“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide”

– Emily Brontë, Stanzas1

When the word “tomboy” first came into usage in the mid-16th century, it described a boisterous, rough boy. But within a few decades, it would come to represent a “wild romping girl, [a] girl who acts like a spirited boy.”2 This shift from masculine to feminine usage represents an expanded understanding of gender roles and presentation that would persist as a media trope into the 21st Century. The tomboy is an amalgamation, a boy-girl, who sits between the genders and usurps the heteropatriarchal binary.

Most notably, the tomboy is foremost a child. A girl on the cusp of puberty, who must decide how to navigate the world of sexuality and gendered roleplaying. This exploration is often framed as an act of rebellion against narrow parameters of femininity that the tomboy finds stifling at adversarial. Once her adolescence crystallises, the tomboy will usually be forced to abandon her boyish identity as she comes to terms with the compulsory heterosexuality3 that is constructed for feminine identities. Boyhood is marked as a rite of passage to be toyed with, enjoyed, then expelled once she grows out of her masculinity. Of course, this ability to overcome masculine inclinations (and eventually surrender to ideal models of womanhood) is what allowed the tomboy image to survive on-screen through decades of political censorship. Anne of Green Gables4 eventually lets go of her childhood girl-friend and relents to marriage, and Calamity Jane5 – an overgrown tomboy – ultimately abandons her rough mannerisms, again, for a man.

Still, not all tomboys fall neatly into this strict definition, where boyish characteristics are confined to one’s youth. Some tomboys are permitted to retain their masculinity, and transform into something beyond the temporal boyhood identity. In this fashion, a tomboy may proceed to redefine their adulthood with new visions of gender and identity. Rarely, this other type of tomboy is allowed to assume a trans-masculine, butch or non-binary identity, without needing to shed their boy-ish traits into their adolescence. This second tomboy graces the silver screen less frequently, and is decidedly queer in their manifestion. It is this type of tomboy that Céline Sciamma emphatically presents to us.

Tomboy opens with Laure (Zoé Héran), an androgynous 10-year-old girl whose family has moved frequently from place to place. She shares a close bond with her younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), who seems to understand Laure instinctively and deeply. When Laure meets the other neighbourhood children for the first time, she chooses to introduce herself as Mickäel, and assumes a male identity. The other children do not question this, and simply accept Mickäel as their new friend. Walking into the woods as Mickäel, it is clear that the forest represents a fantasy space for a pure and certain identity to be forged. Immediately, there is a palpable tension between Mickäel and Lisa (Jeanne Disson), and the two of them begin to develop an innocent, childish romance.

Mickäel seems to find ease in play-acting as a boy, and Sciamma’s restrained direction lets us see the children interrelate and self-identify. There is a simplicity in their youthful social experiences that allows Mickäel to assimilate naturally without suspicion that they are anything other than how they present. Mickäel joins the boys for a game of soccer, being informed that their team is the shirtless one. Eventually, Mickäel deliberately removes their shirt too, able to pass as having a male-like body at this young age. Wordlessly, Mickäel’s fervent joy in their peers’ unknowing bodily acceptance is clear. Later, Mickäel flexes their shoulders and biceps in the mirror, smiling with euphoria at the strength of their own body. However, it soon becomes clear that their body isn’t a perfect match for their male peers, as they watch with a mixture of anxiety and envy at the boys standing to urinate by the side of the field. An attempt to discreetly relieve themselves in the forest almost results in their outing, and they run away, ashamed, betrayed by their anatomy.

On returning home, it is jarring to hear Mickäel being called “Laure”, “girl” and “sister”. Their family’s ignorance seems at odds with Mickäel’s bold self-determination. But this is not a spiteful ignorance, it is merely unassuming. Cards are played with father, cuddles are had with expectant mother, and games are enjoyed with sweet, bubbly sister. This is a strong, kind family, and Mickäel’s obscuring of the dual-selves is a product of wishing to be unseen, unchallenged; not actually from total fear. Their fragile, contemporary self cannot witness familial scrutiny just yet, their metamorphosis is incomplete. Realising the neighbourhood children intend to go swimming, Mickäel struggles to find a solution that won’t reveal their birth sex. Cutting a bikini top into a pair of swim trunks is effective, but their outline is unconvincing. Under the guise of playing with their sister, Mickäel fashions a faux penis from modelling clay, and finds that it allows them to convincingly swim as a boy. Later, this object is hidden away in a tooth-fairy box: the innocence of childhood gives way to their maturing, private self.

Perhaps the sweetest part of this film is the reaction of little Jeanne when Lisa comes looking for “Mickäel”. Jeanne plays along and later confronts her sibling, but promises not to tell if they let her play with the children too. Jeanne’s acceptance is total, as if she really knew all along, and she takes real pride in Mickäel. Jeanne boasts to her peers that she has a “big brother” and that it is “better than having a big sister” because her big brother can defend her from bullies – quite willingly complicit in Mickäel’s experiment. This foreshadows the event where she is pushed by an older boy, who is then beaten, (not harshly, but to submission) by “big brother”. This sadly results in Mickäel’s outing as the beaten boy’s parents complain to Mickäel’s mother about her “son’s” behaviour. Thus ensues a chain of humiliating sequences where Mickäel is forced into a periwinkle-blue dress, to apologise first to the boy, then to Lisa, whose reaction is ice-cold. Burning with shame, Mickäel flees into the forest, the place where they first became a boy, and discards the dress. Here they are caught by the children and subjected to an assault, whereby Lisa, (who reluctantly admits it must be “disgusting” if she kissed Mickäel as a girl), begrudgingly “checks” Mickäel’s shorts while they weep. Shocked, the party silently retreats: our protagonist is left devastated.

Their identity shattered, Laure returns to their original self. But this is not to be a total revolution, no return-to-dresses here, as they are now unburdened by the complex web of lies they spun to protect their duality. Still wearing boyish shorts and a tank-top, they spot Lisa waiting quietly under a tree. Upon their reunion, they both reset. “What is your name?” Lisa implores. “Laure”. Now Laure has completed their transformation from girl, to boy, to something new. They exist in a light, airy space, which does not need to perform to the rigidity of affixed rules. Laure is still masculine, but is no longer pretending to be what they are not: an ordinary boy. The film closes on their little smile, finally at peace, and free.

Tomboy (2011, France, 82 mins)

Prod Co: Hold Up Films, Arte France Cinéma, Canal+ Prod: Bénédicte Couvreur Dir: Céline Sciamma Scr: Céline Sciamma Phot: Crystel Fournier Ed: Julien Lacheray Mus: Para One6


  1. Brontë, Emily. “Stanzas”. Poems of Emily Brontë, 1846.
  2.   [1550s, “rude, boisterous boy,” from Tom + boy; meaning “wild, romping girl, girl who acts like a spirited boy” is first recorded 1590s. It also could mean “strumpet, bold or immodest woman” (1570s). Compare tomrig “rude, wild girl.” The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology | tomboy: definition and origin. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1995.
  3. Rich, Adrien. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. pp. 23.
  4. Anne of Green Gables, directed by George Nicholls, Jr. (RKO Radio Pictures, 1934).
  5. Calamity Jane, directed by David Butler (Warner Bros, 1953).
  6. Para One is the professional nom-de-plume of French electronic music producer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, who wrote the music for Tomboy.

About The Author

Faith Everard is an independent film scholar and former radio producer from Melbourne. She has a deep passion for cinema old and new.

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