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Trans in the Mainstream: Telling Children’s Stories in ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Ma Vie en Rose’

Trans in the Mainstream: Telling Children's Stories in 'Tomboy' and 'Ma Vie en Rose'

‘Ma Vie en Rose’ and ‘Tomboy’ are two very brave films as they
deal with the topic of children who appear to be transgender. There is no one
trans narrative and not every trans person knows from the time they are born,
yet it is amazing to have those that do know from a young age to be given
representation in film. It is becoming less controversial to listen to children
who claim an alternate gender identity, to help them acquire hormone blockers,
and to get them the correct hormones as they get older. These films are true
gifts for those who can relate to the particular narrative of knowing from
childhood that you are different.  

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

Transgender people and the issues surrounding trans people
have gained more mainstream media coverage over the past five years and there
have been a lot of news reports surrounding the issue of transgender children.
It’s a topic that has caused controversy and divisiveness even among medical
professionals. More and more parents are listening to their children and
acknowledging their children’s feelings on gender, and that has led to some
parents embracing a wider spectrum of gender for their children. From parents
allowing their children to dress as their stated gender at home to parents
fighting for their children’s rights at school, it is obvious that thinking on
the issue continues to evolve. Culturally, Europeans are more evolved on social
issues that U.S. residents and foreign films are way ahead of domestic releases
in terms of content that no major U.S. studio would touch. There are two films
with transgender narratives from the perspective of children and unsurprisingly
both are European.

‘Ma Vie en Rose’ is a Belgian film from
1997 which tells the story of Ludovic, an eight- year-old child who is
portrayed as transgender. Almost every aspect of this film is remarkable. That
it was released nearly 20 years ago is astonishing, the fact that it contends
with the issue of transgender children puts it way ahead of its time, and the
level of importance that the story is told in a matter of fact yet sensitive
way cannot be understated. It’s a beautiful story but it’s also a seemingly
realistic portrayal for the struggles parents and other family members go
through in dealing with a trans child.

Within the
trans community there is a lot of emphasis placed on the fact that there isn’t
one standard story for trans people coming to the realization that they are
indeed transgender. Having said that, for myself and for everyone I know who is
trans the story is pretty standard – we knew when we were children that we were
born the wrong sex. I believe that I was 8 years old when I told everyone in my
neighborhood that I wanted a “sex change operation” before I learned that
saying things like that was a quick road to being ostracized. Some people state
that they didn’t figure it out until puberty or even later, and I’m certainly
not trying to dispute anyone else’s story, but there was something extremely
powerful in seeing a story similar to mine in a film.

When children display behavior or dress that doesn’t fit
their gender, the immediate reaction used to be that either they were
gay/lesbian or that it was a phase that they would outgrow. To a certain degree
I’m sure that’s still a common response even today. Damian Barr wrote about the
Second International Transgender Film and Video Festival (London, 1998) in the
Summer 1999 issue of Screen. He
writes,

Ludovic, the
eight-year-old star of ‘Ma Vie en Rose,’ is crushed by the overlap between gender and sexuality when his parents and
friends assume that his affection for his male friend, Jerome, is queer. When
Ludo dons a dress and ‘marries’ Jerome, the wedding is interpreted as queer and
the pair are separated and punished. For Ludo, the punishment is doubly harsh:
he is denied both his friend and his transgender identity. His position as a
transgender child is erased because he lacks the language to articulate his
identity and the power his parents enjoy to control discourse.

He then
expands on this further by stating, “In ‘Ma
Vie en Rose’transgender people labour under labels… struggling to persuade
those close to them that they are transgender rather than gay, lesbian, or
bisexual”. Thankfully, to a certain degree, this has improved for transgender
children. Since the issue has received press and people have become more
knowledgeable about the issue, I have been lucky to know of two groups of
parents who are not attempting to fit their children into rigid gender norms,
and one of the children has asserted several times that she is a girl and her
parents have honored that. It’s beautiful to think of children who get to
authentically be who they feel they are and have the love and support of their parents.

In ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ we go on a journey with
the family that thankfully leads to acceptance of Ludo’s trans identity. While
the journey is a true experience for all trans people who come out to their
families (though not always to the point of acceptance, sadly), there is
something extremely powerful about seeing the story told in a film. It is a
great teaching film for other family’s who find themselves struggling to accept
their trans child. Of course, in the make believe world of film, Ludo happens to
befriend a little trans boy to swap clothing with, which may seem fantastical,
but at least today there are support groups for trans kids and their parents
where something like this could actually play out.

‘Tomboy,’ a French film from 2011, is
a little more difficult to discuss given that the title is pointing us to the
idea that the main character is not trans but just a girl pretending to be a
boy. The character is under stress at home as the family has just moved to a
new home/neighborhood and the mother is expecting another child and on bed
rest. Céline Sciamma, the writer and director, made some very conscious
decisions regarding the character of Laure/Mikäel, including when the
character’s gender is revealed to the audience. The 10-year-old child is
ambiguously gendered and there is no mention of their gender until they state
their name as Mikäel to a new neighbor. It’s 15 minutes into the film until the
audience learns that they are watching a biological female. Of course, the
title is an obvious tip-off, which was an unfortunate choice on their part.  

Most of the film consists of the duality of
female/Laure at home and male/Mikäel to the outside world. It’s interesting to
consider this as an illustration of not just queer identity but that of trans
identity and the disconnect many trans people feel between who they present and
who they are. Those who are not yet out compartmentalize their lives and
feelings to fit the identity they put forth. It can be argued that Laure was
simply reacting to the stress at home by creating a new personality but the
child had obviously been identifying as a tomboy at the least for some time.
Adults are terrified of pushing an identity on to children when it is that of
the LGBT
community yet it’s perfectly acceptable to push the heterosexual
identity on them. If parents listened to their children and accepted what they
said when it comes to their identity, the world would be a lot easier for kids
who fall under the LGBT spectrum.

Mikäel is highly invested in his male identity, going so far as to
stuff swim trunks to create a bulge. He has a small romance with the
neighborhood girl. He stands up for his sister and in doing so, ultimately
reveals his secret when his mom forces him to apologize. When the secret female
identity is revealed, Mikäel is humiliated in multiple ways. First, the mother
makes Laure put on a dress seemingly as a trifecta of punishment, humiliation,
and to prove a point that Laure is a girl and it’s now to be broadcast even
though she disputes this to Laure. Then she takes Laure around to the
neighborhood children to “confess” that he is a she. Laure runs into the woods
wearing the dress but then hangs it from a tree and retreats further into the
woods. Is this Laure killing off her female identity? It can surely be read
that way.

He (as he is back in the embodiment of Mikäel) then comes across his
group of friends and overhears them discussing the fact that he is a girl. A
branch cracks under his weight and they see him and take off after him. Once they
catch him they stand around having him cornered and in a scene reminiscent of
that in Boys Don’t Cry they tell him
that they “will have to check that” meaning, of course, his genitals. The girl
he had a slight romance with saves him but the scene ends ambiguously. A couple
of scenes later the film ends with the girl he had the romance with asking him
what his name is, seemingly accepting him for whomever he may be, male or
female.

It’s absolutely fascinating to me that the European films got so
much right in their portrayals of transgender (or even genderqueer) children,
especially given that American filmmakers will not touch the subject. Not only
will they not tell stories of transgender children, they don’t even like to
treat adult trans characters with respect. It’s completely upsetting and
maddening to me that if you are a trans person in the U.S. you have to
acknowledge that the likelihood of seeing yourself reflected back from the big
screen in any sort of decent way is extremely unlikely to happen. This is not
unusual in any way – minority groups have been and continue to be woefully
underrepresented by Hollywood. We must continue to look to independent and
foreign films for any representation and primarily to foreign film for positive
representation.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

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