I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of myself as cisgendered, even though when I first heard the word I realised it filled a lexical gap I had been aware of for years: I objected to identifying myself as “not-trans” or “born-woman”. (I was not born a woman: I was born a baby.)
That I don’t have to think about being cisgendered is 28 on the Cisgender Privilege Checklist, of course.
One of the events that makes me more aware of being cisgendered is when someone registers how short my hair is and calls me “sir”, or some rude person wants to know “Are you a man or a woman?” (The best answer I have discovered to that question is to reply loudly “Which are you?” and then walk, don’t run, to get out of sight while the questioner is suffering hed-explody gender-confusion.) On a day-to-day basis people code each other’s gender on a very narrow bandwith – hair, clothes, specs, make-up/absence of – which rarely if ever has any connection with a person’s physical sex, let alone their gender identity. (Granted if you are wearing physically-revealing clothing past the age of puberty, this usually ceases to be quite true.)
I was filled with excitement about seeing Tomboy because not only had it been well-reviewed, it appeared to deal with a life-situation that both babydykes and trans boys know about directly, and to express this in a way that a mixed audience could perceive. [Update: Though I may have been wrong about that – see Hullaballoo review.]
In summary: a family of four move in to a suburban housing complex, and the older child is let play unsupervised for quite a while, because the father is working long hours at his new job and the mother is heavily pregnant and has evidently had strong medical advice to lie down, rest, nap in the afternoons. The younger child is six: the older child is about ten. The movie opens with a sequence of scenes of older child with father, sitting on his lap and allowed to help drive the car: older child greeting and playing with younger sister: the family together – a close, loving unit: and then the older child sees a group of children outside the window, and while both mother and younger sister are napping, goes out to explore and make friends. Meeting a girl, Lisa, who asks “What’s your name?” and older child replies “Mikael.”
The title of the movie “Tomboy” tells us what reviews will already have let on: Mikael is known to her family as Laure, the older sister. Visually we don’t find out for sure until hours later in movie time, when Laure and the younger sister Jeanne are bathing together. The movie leaves it ambiguous – even in the credits at the end – if the child is a trans boy or a butch babydyke. Lisa is a girl who hangs out with boys – who isn’t allowed to play football with them because “they say I stink” – but who is part of the mostly-boys crowd, a leader, who brings Mikael into the pack and the first time they play lets Mikael win so that “your team will like you”.
One of the things Tomboy brings into sharp visual relief is something many cisgendered people may never have thought of: how little difference there is physically between a prepubescent boy and a girl. The differences that people think are marked aren’t physical, they’re behavioural. Laure’s mother compliments her on how pretty she looks in make-up – cosmetics applied by Lisa to Mikael’s face when they’re “playing girls”, and Lisa too says “you’d be very pretty as a girl”. (Going home, Mikael/Laure pulls the sweatshirt hood up to hide the made-up face, and plainly intends to wash off the make-up before anyone sees.) But Mikael runs, fights, swims, plays football, hangs out with the crowd of kids, and none of them – nor their parents – think of Mikael except as a boy.
Jeanne, at first excluded from Mikael’s secret, once let into it is an enthusiastic participant, bragging of her older brother to a new friend her age, and teasing Laure and her parents with “I met all Laure’s friends, but I especially liked Mikael. He’s my buddy now too.” (Jeanne’s delighted six-year-old laughter at the joke: Laure’s amused/shy downward glance: and the parents who, in their amused/pleased look at each other, evidently think Mikael is Laure’s boyfriend.)
The most difficult part of the film is when Laure’s mother finds out about Mikael. It was dealt with both painfully and honestly, the bewildered shock of cisgendered mother faced with trans child: school starts in two weeks, Laure is registered with the class as a girl, what can they do? There are answers – but how would Laure’s parents know them? How can Mikael find about them? Is Mikael Laure’s true self?
The film ends, in the certainty of family love and the continuance of friendship: but the questions remain unanswered.
Strongly recommended: spoileriffic review/analysis from Skip the Makeup, Tomboy… an experiment in indentity.