In Kimberly Pierce’s 1999 film Boys Don't Cry, the true-life story of Brandon Teena (played by Oscar winner Hilary Swank), a transgendered man who attempts to pass for a biological man in rural Nebraska, is told. Over the course of the film, Brandon (born Teena Brandon) tries to fit in with a group of male friends he encounters, and continues to pose as a man in order to woo her friend Lana (played by Chloe Sevigny). However, by the end of the film, his friends find out about his anatomical femaleness and is raped and murdered by them. The film is commonly considered a groundbreaking and gutwrenching film about the difficulties of transgendered life and gender identity, particularly in the intolerant Midwest, taking a look at LGBT issues in a heretofore daring and open way. Despite this, however, the film comes up short in some respects when viewing it through queer and feminist critical theories – the world of the film is presented in a strict gender binary, as neither Brandon or the film itself attempt to posit that Brandon’s sexuality could be intersexed or transgendered, instead choosing to paint her as a crossdresser. From a queer and feminist theory perspective, Boys Don’t Cry possesses many failings as a film, not presenting an accurate account of the life of the real Brandon Teena, or her death, favoring erotic lesbian exhibitionism.
Feminist and queer critical film theories are schools of thought and discourse in which the social roles and politics of women and LGBT individuals, respectively, are applied to films. In the case of feminist film theory, this approach starts with a focus on gender inequalities and how they apply to the text of the film itself, addressing issues such as the gaze, realism, discrimination and patriarchy (Erens xvi). Queer theory does the same thing, but replaces issues faced specifically by women with issues of discrimination, stereotyping and oppression of LGBT individuals (Warner 1993). Applying feminist and queer film theories to a film involves discussing a film in terms of its level of fairness and accuracy of representation to women and LGBT individuals, as well as its social repercussions as a piece of media. Boys Don’t Cry being a film that deals directly with issues of masculinity and femininity, as well as issues of homosexuality and transgenderism, examining this film through these lenses collectively allows for a direct and detailed overview of the film’s messages on these broader subjects.
Throughout the film, Brandon’s journey toward manhood is done through constant comparison to John (Peter Sarsgaard), the primary male friend of the group. That being said, there are disparate views of masculinity being presented by the film even though the film is primarily about Brandon’s search for freedom to be and behave as he sees fit. By engaging in heterosexual male behavior despite biologically being a woman, "The story of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry offers media critics the opportunity to explore such struggles by considering how ﬁlm depictions of female masculinity may work to subvert heteromasculinity’s privileged position" (Cooper 48-49). John’s introduction to the film comes after Brandon gets into a bar fight, a ritual coded as being a masculine initiation of sorts – getting into the fight cements Brandon’s need to do the things that men do, even if these notions are stereotypical images and attitudes often expected of rural, lower-class men. John bails Brandon out, and this is where their friendship starts. Right from his introduction, John is shown to be a paragon of heteronormative masculinity, acting as a troubled twentysomething with rage issues and a history of petty crimes (Hird 436). This provides contrast to Brandon’s relative purity and goodness, as Brandon’s idea of being a man hews toward a greater sensitivity and mildness than John and his friend Tom (Brandon Sexton III), who revel in testosterone-fuelled expressions of machismo. John and Tom constantly engage in ‘pussy talk,’ referring to women in disparaging ways and talk about having sex with women on a regular basis. This, in addition to their constant bragging about the various dangerous physical dares they engage in (like holding fingers over fire and cutting themselves with a knife), paints a picture of masculinity and its expectations in American society. Their hemegonic masculinity is proven and their virility as men are asserted through these feats. When they try to egg Brandon on to these same ideas, he just says, “I guess I’m just a pussy compared to you.” By finding inflammatory ways to deflect Brandon’s challenge to assert himself as a man, Brandon expresses a fear that he is not truly a man due to his feminine biological qualities.
Brandon sets himself apart from the normal expectations of manhood in other ways, such as his relationship with Lana. When Brandon and Lana finally engage in physical sexual activities, Pierce allows the audience to see an unblinking, uninterrupted scene in which he performs cunnilingus on her; focusing on Lana’s face, filled with ecstasy (which surprises Lana as much as anyone), we immediately see Brandon’s more sensitive portrayal of manhood allowing him to more fully please a woman than a biological man could. In this scene, it is clear that Pierce intends to counterbalance the swaggering, domineering style of masculinity put forward by John and Tom with the sweeter, chivalrous type of masculinity Brandon represents.
With Brandon taking on an entirely male identity, the film provides substantial fodder for discussions of masculinity and femininity, as well as female empowerment in a male-dominated society coming through having to take on the appearance of a man. The concept of heteronormative masculinity is shown to be destructive and dangerous, while Brandon’s more tempered view of manhood is celebrated, making it the ‘better’ way to be a man. The female characters of the film support this, as Brandon’s story of his first girlfriend chasing him away includes him noting that he was "the best boyfriend they've ever had,” proving multiple times throughout the film that his masculinity is preferable (Hird 436). By making Brandon and Lana’s relationship so heartbreakingly sweet and earnest, the film backs up Brandon’s feminine sense of mascuilinity and gender fluidity. She is one of the only people who tolerates Brandon’s genderqueer nature and accepts him for who he is : “That's your business. I don't care if you're half monkey or half ape.” This validates Brandon’s issues with his gender identity, since Lana accepts his male role in her life.
The eventual reveal of Brandon’s biological womanhood to John and Tom, as well as the rest of the town, reveals their central problem as their lack of comfort with the ‘schedule’ of Brandon’s masculinity. The biological men of the film are threatened that Brandon was able to successfully pass as a man, even though he was a transsexual – this fact creates an uncomfortable divide between gender and sex that they feel threatened by. Because a woman is shown to be a better man than them, Brandon is met with resistance once his secret is discovered. This extends to John and Tom especially, as they engage in their rowdy, antagonistic behavior because they feel that nothing can interfere with their privilege and control over women and their own lives; because they physically possess male genitalia, they think they rule the world. Brandon’s ability to sexually satisfy Lana is something that threatens them, as she does it without a penis, threatening their virility and dominance and lessening their leverage over women.
Boys Don’t Cry presents several different ways to challenge the dominant concepts of heteronormativity. To begin with, the story’s setting of America’s heartland, in addition to being the true location of Brandon Teena’s real life and death, is already culturally loaded with a conservative energy that resists female empowerment and tolerance of LGBT lifestyles. Small town Nebraska offers a small scale, rural imagery that falls in with ideas of the American Dream, and a simplicity to life that often rejects more complex issues like fluid gender and sexual norms. While the openness of the film’s setting is idyllic and intimate, this world is shown to crush Brandon and keep him trapped in a state of constrictive oppression (Cooper 49). People of transgender or genderqueer orientation, like Brandon, provide a complexity that small-minded and bigoted people like Tom and John reject violently.
Despite this progressiveness, it can be argued that Boys Don’t Cry does not go far enough in its presentation of transgendered individuals. The film presents a gender binary in which people can either have masculine or feminine traits – Brandon’s transsexuality is not presented with a great degree of fluidity, as he just believes he is a man and acts accordingly. In many respects, Brandon’s behavior in the film is akin to a lesbian woman in drag, making for an easy read that the film is just about a lesbian who must cross-dress so that she can fall in love with a woman. One early scene in the film has Brandon’s gay friend dress Brandon up as a man, cutting his hair almost as if they were about to start a prank. The scene is easily read as Brandon being accepting of his biological femaleness, but wanting to engage in a lesbian relationship with a small town girl, and must pretend to be a man to get what she wants. Brandon is also coded as female in the film, through the exhibition of her body, scenes where Brandon gets his period, and Lana looks at his cleavage. These scenes imply that gender characteristics determine sex, and places these attitudes on other characters (Aaron 94). When Brandon is raped by John and Tom, they vaginally rape him, reminding him of how he is biologically female, yet another source of trauma.
While Boys Don’t Cry, in feminist and queer theory perspectives, presents a complex view of gender identity and violence in small-town America, there are a few areas in which the film could be improved. Instead of being a real transgender film, Brandon is instead a cross-dresser, making the film the plight of a transvestite who is caught trying to engage in clandestine lesbian relationships. Because of this, Brandon is shown to be a ‘true’ woman, the male persona being an act instead of who he really is. Despite this, Brandon’s success as a man with an alternative, sensitive take on masculinity challenges heteronormative ideas of machismo, making it a progressive film from both feminint and queer standpoints.
Aaron, M. “The Boys Don't Cry debate: Pass/fail.” Screen, 42(1) (2001): 92-96.
Cooper, B. “Boys Don't Cry and Female Masculinity: Reclaiming a Life & Dismantling the Politics of Normative Heterosexuality.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(1) (2002): 44-63.
Erens, Patricia. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana
Hird, M. “Appropriating Identity: Viewing Boys Don't Cry.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 3(3) (2001): 435-442.
Pierce, Kimberly. Boys Don’t Cry. Perf. Hilary Swank, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny. Fox
Searchlight Pictures, 1999. Film.
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