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 (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.
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.
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.
Like LM, I also cut my hair short, wore "boy"-coded clothes, and played football. I got a thrill at passing for a boy and I remember yearning to be accepted by male peers, while also having confusing experiences with sexuality, sharing first kisses with boys and girls. I also related to the (mostly) unrestricted freedom of being yourself as a child, un-obstructed by conservative parents, but eventually adolescence loomed and unconsciously I felt forced to make a choice. Having no idea of the possibility of changing my body, I felt resigned to my assigned gender. I didn't have the vocabulary to describe these feelings of anxiety and despair, or the experience to recognise these feelings as atypical.
The main difference between me and LM is that when the opportunity presented itself, they threw themselves into their new male identity. They were far younger, more instinctive, and less reflective. Sciamma describes Tomboy ‘not as a mental film, but a film of being, and doing’. LM doesn’t think too deeply about why they are doing the things they do, and when their younger sister finds out and confronts them about their reasoning, they don’t have an answer. As an adult, I am aware of many descriptive and prescriptive labels to assign to my still incomplete narrative.
Gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler famously stated that gender is a performance. While the film starts off as showing LM being themself and not overthinking the way they do things, they find themself adopting some performative aspects as the film progresses, both at home and with new friends. We see LM assess the flatness of their chest and practice spitting in the mirror, assessing their own ‘passibility’ as male. Home in the beginning is portrayed as the place where LM can be themself with no barriers, until they find themself hiding the ‘Michael’ part of their life. It’s only when they start being known as Michael on the outside and Laure on the inside, and when their peers begin to be curious about gender and sexuality, that the gap between the masculine and feminine widens. Lisa later puts make-up on LM and reiterates that they seem ‘different from other boys’. LM tries to hide their face when returning home, but their mother catches them and delights at LM ‘taking an interest in feminine things’. It seems like LM is not entirely comfortable in either setting – no matter where they are, they are concealing a secret from someone.
Despite not having the language at the time, I could relate to the comfort of childhood suddenly being shattered by the anxiety of puberty and looming adulthood. At the age of ten the gap between boys and girls widened, and I couldn’t understand my distress at the time. I was particularly put out by developing breasts at such a young age, and when I watched Tomboy for the first time years later, I found myself envying LM for being able to run around without a shirt on and passing for a boy. For me, childhood was a time of innocence and equality, where there was no real difference between boys and girls – we were all roughly the same height and strength, our voices were all high-pitched, the only difference was haircuts and clothing our parents chose, and that one group could stand up to pee and the other couldn’t. Plus the subtle drip drip drips of societal conditioning.
To be or not to be
As a trans man whose own experiences are close to the main character’s, I find myself wanting to gender LM as ‘he’ and call them ‘Michael’. I don’t subscribe to the idea of them ‘pretending’ to be a boy at all, which is often the narrative ascribed to trans children and adults, rather than the truest expression of their identity. LM’s mother seems okay with the idea of her child being a gender-nonconforming girl, but when she finds out that Laure has been ‘pretending’ to be Michael, she forces LM to wear a dress, to out themself as female and teach them that what they’ve done is deceitful. This denial of the child’s mode of expression rings true for many gender non-conforming people. LM’s mother doesn't seem to be a bad person but is naive to the consequences of forcing LM to out themself; it leads to emotional distress, an aggravated (sexual) assault and alienation from their peers. This reads as a very trans experience. At the end, LM wears their masculine clothes underneath the dress which they abandon in the woods, showing that restricting someone’s identity does not make them any less who they are.
LM’s story is representative of a lot of different people’s experiences, moreover it is ultimately up to LM to decide on their own identity. They are also still a child with their whole life ahead of them and years to figure out who they’re going to be. We’re limited by language’s understanding of gender, as even with gender neutral pronouns, this depicts a false ‘trinary’; I’ve categorized LM ‘they’, whereas even that may not be correct. Frustratingly, language – and by extension other societal constructs such as gender – is just too specific to let the ambiguous remain ambiguous, and simultaneously not specific enough. All we can do is create our own narratives and the language will follow with us.
Julian Holt is a creative trapped in a critic's body, based in Greater Manchester. He watches a lot of existential films, tweets and promotes writing @julesburn_