Pride Month was ushered in this year by A Kid Like Jake, a tender adaptation of Daniel Pearle’s play about a 4-year-old boy who loves to dress up as princesses. His parents (wonderfully played by Jim Parsons and Claire Danes) struggle to navigate the thorny politics of rearing a gender non-conforming child as they enroll him in a fancy New York preschool. Do they let him wear dresses even if he is bullied? Should they label him as “transgender” on the preschool application to better their chances? The film demonstrates how even the most accepting and progressive of parents can still have a difficult time adjusting to the idea that their child may not adhere to society’s norms.
However, Jake’s perspective in all of this is lost. He is an almost spectral presence, often shot from behind and rarely heard. There are other films that offer a more subjective gaze into the hardships and joys of finding one’s true gender identity during adolescence. Differing in approach and form, these films interrogate how society places children within strict pink and blue boxes.
Celine Sciamma is one of this generation’s finest filmmakers. Her intimate character studies often examine the lives of LGBTQ youth. Tomboy (2012) follows a 10-year-old who introduces himself as Mikael to his new friends, including his crush, Lisa, after moving to the Parisian suburbs. Only when Mikael returns home from his summertime escapades do we realize that his family regards him as their elder daughter Laure — a tomboy with short hair who hates wearing dresses. They see Laure’s boyish interests as a phase that she will grow out of once she hits puberty. Mikael discovers that the world of boyhood is liberating. Girls are confined to domestic spaces and the role of observer as boys roam wild outside. For example, Lisa is forced to be a cheerleader while Mikael is free to join the boys’ soccer game. Sciamma’s subtle direction encourages the viewer to ponder whether or not this is a phase for Mikael or something more serious. Tomboy reveals how even young children can enforce gender roles.
The parents of 7-year-old Ludovic in Ma Vie En Rose (1997) also hope their son grows out of his love of wearing dresses, makeup, and jewelry. Despite being called a “fruit” by her peers, Ludovic loves to imagine herself as a bride marrying the boy next door. Her mom and dad send her to therapy and enroll her in sports to try and exorcise these “fantasies.” Georges Du Fresne (11 years old at the time) gives an amazing performance as Ludovic. We can sense the profound tension inside her, how deeply torn she is between her inborn desire to be the girl she is and pleasing her devout family.
The unique aspects of this Belgian drama are the fantasy sequences. A Barbie-esque soap-opera character named Pam serves as a fairy godmother watching over Ludovic throughout the film. With her flowing blonde hair and shiny pink dresses, she is a paragon of the woman Ludovic dreams of becoming. Ludovic also assuages her religious anxieties by imagining that the XX chromosomes God sprinkled down to earth for her from the sky fell into a trash can. Because of this simple mistake, Ludovic was born male. Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie En Rose explores gender questioning with a unique childlike wonder and poeticism.
The 1986 teen comedy Willy/Milly has the same sort of quirky sweetness as Ma Vie En Rose with a more satirical bent. Milly Niceman hates wearing dresses and dreams of being an astronomer, qualities that would be more socially acceptable if only she were a boy. She conducts a magic spell during an eclipse to make this wish come true, turning into Willy. The news that their daughter is now a son hits her parents hard. Her father insists that there will be no grey areas in the house, no “girlish boys” — everything must be black or white, male or female. Her mother mourns the Junior Miss colonial bedroom set she bought specifically for her little girl and throws away all of Milly’s dolls. Eventually Willy’s father accepts his new son’s masculinity and this changes how he interacts with his child. He teaches Willy to fight and curse, gives him his grandfather’s pocket watch—which he would have not given a daughter — and makes Willy call him pop instead of daddy. His lessons insist that aggressiveness and superiority are what makes a man. Willy/Milly uses its bawdy humor to expose the futility of assigning objects, rituals, or ideals onto a specific biological sex and letting gender define our relationships with others, particularly parents and children.
Turning away from fictionalized depictions of transgender youth, Elvira Lind’s documentary Songs for Alexis (2014) is a close look into the life of a New York musician and transgender teen on the cusp of adulthood. Lind gently observes the minutiae of transitioning as Ryan discusses his top surgery, longs for facial hair, and purchases a packer. Ryan is lucky to have an earnestly supportive mother who uses the correct pronouns, and has had a relatively smooth journey toward acceptance. The stakes are raised when Ryan travels to San Francisco — careful to avoid non-LGBTQ friendly spaces in the Midwest — to perform for Pride Month and see his long-distance girlfriend Alexis. There he encounters Alexis’ homophobic father. Songs for Alexis is notable for being a soft study of a sweet, functioning, and respectful relationship between a trans man and woman. Alexis sends an important message to viewers when she proudly claims that she is “Ryan-sexual,” meaning that biological sex makes no difference when we are all human and fundamentally the same inside.
In a time when elaborate gender reveal parties are all the rage (I recently saw a particularly obnoxious one where a father-to-be had an actual alligator pop a watermelon unveiling the blue dye inside), these films expose the absurd significance we place on biological sex and gender and their social attachments.