Girl, The everyday struggle of a transgender

The Belgian film Girl (Lukas Dhont, 2018) shares the intimate life of a fifteen year old girl named Lara. She dances at a renowned ballet academy in Belgium, and she hopes to fulfil her dream of becoming a professional ballerina. The film opens with her admission interview, wherein it is explained that she will be granted a trial period – because Lara isn’t just any girl, she is a transgender girl, born male.

The film follows her junior year at the dance academy where she strives towards becoming a prima ballerina, an objective made ever so complicated – and in some form mirrored – by her private struggle of transitioning not only from male to female but from girl to woman, as her life is embroiled in adolescent turmoil. Lara has a lot on her plate.

A new start for the family

Together with her father and younger brother Milo, Lara moves to Brussels to continue her studies. Her father supports her all the way. Lara’s sweet sixteen is celebrated surrounded by family. She blows out the candles on the cake and once again, her birthday gift is a pair of new pointe shoes. Her father thanks the guests for coming, explaining that it is not just an important moment for Lara but for the family as well, “A new beginning and the pivotal moment that we have all been waiting for”. With these words having barely been spoken, another announcement is made; a pregnant woman at the table shares her and her husband´s ‘big news’, that the sex of their yet unborn child has been determined as male. The woman’s pride at being pregnant with her third “boy”, serves as a reminder of the harsh reality Lara has to face – day-in, day-out – existing in a world which is eminently defined along masculine and feminine lines. Gender/sex correlation seems to be automatically presumed even before someone has left the womb.

Malleability in gender care

The film parallels Lara’s regular student life at the academy and at home with her – not so regular – life as a transitioning girl and the invasive proceedings of care that she has to attend and to endure. During the consults with her physician, her father never leaves her side. Driving home together they discuss the normal subjects that occupy teenagers. For instance, her father asks her: “Do you have a boyfriend?”. Later, when alone in conversation with her psychologist, a scene in which the psychologist seems to determine the principle course of the conversation, he asks Lara, almost rhetorically: “How do you feel about becoming a women”, immediately adding, “As in fact you already are”. In answering his own question, he exposes an underlining normativity – present even in the professional context – which strikes a contrast with her father’s genuine and personable mode of enquiry.

Lara begins medical intervention with puberty blockers and hormone therapy. This treatment will halt the onset of male pubescence and will stimulate female hormonal changes in her body. This also means for instance that she will start growing breasts. Every day Lara looks in the mirror to check if her breasts have grown. The dominant malleability in societal discourse is revealed when Lara asks her physician if she would be willing to augment the hormone dose, because in Lara’s mind things are not moving, or indeed growing, quickly enough.

Coming to terms with physical existence

The camera in Girl closely follows the face and body of Lara. Typically the source of immense self-consciousness for any teenage girl, Lara’s experience of body shame is absolute. The camera zooms in, intensifying the sense of isolation, other actors are off screen or behind the camera; voices are heard, instructing, speaking, but there are no other faces. Dancing is portrayed with objective scrutiny, leather pointe shoes lightly touch the floor, a body stumbles anonymously after a failed pas de bourrée. During the class Lara can forget herself and finds solidarity with her peers, but on completion, when the curtains are always drawn, and the mirror never fails to remind, she is confronted with the horror of her predicament and seeks to avoid contact with her own corporeality. She doesn’t express much in words, it is her physicality which really speaks. Whether standing alone, in the toilet as she removes the tape from her sealed-off, unwanted body part, or in the glorious, awe inspiring poses she makes on the stage, Lara’s self-image remains fractious and irreconcilable.

The embodiment of gender

Lara’s twin struggles of transitioning (from male to female and from girl to woman) which have until this point existed as two separate worlds, collide when a friendly classmate invites her to shower with the group after the class. Despite her self-consciousness, with her arms crossed in front of her body and facing the wall, she bravely risks public humiliation in an attempt to find connection with her peers. Her risk pays off and she is later invited to a sleep over party with her classmates. A typical “girls night” scene plays out and Lara can momentarily forget her other, hidden world. Her feelings of inclusion grow while she is having fun changing clothes and singing on the bed, until without warning Lara’s façade comes crashing down as one of the girls asks: “How do you manage this while dancing? How do you tuck it away, your third leg?” She stands dumbfounded and exposed before her peers, desperately trying to laugh along with the other girls as one question after another is aimed at her: “Can we see it?” And “Tell us now: Do you want to be a boy or a girl?”. Although partly driven by curiosity, and partly out of morbid, teenage repulsion for all that is different, this interrogation becomes too much for Lara as she feels the initial empathy of her new friends being swept away by growing hostility.

No elbow room for gender variation

Girl shares with us the alienating tragedy that normative definitions of gender inflict upon the lives of our transgender minorities. Overcome with the hopelessness of her situation, and perhaps out of resentment for a treasonous body, in the final scene Lara finally finds integration of body and soul as she literally removes the object of her suffering and pain – with a pair of scissors. By what must certainly be a last resort, her emotional triumph is finally achieved through the brutality of self-mutilation. Something has gone wrong… Albeit fiction, the central framing of Lara’s corporality in the film brings home to the viewer the sometimes harsh lived-experience of a transgender teen. Through her suffering the prevailing discourse of masculinity and femininity in Late Modernity is discredited, where even in spite of prevailing feminine characteristics, for example being a ballet dancer, wearing long hair, a bra and a dress, evidently Lara’s biological attributes leave very little elbow room for gender variation.

Additional note

Transgender Care is a hot topic in international policy now. In June 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) has decided that Gender Dysphoria will be no longer constitute a mental disorder, instead it will be considered a Sexual Health Condition (1). In present gender care the diagnose gender dysphoria is necessary to gain access to medical care, and professional psychological support. This change in policy will take effect as of 2022, WHO hopes this will diminish the stigmatization of transgender people. Additionally, there is currently an interesting case in the United Kingdom of a 23-year-old woman is taking legal action against an NHS gender clinic (2). She says “She should have been challenged more by medical staff over her decision to transition to a male as a teenager”, but she argues as well that “If she had felt more accepted by society as she was then, she might not have wanted to change her gender”.

Notes

  1. World Health Organisation (2018) ICD-11: Classifying disease to map the way we live and die. Retrieved via: https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/international-classification-of-diseases
  2. Holt, Alison (2020) NHS gender clinic ‘should have challenged me more’ over transition. BBC news. Retrieved via https://www.bbc.com/news/health-51676020

About the author: Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. She now cooperates with artists, assuming the role of journalist or project manager, and makes use of her knowledge and experience in the field of ethics of care to provide perspective. As a sociotherapist she worked in direct contact with patients in psychiatric clinics. In her own artistic endeavors, like the collages that are her trade, she is intrigued by issues of gender and examines her position in society from a female perspective.

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