In a world of fixed positions and prescribed roles, expanding the definition of gender requires the courage to dive deep into understanding and acceptance. Christina Willings’ documentary Beauty explores the lives of five gender-creative kids, each uniquely engaged in shaping their ideas of what it means to be fully human. Claiming your own sense of gender when everything around you insists that you comply and conform can be challenging, and sometimes scary. But luckily, family and friends are there to help.
Free-flowing animated elements, ranging from images of octopuses to astronauts, draw together the kids’ shared experiences in beautifully rendered fantasias that celebrate the power of imagination and the flourishing force of self-determination. Playful, goofy, loving and brave—each of these remarkable kids has found their own way to break free and show the world what it really means to be your true self.
In a world of fixed positions and prescribed roles, expanding the definition of gender requires the courage to dive deep into understanding and acceptance. Christina Willings’ documentary Beauty explores the lives of five gender-creative kids, each uniquely engaged in shaping their ideas of what it means to be fully human. Whether it’s dealing with bullies, having discussions with their parents, or navigating the new waters of relationships, Bex, Lili, Fox, Tru, and Milo talk about their experiences and their determination to live in authenticity.
The fluid nature of identity is complicated enough, but especially so when the outside world sees only binary surfaces. “It is hard to talk about my life when I was a girl… cuz I’m not a girl, I have a girl body, but a boy brain,” explains Bex (formerly Rebecca). For Tru Wilson, the process of accepting her identity came in stages—from 30 percent girl, to half and half, and finally, as she states: “Okay, I am 100 percent girl… but I identify as a transgender girl.”
Claiming your own sense of gender when everything around you insists that you comply and conform can be challenging, and sometimes scary. Fox remembers having to be escorted into the bathroom at school. For Lili, it’s the embarrassment of being laughed at, or being mistaken for the wrong gender. But luckily, family and friends are there to help. Milo is learning to deal with masculine things like horror movies and hairstyles, but still requires some advice. “Well, mostly from my brother, because my father has no hair.”
Free-flowing animated elements, ranging from images of octopuses to astronauts, draw together the kids’ shared experiences in beautifully rendered fantasias that celebrate the power of imagination and the flourishing force of self-determination. Playful, goofy, loving and brave—each of these remarkable kids has found their own way to break free and show the world what it really means to be your true self. Or, as Bex says: “It’s fine to be who you are.”
The idea that gender is not a fixed element of our identity (i.e., boy or girl), but a constellation of possibility, something that can shift, flow and change over time, is relatively new. How did you first come to the concept of this film?
In a way, the concept of this film came to me in the early ’80s. I was thinking a lot about the deconstruction of gender at that time, as were many others. We examined it from every angle, but what’s new now is that it’s children who are leading the conversation, who are saying, “Hey! Something’s wrong here!” Some compassionate, and I would say enlightened, parents are hearing them. The new conversation isn’t ideologically driven, it’s experiential, and there’s a profound purity about that. It’s a breakthrough that I have felt very moved and honoured to witness, and by 2012, I realized this shift was going to be the subject of my next film.
Can you talk about some of the different ways that the kids featured in your film identify (i.e., gender-fluid, pangender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, bigender, etc.)?
What I really fell in love with about every single one of the kids in my film is their fierce determination to be themselves. For some, the knowing was there as early as age two. To the degree that any of them now use specific language to describe themselves, they do so to make themselves legible to others in a largely binary framework. I think it’s fair to say that for them, language is a tool rather than an expression of deep identification, and it will continue to shift as they grow and change in their awareness.
Lived experience is the spine of the film—the kids talk about things that happened to them that were happy and freeing but also painful or frightening. How did you create a space where these kinds of very honest and intimate conversations could take place?
Creating a safe space in the context of filmmaking is the same as in any other framework. You take time to build trust, to establish accountability with each other, to demonstrate love and acceptance. Some specific parameters may need to be negotiated and re-negotiated as a relationship develops, but my filmmaking process is an extension of the normal process of establishing human connection. In this film, it was important that the kids knew that their voice was the only authority I needed—I viewed each of them as the authority on their own experience, above medical experts, and above their parents.
How important is it to let kids talk to other kids about these ideas?
I think it’s critical that every child is given the space to describe their experience in their own words—to adults as well as to their peers. I think it’s even more important that they are able just to be with each other as they are, without constant explanation and defense, widening each other’s perspectives through simple connection. I think this is how consciousness genuinely shifts.
Filming the kids in their natural environments, with their parents, siblings, and pets, is also such an integral part of the film. What was your experience in dealing with the families?
As much as dealing with families in their natural environments was a lovely, intimate experience, I’ve also developed a new appreciation for the old film adage, “Never work with kids or animals.” The challenge is really just to go with whatever is happening in the moment. It helped us too that some sections of the film were shot more in a drama than documentary style. It was kind of a hybrid process, which provided some moments of clear structure for everyone to work within.
The journey to discover a deep sense of self is rendered really beautifully through the use of animation. How did you come to this very creative and playful way to make a complex idea not only accessible but also quite fun and empowering?
I began in development by asking the kids about the things that excite them in their lives, their creative passions, subjects they love at school, and what they drew on internally to give them strength—including any imagery, found or self-generated. I told each of them that I wanted the film to be a collaboration, and they really shared their interests with me, which was wonderful. Bex and I hung out and played dress-up and “super-hero rescue” games together, even while we were shooting. Fox shared their love of art and Harajuku culture, and we went poking around their favourite Montreal haunts. Milo told me he adored everything to do with space, and wanted to work at NASA when he was older. Tru’s passion for all things mermaid took us to a “between-the-worlds” kind of environment that integrated perfectly with the “alternate dimension” theme that was emerging, so it all came together quite organically. I also liked the idea of going from the green-and-white chalkboard in a school setting, where the kids endured a lot of gender policing, into the full-colour palette of the reality they were creating. So discovering Milo’s chalkboard was a very important creative spark near the beginning of the process.
Challenging restrictive gender polarities is an inherently political act. How do the kids see their role in creating change and taking space in an activist way?
The idea of what kind of activist role each of the kids might, or might not, take up is completely individual, and I think each of them speaks to it quite strongly in the film. Bex is the youngest, and yet you can hear him say: “It’s ok to be who you are,” in a very emphatic way. The older kids have had more exposure to, and awareness of, a wider conversation. Tru definitely identifies as an activist, and has since she first challenged the Catholic School Board at nine years of age for the right to wear the uniform of her affirmed gender. She has every intention of continuing in her advocacy for herself, and for the trans community. Fox has also made countless media appearances as a trans advocate, and these days has a greater focus on building their own well-being as a strong foundation for moving into adulthood. Lili is a natural philosopher and has a kind of magnetic activist presence in her daily life, in the same way that Bex and Milo do.
In many places, binary culture is alive and well, and deeply embedded, but with Facebook changing its gender categorizations, the rise in the use of neutral pronouns, and new options for neutral gender on driver’s licenses and passports, do you think there is a transformational shift at hand, and potentially an imminent end to binary gender definitions?
Some of what’s going on has already passed into fashion of course, and that will fade, but there’s also something very real going on, and that could stay if we really challenge ourselves to be open to it. Of course, it requires embracing discomfort and ambiguity, which we humans generally resist. If we don’t get bogged down in policing each other, I think we have a chance at lasting change. For a shift of perspective to take hold, it will have to be about authenticity and human freedom, not a new set of rules.
How do you see the conversation continuing, not just in families and in schools, but across the broader cultural spectrum and in different communities?
While I don’t presume to know how the conversation will develop—especially in communities I’m not a part of—how I’d like to see it proceed in general is carefully and lovingly, outside of ideology and judgment. I’d like there to be genuine inquiry and patience, and I’d like to see kids leading the conversation about their own experience. I would love each of us to discover more space to move.
Written and Directed by
Fox Kou Asano
Director of Photography
Ronin Camera Operator
Maude Turcot, Montreal
Underwater Camera Operator
Braden Haggerty, Vancouver
Jeff Henschel, Vancouver
Gaëlle Komar, Montreal
First Assistant Camera
Richard Neil Dalgleish, Vancouver
Martine LeClerc, Montreal
Kim MacNaughton, Vancouver
Underwater Assistant Camera
Mark Weinhaupl, Vancouver
Ronin Camera Assistant
Cyril Perrot-Botella, Montreal
Paolo Malo, Montreal
Paul T Murakami, Vancouver
Roberta Cenedese, Vancouver
Victor Ghizaru, Montreal
Odessa Shuquaya, Vancouver
Colin Beaudry-Sylvain, Montreal
Leon Rivers-Moore, Montreal
Marc-André Y. Vidal, Montreal
Jess Lee, Montreal
Meredith Lewis, Vancouver
Ariane Lorrain, Montreal
Frankie Teardrop, Montreal
Bianca Buckingham Yambanis, Vancouver
Sound Design & Re-Recording Mixer
Francois Luc Paradis
Gabrielle Lisa Collard, Montreal
James Thomas Hughes, Montreal
Vero Boncompagni, Montreal
Rosamond Norbury, Vancouver
Kammer Family footage
courtesy of Éva Kammer and Sylvano Santini
Martial Arts footage
courtesy of Lorne Bernard, Académie White Crane Kung Fu.
Tepperman, Green Family Footage
courtesy of Suzie Tepperman and Amy Green
Wilson Family Footage
courtesy of Michelle and Garfield Wilson
Special thanks to the families
Amy, Suzie and Maura
Kutrina, Samantha and Heather
Michelle, Garfield, Jude and Jaslyn
Dodie Orlando and Howie Atherton
Eric Belanger, Bar Furco
Dal and Arlene Cervo
Tom Crowe, Angusfilm
Lecily Corbett and the Clairmont team
Corporation of Delta
Lynden Mager, Boundary Bay Regional Park
Suki’s International Salon, Spa, Academy – Kitsilano
Michelle Van Beusekom
Marylène Samson, Ville de Montreal
Filmed on Location
Centennial Beach, Boundary Bay Regional Park
Parc du Mont Royal and Parc Étienne-Desmarteau, Montreal
Restaurant Maïs, Montreal
Katja De Bock
©2018 National Film Board of Canada