This past month I finally got the chance to see Tomboy. The movie is a fictional drama that follows the story of a 10-year-old girl who is mistaken for a boy based on her attire and play. She then decides to go along with the new and “exciting” identity of being a boy. Rather than a review of the film (of which there are plenty see for a thorough one) I want to focus on a couple key questions and themes relating to identity, stereotypes, and cultural depictions of gender and sexuality. Further, I want to share how it has spurred enthusiasm and research ideas in my department.
I begin with a brief synopsis—Spoiler Alert—The story centers around “a new kid in town.” To the young children in the apartment complex this child goes by Mikael. However, at home the family uses Laure to refer to their 10-year-old daughter/sister. Born female, Laure/Mikael behaves more like a boy. This seems to be accepted within the confines of the apartment, however this all changes once in the outside world where Laure is expected to act more lady-like. Initially, Laure is quite successful being Mikael outside of the apartment; however once it’s revealed to the neighborhood children that Mikael is biologically female disruption ensues. Overall, according to the director/writer, Céline Sciamma, the movie seeks to explore issues of identity and gender from the point of view of a child living “undercover.” This becomes particularly intriguing to me on two fronts. The first, has to do with the misalignment with social expectations of who one should be based on their born sex, and the second is the social assumption that children are too young to know who they are or what they want and that these identities are fixed.
“So was that a trans movie?”
This was the number one response from my colleagues and students during conversations about the movie. It was interesting to me how quickly and urgently this question came to the forefront. So much so, that I even Goggled the question which led me to an AfterEllen.com interview with the writer/director of Tomboy. The interviewer follows the movie synopsis with the following questions: “Is she transgender? Is she a lesbian? Is she simply a tomboy?” In my own conversations we have added several more questions, such as: “Are female athletes by definition tomboys?”; “When does a tomboy become a dyke or butch woman?”; and so on. All of which initially led us nowhere…since this movie was only about a snippet of time in one child’s life. The lack of self-identification on the character’s part opened the door for a great deal of ambiguity—part of what makes the film so complex and curious. A same-sex kiss and our rigid social notions that link sexual orientation with gender variance further inflamed the ambiguity. As we know, there is something especially inappropriate about assigning a label related to sexual orientation and gender identity without any knowledge of self-identification. While I do have an opinion as to who I think Laure/Mikael is, or even would become, it would in reality only be a confining assumption…and this is not the point I want to make. Rather, I think the underlying issue is in defining “tomboy.”
In academic writing it is extremely important to always begin with clearly defined concepts of interest. As such, I have developed a habit of often first looking at lay dictionaries (e.g. Webster), then popular culture dictionaries and encyclopedias (e.g. Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia), followed by definitions in the academic literature on said concepts of interest. The lay and popular culture definitions of “tomboy(s)” overwhelmingly define them as girls that act in ways that are generally associated with boys—especially regarding behavior, dress, and games/sports. More rigorous definitions include notions of gender roles, while the lesser ones depend almost solely on examples and lists that include stereotypical “tomboy” behavior. The academic literature primarily draws on applications and examples within in various contexts. For example Babe Didrikson Zaharias as the “Texas Tomboy” (Cayleff 1992) or C. Lynn Carr’s (1998) work on self-identified tomboys and how resist and conform to gender norms. Largely, it seems that the academic literature assumes that we all know what a tomboy is and that we are all on the same page regarding its definition and application. It appears that the true difficulty in defining tomboy is that the definitions are all context dependent.
So far, according to these definitions, “Tomboy” is a very fitting (if superficial) title for the movie. However, it is also easy to see how those more deeply interested in issues of gender and sexuality would be left with so many questions and concerns related to the title and the intent of the filmmaker.
Perhaps, this was what the writer/director wanted of us.
The title itself, ‘Tomboy,’ is a complex signifier. Thought the movie was French, the title was in English—and the only thing without subtitles. Why then was this the title and what did this mean for our expectations and understandings of the movie? Do we (Americans) have different understandings for what it means to be a tomboy compared to the French? Would the French have a different understanding of this meaning and different understandings of the surrounding questions related to sexual identity, sexual orientation, and their intersections with gender? Perhaps we are supposed to question what it means to be a tomboy in a global sense?
A French Perspective
Upon further reflection, I realized that the movie title bothered me quite a bit. Why was this the only thing not in French? Lucky for me, I have a few French friends and colleagues. I sought out my best French friend (a non-academic) and asked her to translate “Tomboy” to French. She came-up with “garçon manqué” but said she Goggled it and didn’t even really remember ever using this word or its English version in France. It wasn’t something that she had talked been about or paid attention to. Next I asked my colleague, a sociologist originally from Paris, who specializes in Race, Class, and Gender. I thought that surely, he would have an answer for me. The good news is that he immediately came to the same translation. However, a day or so later I ran into his wife (also from Paris and an academic) who had seen the movie. She enthusiastically contextualized the translations and told me a little more regarding this definition as it specifically related to the movie. “Garçon manqué” directly translates to “miss boy.” “Miss,” as in “to miss the target” or “to miss the train,” not as in “Miss,” what young women are referred to prior to marriage. So a tomboy in this sense was literally someone who missed the gendered mark. For this colleague, Laure/Mikael was not a “garçon manqué.” This child wanted to be recognized as a boy and even adopted an unmistakable and common name associated with males. She further supported her argument by stating that this child was not acting like a “tomboy.” In her opinion, as a French person and an academic, the strongest evidence came from the parental response to the child and the child acting on target as a boy. She disclosed, “In France, parents would not have a problem with [children being] tomboys…The mother’s reaction is very important [in this movie]…This child was not a tomboy… The mother cares too much.” This is how we know she is not a tomboy and that this is a “problem.” In France, enacting specific masculine or feminine gender roles in childhood is less of a problematic issue than it is in the U.S.
The social psychologist in me really enjoyed this point. After all, groups and the perspectives of others help to define who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we are viewed and treated socially. We are nested in society. Society is reflexive and it affects us just as we can affect it, although systems of gender and sex categorization in the U.S. tend to be very rigid and resistant to change. While we don’t know what came of Laure/Mikael, we are left with hope. The movies ends with a convincing smile that this child is resilient and will be okay.
While I would have preferred a more settling, happy ending, popular culture tends to render genderqueer lives as unsafe and unlivable. Yet, our lives are lived happily everyday. Overall, this movie stirred up many questions and ideas in my own head and even more questions and conversations among some of my students. This movie has motivated me to rekindle some projects related to body and gender narratives and to start new projects related to female masculinity. It even inspired one of my students to start a new project called Tomboy Stories where she is collecting your stories about being or knowing tomboys. As an academic who is interested in gender, queer issues, identities, and pop culture, this movie brought up many questions and ideas and aside from this, the queer person in me strongly related to the character. That being said, I leave you with an excerpt from Tomboy Stories a project by E.A. Knox. Check it out and feel free to leave your story.
Everybody has a tomboy story.
“I tried not to. I waited for the day when I would begin to feel comfortable in the clothes that were given to me. When I would begin to relate fully to my sisters and the other girls and finally be able to happily join them in their fun, when I would be content painting my nails and giggling. So, in long shorts and softball jerseys, I waited. So did my parents. When that time showed no signs of approaching. My dad blamed himself. My mom and stepmom didn’t know how to fix me. My tomboyishness had become a problem and I was a little girl in need of help. Pastors and prayers and bible camps and therapists didn’t seem to initiate the profound and desired change. But I tried. I wore shorter shorts, and tighter shirts. I was 11, I still hadn’t grown into my arms, and I didn’t understand how I managed to look and feel so unnatural doing and wearing things that all of my girl friends pulled off so effortlessly…” –student E. A. Knox
Carr, C. Lynn. 1998. Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory. Gender and Society. 12: 528-553.
Cayleff, Susan E. 1992. The “Texas Tomboy” the Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. OAH Magazine of History. 7: 28-33.
D’Lane Compton is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of New Orleans. Her career and research interests include: social psychology, the social demography of sexual orientation, and methodology and research design including experimental. She currently teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in Social Psychology, Sexualities, Research Methods, and Social Statistics. Dr. Compton has also taught at Texas A&M University and Davidson College before coming to UNO.