or later, the speaker ends up having to categorize the person as masculine or feminine.

LGBTQ+ people are all too aware of the paradox that language can feel constricting as well as freeing. The knowledge of a word can give meaning to a feeling previously unable to describe but just as often, one can feel boxed in by their own labels. Many paradoxes and concurrent truths run throughout the film – LM could be trans, but could also be a lesbian – maybe both at once, maybe neither. The film is set in the summer, representing a transitional period for LM to play in the gaps between outward expression and inner identity before school starts again. But as the summer fades and the film draws to a close, a light is shed on LM’s double life and references are made to the ‘game’ having to stop. As LM prepares to re-enter society in the form of school, a choice has to be made of a definitive identity that others can easily categorize.

'Tomboy' Dir. Celine Sciamma (2011) Still: [FILMGRAB]

Many of the experiences shown can resonate with gender non-conforming people. What particularly resonated with me was the glee at being recognised as masculine, when LM runs around playing football and strips their shirt off, juxtaposed with the anxiety of people reconciling with my birth sex, like when LM hides in the woods to pee away from others. Like my own childhood, LM is first seen playing and exploring a mostly masculine gender expression, but the anxiety escalates when they feel they must perform to other people's expectations of gender.

The illusory cisheteronormative matrix

Reconciling with one’s LGBTQ status can be harder for some than for others, especially when one does not have the language to convey their feelings accurately and are navigating a confusing heteronormative soup of societal expectations. Many trans children realise their gender identity instinctively far before they recognise their sexuality, which seems to be the case for LM.

In my case it was the opposite. When I first realised that I identified with feelings that were not cishet, even though I had always been gender non-conforming, I was not well-informed about the existence of trans people, though I was aware of the labels gay, lesbian as well as butch. I was fifteen when I acknowledged I was bisexual, finally recognising my romantic attraction to multiple genders. It was years later before I heard of the term ‘asexual’, followed by ‘trans’, ‘non-binary’ and ‘genderfluid’. With each discovery, another puzzle piece seemed to slot into place, as if knowing the terms made me realise there were others like me. Language finally gave me permission to be myself and unlearn parts that I’d unconsciously adopted to survive homophobia-infested waters.


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