Cinema is no stranger to cross-dressing as a way for characters to penetrate spaces they otherwise couldn’t. Too often, filmmakers have been careful to feature such “passing” not only as something divorced from gender identity, but as causing no repercussions to a character’s sexuality. Cross-dressing is typically just something the character has to do if they are to reach a narrative goal, which usually involves consummating heterosexual desire (Some Like It Hot), spending time with one’s children (Mrs. Doubtfire), or avoiding being fired by the F.B.I. (White Chicks).
Director Nora Twomey’s animated adaptation of Canadian author Deborah Ellis’s bestselling children’s novel The Breadwinner is no different in its cinematic instrumentalization of gender passing. In the film, a young Afghani girl, Parvana (Saara Chaudry), cuts her long locks and disguises herself as boy in order to endure life under Taliban rule. Cross-dressing is once again a merely pragmatic means—ingenious but aseptic—to achieve plot-related goals with no erotic, or even subjective, repercussions. Throughout the story, no attention is paid to how Parvana’s shedding of her hair and newfound ability to move in public space may have led her to question all sorts of things about boys and girls. She’s not allowed a moment to enjoy her power. Cross-dressing in the story is merely a tool for survival, but such border-crossing is inevitably rife with unintended consequences beyond narrative ones.
Passing for a boy grants Parvana the freedom to buy food for her family at the market without being harassed or beaten, and to look for her loving father, who’s been arrested by Taliban soldiers. But we never get to see, or imagine, how Parvana actually experiences cross-dressing, the pleasures or discomfort it can produce, the insights it might trigger, and the questions that it could make emerge. If these are avenues the novel didn’t explore, the adaptation would have been an opportunity to see them at least visually evoked.
Even when Parvana meets Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a former female friend from school who’s also been living publicly as a boy, the filmmakers don’t dare to explore or speculate on the subjective consequences of what we could refer to as a superpower. There isn’t pause or contemplation, only narrative hoops to be jumped. Beyond its commitment to plot machinations, The Breadwinner is intent in making it abundantly clear to its audience that the veil is very bad because it isn’t women who should stop “drawing attention” to themselves, but men who should stop looking—just in case viewers were tempted to naturalize the sight of a hijab-wearing child.
The film’s father-seeking plot is punctuated by animation-within-animation sequences of Parvana telling fantastic stories to her baby brother: fables about brave boys with actual superpowers that are enacted in a differently animated style featuring cutout-like figures. The fables aren’t particularly interesting, and quickly feel like an unnecessarily compulsory motif. Twomey rushes through scenes with Parvana and Shauzia dreaming of marriage to boys so as to make room for more plot developments. By the time Shauzia teaches Parvana that “if you look like you believe it, then they will too,” you know not to expect metaphors to flourish or Parvana’s lesson to be something other than mimicking boyish strength in order not to flounder.