Creativity of all forms steadily bubbles here at FiftyThree, especially among the team members that work on our product suite. Eric Rockey is no exception. When he’s not working as part of FiftyThree’s product team, he doubles as an accoladed filmmaker. His latest short, Pink Boy, is an award-winning, intimate window into the life of a young transgender girl growing up in conservative rural Florida.
Within just 15 minutes, Eric captures the tender beauty found in creative expression and gender identity as explored by six year old Jessie and her lesbian mothers, BJ and Sherrie. Be sure to check out Pink Boy, currently streaming on VanityFair.com, and a short Q & A with Eric below!
Jessie, the main subject of your film, is very young, just six years old at the time of filming, but so confident in not conforming to her assigned gender. What can viewers learn from her about this type of expression and its role in child development?
I think the biggest thing that viewers can learn is that this type of gender expression is a normal part of development for some children. It’s not the result of something the parents are doing or not doing - it’s coming from the child themselves. In fact, the parents may not be that enthusiastic about it at first. One of the parents in the film, BJ, is herself not a big fan of feminine things, and was looking forward to adopting a boy and doing boy things with him. So to her, it took some getting used to to accept that her son wanted to wear dresses and loved all things pink! She is a very supportive parent now, but it took a journey of acceptance.
Identity is understandably a major theme, as it relates to not only Jessie but her parents, as well. What was your “behind the camera take” on how different family members confronted the concept of identity?
Identity was important of course not just for Jessie but for BJ and Sherrie as well, being lesbians in a conservative, rural part of the south. So part of what I found fascinating about getting to know them was how they approached their identities and how that played out in their environment. BJ says that she doesn’t like to “ride in on her lesbian horse”, and be very vocal about being gay when she is meeting new people. When she does encounter someone new, BJ just gets to know them and then gradually they figure out that they haven’t seen any men with her and kind of put two and two together. By then, however, they know her as a person, so any prejudice that may be prevalent in the area don’t extend to her.
I saw this also happening with Jessie, where the kids in the neighborhood had grown up with her, so even though she was a boy who wore dresses, and is now a girl full time, they accept her because they know her as a person. And these are some very conservative people! The next door neighbor that I talked to was a complete survivalist with machine guns, surveillance cameras, and a year’s supply of canned food. But he thought BJ was a great neighbor and loved Jessie. That was probably the most beautiful thing I saw in my experience of filming, which was the surprising tolerance and understanding that we are all capable of.
Did your own sense of identity change or evolve as a result of working on this film?
The whole experience of working on the film was a process of discovery for me. I realized that I didn’t really understand gender non-conforming or transgender people at all before, and it was such a joy to feel my own internal ignorance shrinking as a result of the film. I think I am a lot more conscious of how I present my own gender, and did start noticing more feminine aspects of my personality.
Jessie embodies an abundance of creativity and inventive energy. What role did creativity play in the overall family dynamic?
The entire family is creative in their own ways. Jessie is definitely the creative force in the family, and a family dinner is not complete without a performance from her, usually a dance to one of their favorite female singers. I filmed a number of amazing dances by Jessie and it was tough to pick just one to show in the film. In addition to “I’m a Good Girl” that appears in the film, Jessie also did an incredible dance to “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Sherrie is a writer, and BJ has a different kind of creativity, which is the ability to make or fix anything. While I was on location, the clip on my wireless mic broke and she spent about 5 minutes out in her shop whipping up a replacement part.
What has the general reaction to Pink Boy been so far? Have there been any particularly touching or interesting responses?
The reaction to Pink Boy has definitely surpassed my wildest dreams. People have really responded to it in film festivals around the world. The most memorable screening so far has been when it screened at DOC NYC and BJ and Jessie came up from Florida to be there. They were both on stage with me for the Q&A with an audience filled with friends from New York. Jessie was so great at answering questions, and could not get enough of the stage. When we were done with the Q&A, she picked up one of the microphones and said, “I’m still here if anyone has any questions!” I loved that :)
I have had nearly uniforming positive experiences, including many tearful ones when showing it to parents who also have gender non-conforming or transgender children. I’ve had exactly two people talk to me about it in a negative or dismissive way, and in both cases, it appears to have brought up emotions related to some issues in their families. And those kind of reactions are important too! My goal for this film is to raise awareness and have people think about this issue, and sometimes that can bring stuff up.