Though more recently famed for her foray into the highbrow historical romance, writer-director Céline Sciamma was previously better known for her shrewd, realist illustrations of turbulent adolescence in contemporary France. Though the middle child in Sciamma’s trifecta of coming-of-age films, Tomboy (2011) features her youngest protagonist, for whom coming-of-age is experienced through the embodiment of gender non-conformity. Queerness takes many forms in Sciamma’s films, most of which evade easy categorization. Instead, I propose a reading of Tomboy via the social structures of childhood friendship, examining how this makes clear the elastic gender politics of the playground.
When the titular tomboy, ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran), moves to a new neighborhood and is quickly mistaken for a boy, Mikäel is born—and with him a whole new realm of possibility. It is difficult to say whether Tomboy depicts the blossoming of a transgender boy, a gender non-conforming lesbian, or a roguish young girl who makes the split-second decision to play along with the mistaken identity. But this isn’t really the point of Tomboy; Sciamma draws our attention instead toward Laure/Mikäel’s navigation of newfound friendships and the permeability of adolescent masculinity. Being Mikäel means being ‘one of the boys’ for the summer, in a new and unfamiliar place where he is free to exercise the burgeoning masculinity that is chastised at home.
Sciamma’s film evades identification because she depicts childhood—and more specifically the endless sun-drenched months of the summer break—as a fluid and limitless space in which Laure/Mikäel’s identity is unquestioned. Scrawny and pre-pubescent, Laure’s body provides a blank canvas upon which Mikäel is inscribed the moment a curious neighbor, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), asks for his name. Lisa’s innocent misrecognition (or indeed, recognition) of Laure’s gender is the catalyst for Mikäel’s manifestation and his entry into the carefree world of Lisa’s spirited friends.
Tomboy reminds me of the ease with which bonds are formed as children, unself-conscious and non-judgemental. Mikäel’s initial nerves keep him on the edge of the group, but as soon as he realizes that the other boys think nothing of his presence, he finds himself easily assimilated into the band of youngsters. Growing older, and particularly during our tempestuous teenage years, friendships become far more contentious and political grounds; guards go up, walls are built, and identity is often sacrificed for the sake of fitting in. The ease with which Mikäel finds himself accepted by his new friends enables him to feel more confident in his gender expression, casting off his shirt during a game of football and with it any sense of doubt in his place in the world.
Mikäel’s friendship with the other boys also provides an educational environment in which he is able to effectively learn how to ‘be’ a boy. Through conversation and play, Mikäel becomes acquainted with the social structure of the boys’ friendship, adjusting his own behavior and relishing the sense of liberty and boisterousness this grants him. He strives to adopt their physical characteristics—studying his muscles in the bathroom mirror, and modeling a clay penis to pad out his swimming trunks. One suspects, though, that even without Mikäel’s efforts at visibly performing masculinity, his new friends were ready to accept him without question. The boys simply take each other at face value; if you want to play, and you play by the rules, you’re in. Mikäel also learns that his desires perhaps extend beyond gender expression when he shares a kiss with Lisa, who watches the boys play from the side-lines, entranced by him. Lisa, as the only visible girl, is excluded from football matches—betraying the beginnings of gendered barriers that the children are learning to implement into their social lives. But Mikäel’s seamless masquerade proves the shallowness of the children’s exclusion and allows him to evade “pom-pom girl” status.
Also essential to the narrative is Laure/Mikäel’s relationship with little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), a precocious six-year-old who cottons on to the masquerade but decides to play along because she is excited at the prospect of having an older brother. The siblings’ relationship is already close, and their time spent together whiling away afternoons in their apartment is tender—unmediated by the social structures of the outside world. Jeanne sees Mikäel as her protective new brother, who bravely defends her when she is picked on by another kid. Her ability to accept and uphold the pretense despite her young age shows how little gender impacts her relationship with her sibling, and that her love is unconditional.
Of course, Mikäel’s friendship with the local boys ultimately faces prejudice when his mother finds out he has been pretending to be a boy, and Laure is forcibly revealed as a girl to the rest of the children. It is only at this point, encouraged by the distaste of their parents, that the other children show revulsion towards Mikäel, insisting that they see inside his shorts and later exiling him from the group. These events coincide with the summer holiday drawing to a close, with the new school year promising a more restrictive public sphere in which Mikäel must once again become Laure in the classroom.
Despite this, Tomboy ends on an ambiguous but uplifting note as Mikäel and Lisa once again meet in the apartment complex courtyard, a cyclical return to their first meeting. When Lisa asks “What is your name?” the reply is this time hesitant: “My name is Laure,” followed by a small smile. Sciamma does not impose any definitive answers upon Laure/Mikäel’s identity, nor does she ask the audience to find any. Rather, the film’s ending provides a tentative promise of Lisa and Laure’s continuing friendship, one that will blossom without boundaries. It is an affirmation of the innocence and plasticity of adolescent minds uncorrupted by prejudice, for whom friendship is love, acceptance, and possibility.