Ma Vie en Rose

Pam’s World
 
This film explores the intersections of identity and culture and how one child navigates this interplay with simultaneous naiveté and boldness. His narrative exposes the ways in which the individual and his/her/hir dominant culture are involved in an inherent power play of influence, each giving way, if temporarily, to the pressure of the other. Through unraveling Ludovic’s experiences we see how one child’s seemingly small world is influenced by French middle-class, Catholic, family, and binary gender dynamics with consideration given to Queer politics and typical childhood adolescent identity formation. The trouble caused by Ludo’s behavior hinges on the surrounding community’s focus on narrow-minded biological determinism despite Ludo’s obvious desire to fit into normative gender roles without sacrificing his girl identity.
In the movie Ma Vie en Rose, there is a large emphasis on the juxtaposition of Ludo and the social groups that view him as ‘other’. He spends the movie trying to deal with the harsh criticism he is given insisting that he is somehow different than everyone else and that this needs to be changed immediately. Ludo can mostly understand which behaviors his family and their neighbors find so appalling, but does not himself feel as though his behaviors are out of line with his family’s heteronormative goals, he just thinks of himself as a girl. Schiavi (2004) writes that “the literature on gay youth testifies to children’s early, necessarily silent, sense of their own difference from peers and family”. In Ludo’s case, he represents a child who is not silent and does not necessarily feel like he is somehow different than everyone else other than that God made a mistake with his chromosomes.
Nadeau (2000) argues that the humanist setup of the movie “vibrates with recent gay and lesbian discourses informed by the culture of personal rights”. He argues that because of this, the gender-identity-focused point of the movie serves as “the perfect setting for human exposure to tolerance”. The dynamic of Ludo and his family goes through a roller coaster of agreeable interactions and blowouts of blame and disagreement. Early in the movie, the mother gives the family haircuts so that “all the men are neat and trim”. The rest of the family gets very short traditional male haircuts, while Ludo insists on his hair remaining the same length down almost to his shoulders. The mother obliges saying that she “like[s] long hair and people who know what they want”. This implies a level of tolerance from the mother, but these feelings of free personal expression do not hold throughout the movie as the influence of disapproving neighbors gets to her and the rest of the family. Because of the criticism openly doled out by neighbors and friends of Ludo’s family, his mother and father each go through a period in which they blame the family’s problems on Ludo’s inability to adapt to traditional gender norms. This idea of “blaming the victim” is a frequent theme throughout many gender variant people’s relationship with their parents or social groups, including transgender individuals who worry about revictimization if they report physical or sexual abuse. Ludo could be seen from a larger viewpoint as a victim of French society’s strict gender norm enforcement and binary thinking, or, as Ludo seems to see himself, a victim of a chromosomal error when he was created.
From the sociological standpoint of Mallon (1999), gender variant childhood development should be viewed “where children and environments are understood as a unit, in the context of their relationship to one another”. Ludo, by himself, seems quite secure in his identification as a girl. His familial environment, mostly as a result of societal pressure and understood gender norms, attack his identity, treating his behaviors as troublesome and his female identity as a treatable psychological condition. Ludo seems to realize how unhappy he has made his parents and understandably wishes to keep his parents’ love, whatever the cost. He tries to modify his behavior – while his identification seems to remain the same – to act as he sees other ‘normal’ boys act. He practices scratching his crotch, shooting a fake gun, and even tries to kiss a neighbor girl because someone at school mentioned that kissing girls made you a real man. Ludo tries to adapt to appease his parents, but never seems to actually believe that they might be right about him, that he really is a boy.
Mallon (1999) mentions the difficulties of working with parents of gender variant children, saying “many parents are initially surprised when they hear a trans-affirming professional state that compromise is the best approach to supporting children who have strong transgender feelings and need”. Many parents, including Ludo’s it seems, think that they must know what’s best for their children. But, as we see in the movie, ‘what’s best’ is usually inextricably linked to how the child is received by the family’s social network. The negative reaction from the neighbors in the movie influences ‘what’s best’ to be only and always gender-normative dress and behavior, despite Ludo’s preference and self-identity.
The parents in the movie seem to represent the ‘we’ aspect of successfully existing in society by conforming to certain acceptable social norms. They want to be accepted by their community and when Ludo poses a threat to this acceptance, they want to modify his behavior to fit better into ‘appropriate’ social norms. Ludo’s desires go along with the norm-conforming idea of ‘we’ in society in the fact that he feels and wants to behave just like any other girl. But from an outside view, he represents the ‘I’ in the equation. He has a very solid identity which clearly does not fit into the ‘we’ of the community the way that the parents want it to, and thus stands apart as a separate entity of ‘I’ (Nadeau, 2000).
To counteract Ludo’s unconventional behavior (as many parents do according to Mallon (1999)), his parents “seek to have their transgendered child ‘cured’ through punishment, physical violence, or endless mental health assessments”. There are many ‘solutions’ to Ludo’s ‘problem’ behavior proposed to and by the parents throughout the movie. Both the father and the mother resort to physical violence as a frustrated and desperate attempt to snap Ludo back into line with the other gender-normative children. We see the father approach Ludo several times in the earlier part of the movie in a way that clearly indicates his intentions of violence, stopped only at the last moment by the mother’s pleas. Near the end of the movie we see the mother chasing Ludo in the neighbor’s birthday dress, finally catching him and hitting him while yelling at him for doing this again after he promised he wouldn’t. The Granny character tells of a woman she knew with a similar ‘predicament’ who let her child live out his fantasy by wearing a skirt to school for a week. She said that the boy lost interest after a week and returned to gender-normative behavior. The parents tried this proposed ‘cure’ by allowing Ludo to wear a skirt (which looked much like a kilt) to a birthday party explaining to the other guests that they were letting him live out his fantasy “to banalize it”. They also resorted to sending Ludo to a psychologist so she can ‘fix’ him and when she ‘fails’ the parents are outraged by her inability to do what they thought they were paying her for and then proceed to blame Ludo for this inconvenience.
The movie also focuses on the interplay between Ludo’s family as a unit and the surrounding society of their community. Mallon (1999) argues that “Western society continues to reward parents who socialize their children to these gender-bound roles”. Ludo’s family is seen as a construct that is openly judged on the behavior of single participants. This setup is a very strong motivator for each member of the family to keep the others in check to uphold the desired image. Ludo’s family (all but Ludo) are very driven by the desire to keep an image that upholds the values that are rewarded in their community. Their neighborhood, which is essentially together deciding the worth of the image that Ludo’s family is presenting, is one of traditional Catholic values of upholding appropriate appearances in public including dress, language, and a stable family. The very first frames of the movie include men dressed in traditional male attire assisting their wives into traditional female attire and insisting that their children wear appropriate clothing despite its uncomfortable nature. Other valued qualities include all the husbands having a successful white collar job to take care of their families in a respectable way. This is clearly shown by Ludo’s father’s continual and intense desire to not make a bad impression on his boss (whose son Ludo intends to marry). These expectations dictate the corrective and encouraging actions of the parents to make sure that Ludo follows his prescribed gender-normative behavior and does not act out his fantasies with Jerome (the boss’s son) so they can hold up their desired image.
Granny plays an important role in the parents’ desired ‘curbing’ of Ludo’s inappropriate behavior. She represents a more open approach to Ludo, avoiding violent and harsh punishments for non-normative behavior, avoiding insistence on psychological intervention, and suggesting more compromise-focused strategies to make everyone happy. Granny joins Ludo when he dances to the Barbie-esque “Pam and Ben” show, she reminds the parents not to overreact after Ludo makes his unexpected appearance as Snow White in the school play telling them “either way he’s your child”, and she encourages them to let Ludo go to the party in the skirt saying “why not? You’ve tried everything”. She strives for the compromise approach mentioned in Mallon (1999) as a positive approach to dealing with transgendered children when she shows Ludo the music box and tells him that she wishes she was ‘slim and smooth’ like the figurine in the music box but she has to “face reality”. She tells him that when she wants to do things that make her look “ridiculous”, she imagines her fantasy privately but does not act it out. She suggests this probably because the parents seem less focused on Ludo’s non-normative behavior in the house at the beginning of the movie, before the community gets involved and makes the parents feel pressured to make Ludo conform more. This emphasizes the power that public scrutiny holds over families with non-normatively gendered children and how this power drives the parents to stifle Ludo’s behaviors at least enough to not affect their outward appearance. They want to keep his ‘eccentric’ behavior private more than they want him to change his gender identity.
Ludo tries to smooth the tension of his non-conforming behavior by explaining his ‘boygirl’ status. He tries to explain why his behavior does not match up with the expected ‘boy behavior’ by saying that he is not just a boy, that he is a ‘boygirl’ and therefore should not be subject to the standards of male normative-gender behavior. This idea of “hybridity” has been analyzed as an important entity “within social sciences to refer to complex processes of social and cultural interaction (Sinnott, 2004). ‘Hybrid’ as an identity for specific groups of people who are a mix of more than one racial or ethnic background is “’seen to embody threatening forms of perversion and degeneration and became the basis for endless metaphoric extension in the racial discourse and social commentary’” (Young(Sinnott), 2004). The inherent problem with viewing certain types of people as ‘hybrids’ makes the two ‘groups’ that contributed to the ‘hybrid’ are “self-evident homogenous entities” (Sinnott, 2004). For Ludo, by determining himself as a ‘boygirl’, is supporting the identities of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as undeniable categories. While this is understandable considering the age and experience of Ludo in a society where everyone agrees that there are only two options for gender, it further exemplifies the strength of a community group on the actions of the community members. But Ludo is abiding by this idea of binary gender through his personal feelings of identity, not by how societal pressure tells him he should. This is one of the main differences and issues of conflict between Ludo and his parents regarding his behavior.
According to Mallon (1999), “gender variant children, because they are told that they do not fit in, are in a constant search for an affirming environment, where they can be themselves”. Because of the conflicting messages of which gender stereotype Ludo should be following because of his girl-identified self, he creates a fantasy world based off of the Barbie-esque character Pam. In this world, Ludo experiences a setting where feminine behavior and identities are celebrated and where he fits in as a result of his feminine behavior and girl identity. He experiences a place where his behaviors are normalized instead of punished. His expected gender-normative behavior is based on the societal view of his gender and not on his personal gender identity, is contrasted with the fact that his safe world where he is accepted and his behaviors fall within social norms was created by the same society that inhibits his ability to express himself.
A cultural contrast that further shows the unfortunate workings of French societal pressures on Ludo is the Bakla that exist in the Philippines. In Bicol, the culture highly values the ability to perform well, and the ability to transform one thing to another. According to Cannell (1999), “the identity ‘bakla’ is offered to little boys who seem happier doing girls’ chores and wearing their clothes…”. Bakla identify as men “with women’s hearts” and participate in events like beauty pageants. Gender behavior expectations for bakla children are very different than portrayed in the film. While French culture portrayed in this film includes many communities that emphasize the importance of gender-normative behavior to the point of administering ‘social death’ to those individuals and their families who don’t abide by social norms, Bicol social life generally has a “non-authoritarian attitude…which accommodates the bakla, so that they are rarely the targets of hatred or prejudiced violence…” (Cannell, 1999) While this accommodating attitude is surely not shared by all members of the community, it points out the seemingly incredible need for many members of Western culture to categorize people and draw thick and distinct boundaries which they then patrol vigilantly. In the film, the neighbors have drawn lines of expectations (specifically stringent on normative gender behavior lines) and proceed to make sure that everyone follows them, leading to the great distress of Ludo’s parents that they are being scrutinized for Ludo’s behavior.
Ludo seems to feel confused by this pressure to hide his behaviors when they seem to be perfectly normal with his female-identified self. He does not seem to want to rebel against a hetero-normative culture and its binary gender-focused social norms. His “dreams are in line with the existent gender order”. It would seem that he would not be opposed to following his parents’ strong feelings about keeping up appearances in public if the gender-normative behavior expected of him was in line with his gender identity. To him, it seems that the trouble caused by his non-normative behavior only exists because of an understandable but huge error caused by God.
Nadeau (2000) says that “ironically, it is by discovering biologism and scenarios of genetic configuration that Ludo reinforces his subjectivity and develops his famous XY theory”. He does not see anything wrong with his behavior because it was all just a big mistake that he was born with XY chromosomes and that his other X fell in the trash on the way down from God. He uses this theory to explain why his behavior is completely normal and that the trouble he causes for his parents isn’t his fault after all. Because Ludo fully identifies as a girl and not as somewhere in between as many trans kids do, and he is surrounded by a culture where biology is destiny, this theory finally gives him the words to explain why everyone thinks he’s so different when he really isn’t.
This idea reinforces the current predicament with many trans-identified people of how to describe their identities fully with a language that is so restrictive for such a task. The instance where someone cannot fully describe their gender-identity with language renders them essentially invisible to the surrounding society because if you can’t describe your gender, it must not really exist and there must be something wrong with you. So when Ludo finds a way to describe himself, he suddenly feels so much more confident of his identity using an argument that might normally be used to refute his identity.
Ludo extrapolates from his biological evidence for his existence that his male body and associated gender behavior expectations are just a phase he must go through before he becomes a girl. Just as his sister ‘becomes and real woman’, he too must grow up enough to become a girl, when God fixes his chromosomal mistake. Ludo has understandably intense desires to earn his parents’ love through adhering to their expectations and finds a way to explain away his current predicament and the awaited solution. But Ludo moves through his time in the movie only trying to change his behavior and explain scientifically why he is a girl; he never changes how he feels about his identity.
This movie is a journey of discovery for Ludo’s parents but not for him. Ludo does not exhibit any instances in the movie where he is questioning whether or not he really identifies as a girl. When he is mocked in school for his toys and his behavior, he looks more confused than hurt or embarrassed. When Ludo derives his XY theory for his identity, there is no struggle – he learns about XY chromosomes, comes up with a seemingly logical solution and says to Jerome, “God’ll fix it. He’ll send me my X and we can get married”. He struggles with where he fits in with his family, but not in a way that he ever starts to believe that maybe everyone is right, that he really is a boy. He is not wondering if he is wrong for identifying as a girl but more about why everyone else seems so confused.
Nadeau (2000) argues that the film is “not about coming out; on the contrary, it ambiguously plays with the question of coming in as a queer child”. ‘Coming out’ seems to signify the idea of a person accepted within a society or community tries to break out of the gender expectations enforced by those people and establish themselves as a subject outside of the social norms for that group. The idea of ‘coming in’ would mean that a person that is held on the outside of a social group or community is trying to break in to the community by trying to establish their subjectivity as within the social norms. They are trying to manipulate their behaviors and explain their identities in a way that fits in with the accepted social order. This is exactly what Ludo does throughout the film. His identity as female never waivers at any time in the film, nor is it specifically created within the film. He is sure he is a girl at the beginning and at the end.
Nadeau (2000) argues that Ludo “clearly specifies that sexual identity cannot be framed in terms of desire and politics, since it belongs to the rational-scientific domain”. By using biology and his feelings of fitting in perfectly with the culturally created norm of Pam’s World, Ludo creates a perfectly logical explanation of why all the trouble around him is just a simple mistake and that he does actually fit in perfectly with their hetero-normative binary gender world. Ludo seems to have the belief through the movie that he just ‘is’ and everyone seems to be getting confused by it. They can’t seem to see that he is just like everyone else and why they need to change him.
Nadeau (2000) argues that the movie is “quite in line with recent gay and lesbian discourses that crave making ‘personal rights’ the essence to political struggle”. This supports the idea that the emphasis on non-normative gender identities should outweigh the focus on the ‘discovery’ of these identities. Not every non-normative gender identity is the result of a long arduous internal struggle of who they really are ending with a large ‘coming out’ event in their life. This movie is signifying that some people are the way they are without any internal battle, and that the biggest struggle is usually with convincing other people that their beliefs and social norms should include them for one reason or another (but not necessarily because that person wants to fit into the hetero-normative binary gender life).
Ma Vie en Rose is an explorative (albeit unrealistic) portrait of a female-identifying seven-year-old boy trying to figure out how to navigate the gender behavior expectations thrust upon him and his desire for his parents’ love and acceptance. Nadeau (2000) argues that this film supports the idea of there being a distinct, undeniable difference between male and female sexes that is indicated by Nadeau’s (2000) reading of French feminism. She says that Ma Vie en Rose “celebrates sexual difference within established sexed spaces…” His feminine behavior threatens the family’s social standing and he is blamed for their troubles regardless of the fact that his desires do not in fact go against the hetero-normative standards that his social interactions are enforcing. Ludo is torn between his clear undeniable identity as a girl and the surrounding community pressuring his parents into enforcing the gender norms of a boy. The film supports gender differentiation while at the same time positively expanding the idea of what determines a person’s membership in either sexed group, and who gets to choose.
 
 
Bibliography
 
Cannell, F. (1999). Beauty and the idea of ‘America’. In Power and Intimacy in the Christian
            Philippines (pp. 203-226). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 
Mallon, G. P. (1999). Practice with Transgendered Children. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social
            Services , 10 (3/4), 49-64.
 
Nadeau, C. (2000). Life With Pinky Dots. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies , 6 (1),
                137-144.
 
Schiavi, M. R. (2004). A “Girlboy’s” Own Story: Non-Masculine Narrativity In Ma Vie en Rose.
            College Literature , 31 (3), 1-20.
 
Sinnott, M. J. (2004). Global Sex. In M. J. Sinnott, Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and
            Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand (pp. 24-46). Honolulu: University of Hawaii
                Press.
 
 

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