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DECEMBER 8, 2011 6:06PM

I am who I am: children and gender identity (in life & art)

Rate: 12 Flag

I don't remember how old Saira* was when this happened, but the child could have been no more than six or seven. I was in middle school then, so I must have been 12. Saira was in primary school, a kid almost everyone in school knew by name. I didn't envy this fame, of course, because as a child, I revelled in anonymity. But I also didn't envy this fame because of the reason behind it - Saira was known to everyone in school because here was a child whose name was patently feminine, yet he looked and dressed like a boy, and insisted he was one.

Every morning his mother would drop him off to school on a scooter, and I'm not aware of whether or not the teachers questioned her about the gender identity of her child. Over time everyone - teacher and student alike - accepted Saira's self-assigned gender identity in some sort of unspoken, "I don't really care, but I'm going to make jokes about it sometimes" agreement. Saira seemed happy with this arrangement. He liked hanging out with the boys, and his physical delicacy and bony structure notwithstanding, he was really good at sports. The boys accepted him too, and as for all the talk surrounding his gender - his female friends teasing him about hanging out with the boys, and the occassional gang of seniors cornering him and asking if he was a boy or a girl - well, quite honestly, I think Saira like the attention.

And then one day, when I was in seventh grade, my friends and I saw Saira's mother's scooter pulling into the green gates of our school. Our school was one of the smaller ones in the city, not one of those overcrowded schools where the classrooms are bursting at the seams, and scores of children are spilling out of every nook. For the observant among us (or, depending on how you look at it, for the ones among us who chose to hang out by the gates because we didn't want to be coerced into a game of basketball), the vehicles of most parents were recognizable even at a distance. What wasn't recognizable to us that day was the little child riding with Saira's mother on her scooter. It was a child in a printed frock, a child whose short, cropped mane had been forced into two tiny ponytails that barely held, as her hair, unaccustomed to being tied down, struggled vigorously to slip free. As the scooter rode in through the gates, and all the way to Saira's classroom, this child held tighty on to her mother, refusing to meet the eyes of the several kids who had stopped to stare. 

For a few days, we just gossiped. ("See, I told you she was a girl. Nobody names a boy Saira.") Until someone found the answer to What the hell happened?! The school grapevine brought us the juicy story of how one day in class, when one of the teachers referred to Saira as "he," as per usual, one of the girls in Saira's class raised her hand, asking to speak.

"Teacher, Saira's a girl, not a boy."

"No, I think we all know that Saira's a boy. He says he's a boy."

"No, teacher, she's a girl. I know."

"But why would he lie?"

"If you don't believe me, pull down her panties and look."

Pull down her panties and look. Oh, the number of times this line was repeated in school. Among various cirles, in class and outside, some of the children forcing more flesh on the bones of this story, in order to make it that much juicier, that much spicier. Did I, at any point, join the ranks of children who shared this story, or laughed at it? Yes, I did. I came home that day and shared it with my family like I would any other joke I had heard in school, and even though I did not repeat it to many kids at school (maybe because most of the time, I was among the last ones to catch up with the school gossip) I laughed everytime one of my friends brought it up, a truth I have to admit shamefacedly. What the school didn't realize is that while we were all laughing (were the teachers laughing too? In the staff rooms, away from the gossipy gaze of students, while dipping Marie biscuits into their tea during the afternoon snack break?), Saira's life had probably changed in a very big way.

I don't know the details of how it happened, of course. Did the teachers talk to Saira? Did they talk to her mother? Was her mother even aware of the fact that her daughter had chosen to pass for a boy all this time? Or did Saira decide she didn't want to be a boy anymore, and showed up at school in printed frocks and ponytails? I don't think I will ever know the answers to these questions. But I remember Saira vividly, and I remember that after this day, her hair started growing out, she wore feminine clothes, and learned to respond to the female pronoun.

And she stopped playing with the boys. Or perhaps the boys stopped playing with her. In any case, she no longer wore clothes in which it would be convenient to toss around a football.

I haven't thought of Saira in years. I did last week, while I was watching - and for days after I had watched - Céline Sciamma's Tomboy (2011). Zoé Héran as Laure/Michaël

Twelve-year-old Laure (in an unbelievable performance by   ), the titular tomboy, moves to a new place with her family - her very affectionate, but often absent father, her loving, and very pregnant mother, and her ballet dancing, dress-wearing, curly golden tressed little sister. Shy, but also eager to make new friends, Laure goes out to play with the kids in th  e neighborhood, sporting her regular relaxed shorts, loose t-shirt, short hair, and sneakers. She makes friends easily, and even falls in love with a beautiful girl her age. It's all perfect, except for one little detail: Laure has identified himself as Michaël to all the children he hangs out with, including the girl, Jeanne, who has begun to reciprocate Michaël's affections. 

Jeanne and Michaël 

Unlike every other time I watch a film, with Tomboy, the instinct to immediately write a review in which I would rate the plot, acting, direction, and technical elements did not find me. Because Tomboy just isn't that kind of film. It is one of those rare, dewy specimens of cinematic storytelling that is intensely personal, but also intensely fragile. Every moment of the film, you are afraid that its main premise, standing on the delicate, fallible ground of its main character Michaël's lie, is going to collapse. And it does collapse, for just how long can a twelve-year-old child born as a girl, but identifying as a boy, continue to make the world think that? As Michaël's world comes crashing down, and he pleads to his father to "move again," Sciamma makes you feel several conflicting emotions, all at the same time. You feel angry at Michaël's mother for forcing him into a dress, but you also feel sympathy, and great tenderness, for the woman who knows she needs to deal with her child's gender identity, as well as her child's lie, but is caught unawares, and has no idea how to do it. The cruelty of the children makes you sad, not only at Michaël's predicament on screen, but also because it makes you confront, as an adult, your own cruelties as a child. This summer in Michaël's life is an enchanted summer, and you want it to never end, but it has to. And at the end of it, Michaël will have to go to school and be Laure.

But the film is also hopeful, even if at times unrealistically so. As the cruelty of Michaël's friends ensues, it makes you want to close your eyes, and hope this will stop. And eventually, it does. Yes, the children are cruel, but unlike the adults - in the film as well as in real life - they don't really care, beyond a point. The film makes you think that after the summer has turned, the bullying is over, and the memories of it have faded, the boys will be happy to continue playing football with Laure. And most importantly, the film ends on a beautiful, if uncertain note, where we know that the nature of Jeanne's relationship with Laure will never be the same as her relationship with Michaël, but Jeanne will always continue to care because she is sympathetic, she understands, and the feeling of betrayal notwithstanding, she also relates with Michaël as just another human being. Somewhere, Jeanne sees what the adults don't, while failing to see what they do.   


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A really good piece, but if I may say something without seeming to critical I feel that a couple of the paragraphs would be better broken down. But that is just my gut feeling. I really liked this. You treat this subject very well.
Thank you! And your suggestion is well taken. I get that a lot, and I most certainly need to work on portioning my paragraphs better. :)
Very well done. I feel so terribly sorry for children who identify themselves as a member of the opposite sex - it's such a complex issue, and yet I wish it wasn't and that society and schools and parents could just leave them alone and let them be what they want. Thank you also for this review of "Tomboy" - I didn't get a chance to see it in theaters but the idea intrigued me.
It seems arbitrary to me that one must identify with one gender, like it is some kind of law. I think, "Who cares?" Maybe one day, it won't matter to anyone but your intimate friends. This reminds me of Terry Pratchett's tales of the dwarves, with beards and axes, male and female. They all fight, dig, work, but there are little signals, if one wants another to know.
Art imitates life, and vice versa.
An excellent post on a very sensitive and sad subject. I agree with DH Austins's suggestion about the paragraph length, but that has no bearing on the excellence in which you related this topic.

Excellent story and review!
Important piece, and yet it seems so innocent in light of today's horrific cyber bullying which has led to so many suicides among young people. I will check out the movie, sounds interesting. R.
Very nice job of a quiet piece of observations with a slow rise of emotions about a tragic hero. Somewhere Saira found the courage to simply be herself and after being subtly tested, whispered about, the fear turned to the mob release and yet, does anyone want to live in the sterile, vanilla, uniculture that would exist if there was no one to shake us awake as we walk the rutted barren path to the grave? Mayberry was the only southern town without a single African American and nothing even thought that couldn't be said in Floyd's barbershop.

very very interesting