Break Free – #stillshot

In #stillshot, Features, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Melanie Christie

#stillshot is a feature in which someone discusses a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.

Break Free – 2014

breakfree2thedailypediaDirector: Phillip Lopez

Written by and starring: Ruby Rose

Ah, gender roles. Where would we be without them? Quite frankly, far better off.

Before I dissect the glory of this shot, I suppose that I should say that I was assigned female gender at birth based on my reproductive organs and I identify as female. So far, so straightforward. But then this raises further questions – what does it mean to be a woman in terms of gender? What separates the female gender from the male gender? Should we even be separating gender in this way at all?

Well I, like many others who don’t agree with the idea of a gender binary, would argue no. Instead, I would invite everyone to regard gender as a spectrum, in which a innumerable different gender identities can emerge. Whilst both sex and gender are used to differentiate between that which is male and female, both have completely different meanings. Namely, sex deals with our biological anatomy, whilst gender refers to the cultural or social codes attached to our sex. Therefore the perception that the terms sex and gender are interchangeable is extremely harmful – it ignores all those who differ from that which is considered the norm, and makes them appear unnatural. This stigma needs to stop.

I remember very clearly the moment I told my best friend’s mum that I wished I had been born a boy. Before you get confused after my prior statement about my female gender, no, I didn’t really want to be a boy – I did however resent the idea that a girl couldn’t do the same things a boy could. I was a huge tomboy, and for a very long time I despised everything ‘girly’. Once I was old enough to dress myself, and thus construct my own sense of identity, I took huge issue with wearing anything remotely feminine. I shunned skirts, dresses and the colour pink, instead choosing trousers, baggy t-shirts and athletic attire. For me, feminine clothes drew attention to all the ways in which boys could perceive me to be different, and the ways in which they could see themselves as better than me. It made me feel vulnerable, weak, and very, very angry.

Rather than making me feel dumb for confessing my frustrations with my gender, my best friend’s mum told me that she used to wish the same thing until she realised a girl could do all the things a boy could (if not better, she had added with a smirk). And that moment felt huge, somehow – it wasn’t a watershed moment, per se, but it obviously had a big enough impact to stick in my mind over a decade later. Following our discussion I had a real awareness of how messed up gender roles were. I realised that I hadn’t wanted to be a girl, not because I felt male, but because I thought that being a girl was a terrible thing. I thought gender roles were stuck in one place, but I came to learn that my tomboyish nature didn’t make me any less of a girl – I was just different from what I was told a girl should be. Once I made this distinction I was very happy to say that I was a girl, and have been very comfortable with my identity ever since.

One could argue that harmful gender stereotypes are often pedalled and endorsed by the media, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a lie. However, credit has to be given where it’s due to shows that make a point of challenging our ideas of what gender is. I now look to Orange is the New Black, and offer those behind it my sincerest thanks for bringing Ruby Rose to our screens and to my attention.

For anyone who’s not in the know, Ruby Rose is an Australian model, DJ, and actor, who happens to be gender fluid – meaning, she identifies as both male and female, and her gender can fluctuate and change over time. Although she was assigned female gender at birth and primarily uses female pronouns, she has openly discussed her non-binary identity and her previous desire to undergo gender reassignment surgery in the media. She also claimed that when she was as young as five she used to pray that she would never grow breasts. She now seems more comfortable with her body, but readily admits that she would have been just as happy and comfortable in her skin if she had been born with ‘male’ reproductive organs. Her open and frank discussion of gender roles has earned her adulation from fans across the globe, and her presence on Orange is the New Black has arguably helped bring non-binary gender issues to mainstream attention.

In 2014, Rose wrote, directed and starred in her own short film, Break Free, from which this still shot is taken. The film explores non-binary gender identities, and celebrates those who deviate from the so-called norm. The film begins with Rose in a short dress, dressed to the nines with a face full of makeup, flashing her pearly whites to her reflection. But then the scene changes – she grabs a pair of scissors and starts hacking at her hair. She scrubs away her makeup, revealing the multitude of tattoos that decorate her body. She binds her breasts and dons a suit. Suddenly, she is a man. She mugs at the camera, playing up to the male bravado and swagger that comes with her masculine image. Before our very eyes, she is transformed. And yet, despite her radical change of image, she retains her sense of self. She is not changing who she is, or compromising on her identity, she is revealing her true self – she is breaking free.

It makes for very uplifting viewing – throughout the film her elation is tangible. Her transformation is not portrayed as something painful and shameful, but as something beautiful and freeing. By beginning as a woman and then slowly peeling away the layers of femininity she has constructed, her transformation into her male self is naturalised and treated with great love and care.

The shot I have chosen comes right at the end of the film when her transformation is complete, and I feel it speaks volumes about how empowering gender can be when it is allowed to be free. Instead of turning away from the viewer’s gaze, she looks straight into the camera, as if she is challenging us, daring us, to try and judge her. It feels at once intimate and aggressive, and is very powerful in revealing how powerful we are capable of being when we are allowed to be our true selves. She is uncompromising in her glare and refuses to feel ashamed, and this is what gender should be about.

When it comes down to it, gender roles are harmful. They can be painful, constricting, and at times entirely destructive. Those who do not feel comfortable within their own skins are forced to conform to an ideal that does not sit comfortably within their understandings of who they are, and this can lead to a sense of not belonging – and, at extremes, suicidal thoughts. Boys are raised believing that they can’t show emotion because it’s girly, and girls are encouraged to aspire to be princesses rather than racing drivers or action heroes. Our concept of gender is ingrained so forcefully, and so early on, that for some people it is unimaginable to picture the world in any other way.

However, with a bit more worldliness, tolerance and education, hopefully people will continue to realise that gender (and gender roles) are not intrinsically linked to what is considered biological sex. Your body does not determine your gender identity – you do. Ruby Rose shows us that gender identity is not a fixed state of being to be decided by others, but something that can be shaped and moulded to reflect the person inside. We need more films to show that it’s OK if your gender doesn’t fit with the norm – representing gender as a spectrum rather than a binary opposition is the first step towards acceptance.

Melanie Christie

Mel C is the Deputy Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She uses this fact as an excuse to devote her life to Netflix. When Mel actually leaves her flat, she studies English Literature and History chez Edinburgh. She enjoys long walks, good company, and has a profound weakness for chocolate, tea and coffee. Ply her with any of these things, and you will buy her friendship.

This piece is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with All About Trans.

We encourage all of our readers to donate to this season’s organisation: Gendered Intelligence.

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(The image used to head this piece is sourced from the short film: ‘Break Free‘)