Tomboy

Tomboy is a graphic novel authored by Liz Prince, and published in 2015. It humorously, and very simply, illustrates the many struggles gender-nonconforming females experience growing up. While specific to Prince’s own life, it is a fantastic representation of youth (and typical youth struggles – parents/family, developing friendships, romantic attraction, ideas surrounding sex) intertwined with the struggles of being a masculine presenting girl/young woman in a culture that is largely unaccepting of this type (“tomboys”).

The novel opens with a scene of four year old Liz Prince in emotional disarray from the thought of having to wear a dress that her grandmother bought for her and ends with a humorous layout of her preferred display of masculinity. As she explains the recurrent theme of her own masculinity throughout childhood and young teenage years, along with the resulting emotional turmoil she experienced because of bullying and the general lack of acceptance from her peers, she continually breaks down her own evolving gender display with humorous commentary.

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A particular struggle for Liz Prince was trying to date boys. A boy she admired and fell for was a boy every girl in her school dreamed of dating; he was a school heart-throb. She was not the typical feminine presenting girl – she presented as more masculine, wore men’s clothes – and he rejected her because of it. This seemed to contribute to her struggle of general acceptance, understanding, and good-feelings of herself.

In An Introduction to Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam asserts that displays/modes of female masculinity are perceived to be the rejected scraps of heroic and legitimate masculinity, in order to make legitimate masculinity legitimate – the right way to be masculine. It instead, according to Halberstam, is a window through which we can see how masculinity is constructed. When Liz Prince began realizing that she embodied a gender display that is not in line with traditional display for females (being feminine), she captures the emotion perfectly in a single page:

The second image on the page shows the pervasive idea that female masculinity does not equal legitimate masculinity because legitimate masculinity can be found only in males and this is the only way to have a legitimate masculine identity. In the first image, female masculinity also means not being legitimately female (female = co-occuring femininity under this logic), and the last illustration shows utter confusion – a sort of, “what am I?” crisis. If not considered – looking through the lens of the binary – to be truly feminine or truly masculine, where does that leave the gender non-conforming female/woman? It leaves them with no legitimate identity. Judith Halberstam points out that tomboyism is harshly punished (including attempts to “reorient” the individual) and seen as a real problem only when it continues into adolescence and adulthood. As Liz Prince grows up, her continuing tomboyism is more harshly punished by peers, and I believe that the partial results of this punishment of the tomboy individual is the emotion that can be seen in the image above. To quote Judith Halberstam, “Female adolescence represents the crisis of coming of age as a girl in a male-dominated society.” Living within this male dominated society, it is possible to assert that whatever most legitimately masculine males perceive as attractive is the rule, and legitimately masculine males are not attracted to displays of masculinity – so not attracted to Liz Prince; I consider this to be one of the many forms of punishment. She felt this strongly and couldn’t seem to figure out why she was never fully accepted throughout her childhood and young teenage years.

I like Tomboy because it illustrates in pictures, as well as words, the struggles of gender non-conforming females, but with the comfort of humor. Thinking of my own childhood, teenage, and adult experience as a tomboy, I can relate strongly to the experiences of Liz Prince, which made this a very enjoyable read for me.

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-Towards the end of Tomboy, Liz Prince illustrates a time when she discovered the works of Ariel Schrag – another graphic novelist. I highly recommend reading Awkward and Definition, Potential, and Likewise if interested in a story about a masculine presenting woman’s struggle with discovering her sexuality throughout high school…and if you’re as enthralled with graphic novels as me.

Here is a pretty great illustration from Potential –

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Tomboy

Listen. I am not doing this to hurt you or to teach  you a lesson. I have to, do you understand? I don’t mind you playing “the boy.” It doesn’t even make me sad. But this can’t go on.

During the recent increase in support of the Transgender Rights Movement, the French film Tomboy was released in 2011. Only one year before the movie came out, France emerged as the first country to declare that Transgenderism is not a mental illness. In the year following the film, the French senate voted to prohibit discrimination specifically against those who identify as transgender. After such a long time in the shadows, daily struggles encountered by trans* people were finally beginning to surface in the mainstream, heteronormative world of both film and government. I believe that the timing played a large role in not only the creation of the film, but also with its success. Céline Sciamma, the director and writer of the film, pointed out in an interview that although France is viewed as one of the most LGBT friendly countries in the world, the film was still very unique for its time.

Tomboy is an artistic and heartfelt film about Mikael, a transgender boy, and his summer experience exploring his gender identity in his new community. The film begins with Mikael and his family settling into their new apartment. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Mikael’s gender becomes a topic of opposition; the tomboy-560-x-342audience is both introduced to Mikael as a boy among his new friends, and as a girl among his family. Mikael explores his gender identity by participating in stereotypically male activities such as sports and getting into a physical fight while among the local children. In contrast,  his mother pulls the audience’s, as well as Mikael’s, attention back to his biological sex by constantly referring to him as a girl. Although his family is supportive towards his “tomboy” qualities, allowing him to dress gender ambiguously, have his room painted blue, and cut his hair short, they are unaware that he has all of his friends believing that he is a boy. The film shockingly ends by revealing how his family reacts and attempts to “correct” Mikael’s choices.

I chose to include this film in our digital archive for a few reasons. Firstly, I thought that Mikael’s experiences speak to queer experience more broadly. I think that his struggles with fitting into the normative dichotomy of gender, fearing of how others would react to his gender expression choices, and acting in a way which is not conformational to his biological gender norms align with many topics of queer culture. Mikael’s choices about his appearance, his preferences in activities, as well as his interactions with others contradict normative culture by defying gender norms. Secondly, I chose this film  because it gave a slightly different perspective to queer culture. I feel that a large majority of queer culture revolves around adults and teenagers, and children are often left out of the picture. I felt that Tomboy did a great job of revealing the struggles with identity and gender nonconformity that can affect children. People often feel uncomfortable when there is not a distinct separation between children and topics relating to sexuality, which could be why we do not hear about childhood gender nonconformity frequently. The film reveals that children can have complex identities, which may not fit within the constraining pink and blue boxes that our society assigns children into at birth. It attempts to break down the expectation that one’s identity is always easily discovered through a normative direct path leading from biological sex to gender.

Lisa came by looking for you… She came looking for Mikael. Why are you doing this? You pretend to be a boy.

The film is constantly challenging the audience’s conceptions of the role of gender in the interaction of relationships. The opening scene of Mikael’s father teaching him how to drive, as well as the scene where his father offers him a taste of his beer, embodies the cliche developmental milestone of the coming-to-age interaction between a normative father-son relationship. I think that the importance of these scenes lies within the implication that gender roles are attached to an expectation of how people of a specific gender should interact with others and form relationships. I think that Mikael’s relationship with his father reflects what our society expects out of a father-son relationship, which allows the audience to feel more congruent with Mikael’s masculine gender identity.

tubShortly after the movie begins, there is a scene in which Mikael is bathing with his sister. Mikael’s little sister uses the soap to form Mikael’s hair into a masculine associated Mohawk. As Mikael exits the tub, the audience can see the primary sex characteristics which define and restrain Mikael as a female. The bathtub scene questions the audience’s idea of where the line is drawn between gender and biological sex, where they are correlated, and where they are opposed. So much of the story revolves around Mikael’s masculine gender identity, emphasizing the possible variance of gender expression people can have, which is not dependently restricted by one’s sex. The film reveals that there is no one correct way in which to express gender, and that we should not limit our self expression and identity to restrictive normative roles. In the “TransLiberation: Beyond Pink and Blue” article, Feinberg describes the importance of difference in gender expression.

“We are a movement of masculine females and feminine males, cross-dressers, transsexual men and women, intersexuals born on the anatomical sweep between female and male, gender-blenders, many other sex and gender-variant people, and our significant others. All told, we expand understanding of how many ways there are to be a human being.” -Feinberg

Feinberg is trying to express that everyone is different, and instead of trying to diminish that difference, it should be something that is embraced, encouraged, and accepted. Tomboy is a beautiful and touching portrayal of the variation within childhood gender identity and expression, which leaves the audience more conscientious and welcoming to the possibilities of gender differences.

 I have a big brother, which is way better (than a sister). Cause a big brother can protect you. You know, once my brother fought some boys that were bullying me. He punched them really hard cause they were rude to me. That was in our old home. He was the strongest boy in the neighborhood.

(- Mikael’s sister bragging about Mikael)