a tomboy

Zoe Heran as Laure (Mikael) in Tomboy (2011)
Zoe Heran as Laure (Mikael) in Tomboy (2011)

I am about to venture into a territory that is dangerous. I am about to talk about gender issues — in children.

I happened to come across a French film called Tomboy. I love French films, they are my favourite as they are often utterly artistic — some of the shots are just so surprising, revealing the thinking of a visual genius. Aesthetically, this film had all my attention and all of my five stars. Content-wise, though I might not like to admit it as it is paired with a most uncomfortable feeling, this movie made me think.

The director Celine Sciamma wanted to leave the movie open ended so that the audience could imagine their own ending. Much like life itself, where in this increasingly liberal society people can choose whatever ending they like. Even children. Even children, take Shilo Jolie Pitt for example, can choose how they would like their gender story to unravel. As I see it, conclusions are a thing of the past, because liberal society demands open-endedness.

Now, I was a tomboy when I was younger. To what extent, I cannot gauge because I have really vague memories of childhood. One thing I remember though was wanting to kick around the tennis ball at lunch with the boys and lining up to take a penalty kick against my 10-year-old boyfriend (of two weeks) and all the guys oohing and aahing in anticipation. I used to like to stand up and pee by opening my legs around the toilet — that was truly satisfying. And when I was younger I didn’t really like my sister because she was ‘too girly’ (she used to cream her legs ALL the time), instead I played with my brother every day, every sport possible. I fought with him on a daily and he was the one I looked up to because I couldn’t beat him at anything. My tomboy-ness mostly played out as me loving sport and competition and as a result always being muscular — at 10 my body was beautifully toned. As an adult, my tomboy-ness plays out as a wacky way of dressing — not being interested in curling my eyelashes, like EVER, and getting intense pleasure out of being able to wake up on a morning and just toss my hair, slip on some loose clothing (I HATE tight-fitted clothes) and sprint onto the nearby train to go to work. I have been mistaken for a boy a few times, once in secondary school told ‘if you were a guy I would be attracted to you’ and asked in Italy by a Moroccan selling clothes pins if I was a man because I was ‘very tall and strong’.

Tomboys have existed for, well, for as long as little girls who like scraping their knees better than pointing their toes have.

So why did this film make me so uncomfortable? Well, I am going to have to spoil it a bit for you. The tomboy Mikael (her name was Laure but she pretended to be a boy) was the apple of the eye of a pretty girl called Lisa who took Mikael into the woods and kissed her. Yes, they kissed. And again they kissed and held hands after that. Considering at the age of 10 the kiss I shared with my ‘boyfriend’ made my sister reprimand me for sinning, that kiss shared between the two girls was the equivalent of a lot more shared between two women or two men in the same way. This was no movie about a young girl enjoying sports. It was about a young girl who assumed every outward appearance of a boy, even going as far as constructing a noggin for herself out of plasticine. (When I was younger I LOVED plasticine, I used to like to make snakes, she was making a different sort of snake).

SO YES, this film strongly leans towards her being the ‘wrong gender’ and being acutely aware of it.

What, then, are the implications of allowing children to identify so strongly with the opposite sex that they in most ways try to actually be the opposite sex?

Here are my concerns:

(1) I don’t believe God designed men to wear jeans and women to wear skirts. I mean we both have two long legs that can fit into either. I often feel a little bit jealous that guys are so free to wear baggy jeans when I have to squeeze myself into slim fit ones. But when I put on baggy jeans I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel… feminine. Does this come from the biological awareness of what suits a woman or have I been trained (and perhaps brainwashed) by societal convention and norms to concretely connect baggy pants with masculinity? I mention this because I have NO issue with my child wearing pants and not liking dresses, preferring basketball to ballet, or trucks to dollies. But what I do have an issue with is, if this nurtured connection between clothes-wearing and sexuality is inevitable, that in wearing such clothes and the subsequent reactions of other children and adults and my child’s internalising of this, might cause my girl child to be thus conditioned into believing she is a boy. Let me try to make that clearer — if we are conditioned to believe that the clothes make the man, then by a woman wearing a man’s clothes, she is thus made into a man, not born into a man, but made — by society. And thus my question is — is it better to be conditioned into identifying yourself by your biological gender or the opposite gender? Which one is more difficult?

(2) Being a tomboy is fine — before pubity hits. In the extreme case of this movie, the little girl looked 100% like a boy so she ‘tricked’ a girl into loving her. How confusing will it be for our kids if they go to primary school and their emotions are all muddled because the girls are acting like boys and the boys are acting like girls? How does one EVER develop a sense of who one is if there are no guidelines? Should we really tell our daughters that if they like football it means they will most likely like other girls? NO. Because loving playing rough and hating ballet has nothing to do with sexuality. I’ve seen it mislead many girls as they grew up playing football and then did not know how to come to terms with the fact that at 17 they still loved getting muddy and wearing baggy shorts while their classmates pasted on low-rise jeans. Gender identity is inevitably partly conditioned. Inevitably. Who can argue against that? So while the girls who love ballet walk the straight and narrow path — pun intended — the sporty ones face identity issues later on. But how do parents combat this? By letting their daughter wear boxers and stick plasticine in her panties? My hunch is NO, parents should do their best to teach their daughters what it means to be a girl and their sons what it means to be a boy, and I don’t mean superficial things, I mean the biological stuff that makes us so different — THE XY and not the YY. The blood that comes once a month. The line and not the cylinder. The milk that will one day flow from our breasts. The innate ability and desire to care for and nuture others.

(3) I wonder why in the bible God took a rib from Adam and made Eve, symbolising that women are to be protected by men, under their wings, submissive — but loved faithfully and unconditionally. I wonder why women were chosen to bear children and not men, why it has always been so important for women to be modest, more important than for men. I wonder why it was Eve that tempted Adam and not the other way around. I wonder why the fastest female sprinter in the world (not on drugs) can be beaten by a semi-professional male. I wonder why I feel like I have to be shorter and smaller than a man in order to be the female in the relationship when actually shorter, smaller men have no problem in finding that I am 100% woman. I wonder why being male and female is so different. I wonder why it is so difficult to truly teach children what it means to be male and female. After all, aren’t parents there to do all that they can to guide and nurture their children into healthy, stable and flourishing adults?

Why am I so perturbed? Because I realised that it isn’t that difficult for a girl to look like a boy, and woman to look like a man, a boy to look like a girl, and a man to look like a woman. Especially when you clothe them in the ways which usher society into thinking in terms of stereotypes. I know that woman and man are created equal and in the image of God, so I am guess when I really think about it it isn’t surprising that we can look so alike. But what I am really interested in, which people don’t fight for a lot these days, is the difference. Women and men are created equal but different, according to Genesis. Why was the word different used? Why is it so important? What does it mean? And how do we preserve this difference in a way that will preserve our children from utter confusion and all sorts of other mental and physical problems?

Give your answer to any one or all of these questions…

3 thoughts on “a tomboy

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