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Trans in the Mainstream: On Sex, Gender and Audience Expectations in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’

Trans in the Mainstream: On Sex, Gender and Audience Expectations in 'Boys Don't Cry'

Prior to "Dallas Buyers
Club", "Boys Don’t Cry" was the one film with a transgender lead that members
of the cisgender heterosexual community had most likely seen. Re-watching the
film and discussing it with fellow film buffs, I’ve come to realize that it was
a somewhat ambiguous portrayal of a transgender person. However, this is the
one film where the casting choice doesn’t seem incongruent with the character,
perhaps because it’s based on a real person who we know hadn’t medically
transitioned.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

"Boys
Don’t Cry"
has
had the most academic writing of any film I researched for this series which
makes sense given the accolades that the film received. However, even if we
take away the awards and praise, the film still stands out due to the fact that
it’s about a trans male. Usually transgender men are only represented in
documentaries. I believe that society at large views it as a no-brainer that a
woman would want to be a man but it’s endlessly fascinating that a man would
give up his male privilege to become a woman. I also think that this is why
trans woman are often portrayed in highly questionable ways, almost as a
punishment for choosing to become the “lesser” sex.

In one scene Brandon, the
lead character played by Hilary Swank, is asked “Are you a man or a woman?” by
two of the cis male characters in the film. I read the scene as if those
characters are standing in for an audience of predominantly cis and/or
heterosexual people who view sex and gender as one and the same. A liberal
audience in particular wants to believe that they are better than Brandon’s
attackers but at the base, many have the same limited understanding that
Brandon’s biological sex is female but his gender is male. Melissa Rigney, for
example, writes extensively about sex and gender in the film but I don’t find
myself agreeing with much of anything that she writes. In her essay "
"Brandon Goes To Hollywood: Boys Don’t Cry And The Transgender
Body In Film" she states

"The rape fixes
Brandon’s sex as female and operates to control Brandon, forcing upon him the
status of object rather than subject, female rather than male. The rape also
normalizes Brandon’s body and, to a limited extent, realigns categories of sex
and gender. It is a graphic visual assertion of who is “male” and who is
“female.” Through this scene and the violence done to Brandon’s body, the threat
to masculinity is eliminated and the status quo reestablished."

The rape does not fix Brandon’s sex,
as Brandon’s sex was never in question. Brandon’s gender is what’s at issue in
the mind of the characters in the film. By stating that the rape “normalizes”
Brandon’s body, Rigney is inferring that only women can be raped. By taking it
further and suggesting that it “realigns categories of sex and gender” is to
show that even amongst academics, the understanding of what it means to be
trans is limited. I do not think that any trans person would feel comfortable
with the thought of a rape “realigning” their sex/gender. Our biological sex
cannot be changed. I don’t think anyone would argue against that yet Rigney
blurs the line. Did the men that raped Brandon really feel that they
reestablished their masculinity in doing so? Was Brandon’s masculinity really
challenged by it? Since we can only form an opinion based on the film, I would
have to say that the status quo was not reestablished in the film.

Her reading of the scene is problematic
in other ways. She writes:

"The repeated refrain of
the question and the quest for a knowable and known truth produces an
alienation, and a split occurs between language and meaning. We see Brandon
hesitating, weighing his options and the two stark choices laid out for him:
man or woman. The answer loses any inherent meaning, and the audience is aware
that neither choice fits Brandon: that he is neither man nor woman."

By all accounts, Brandon Teena lived
as a man, introduced himself as a man, and went to great lengths to project the
identity of a man, yet somehow Rigney decides that the audience is aware that
neither choice fits Brandon. What should be examined is the violence directed
at a trans person that would force them to hesitate on declaring what they know
their true gender to be. Brandon was a man and he was confident in maintaining
that gender in his life. This statement of Rigney’s does nothing but expose the
elephant in the room – cis people do not understand what it means to be
transgender and create their own ideas and definitions and then try to fit us
into their box. For Brandon, the choice and what fit was male. Just because the
academic or the film audience questions sex and gender does not mean that trans
people do. As a cis person knows they are male or female, a trans person knows
that what they feel does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. 

Often it feels as if cis people have
an obsession with trans people’s genitalia. Trans men often have an easier time
of being read as biologically male than trans women do of being read as female.
However, surgical cost and procedures seem to favor trans women and their
ability to have gender conforming surgeries. Since we do not often see one
another’s genitals it’s confounding that this is what most cis people base
gender on. Rigney suggests that the film audience takes pleasure in knowing Brandon’s
“secret” and that “he is really a she” but this goes back to simplifying gender
identity down to the genitals. It’s simply not a fair marker of what
transgender is.

Much of the academic writing on the
film focuses on the portrayal of Brandon Teena by the director Kimberly Peirce.
Both Rigney and Judith Halberstam feel that there was a disservice done to the
story by playing up the “butch lesbian” aspect of the story rather than that of
the transgender narrative. Halberstam succinctly summarizes the most
problematic part of the film:

"…Abruptly, towards the
end of the film, Peirce suddenly and catastrophically divests her character of
his transgender gaze and converts it to a lesbian and therefore female gaze. In
a strange scene, which follows the brutal rape of Brandon by John and Tom, Lana
comes to Brandon as he lies sleeping in a shed outside Candace’s house. In many
ways the encounter that follows seems to extend the violence enacted upon
Brandon’s body by John and Tom, since Brandon now interacts with Lana as if he were a woman. Lana, contrary to
her previous commitment to his masculinity, seems to see him as female, calling
him ‘pretty’ and asking him what he was like as a girl… The scene raises a
number of logical and practical questions about the representation of the
relationship between Brandon and Lana. First, why would Brandon want to have
sex within hours of a rape? Second, how does the film pull back from its
previous commitment to his masculinity here by allowing his femaleness to become
legible and significant to Lana’s desire."

I watched the film over again
to write this section and I have to say that I agree with both of them on this
point. However, Rigney seems to misinterpret at least some of the portrayal of
Brandon. What she assumes is a wrongfully explained “sexual confusion” in the
context of the film reads as self-preservation. Of course, while this is based
on true events there has been a lot of dispute over how many liberties the
writers took with the story.

As one of the writers of the film, Peirce
can be assigned some of the blame for skewing the story. It’s interesting to me
that the film played up the idea that Lana knew about Brandon and it was a
consensual lesbian relationship. Perhaps hindsight has given her some insight
because in an interview with the Windy
City Times
from 2013 she is very adamant that it’s a transgender story. Peirce
said:

"You might think it is
just language and not that important but it is very important because when you
don’t identify someone in the terms they want to be identified in then you are
robbing them of the ability to be acknowledged accurately. Simply by listening
to people and learning how they want to be identified gives them a level of
authenticity and space to be who they are. I was able to reflect Brandon
accurately by listening to other people."

Peirce
obviously did a better job with this film than most would have, but writing a
story that leaves any interpretation of Brandon’s identity in the air was
ultimately a disservice to the trans community.
Having
said all of that, Hollywood would never have made this film and Kimberly Peirce
must be acknowledged for taking the risk on to do so herself.

"Boys
Don’t Cry" has no choice but to acknowledge the violence many members of the
trans community face since Brandon was brutally murdered. Rigney writes,
“…Violence seems the inevitable end to someone who so flagrantly violates
cultural rules of gender and sexuality. The violence Brandon faces always comes
from men…”. Whether or not the movie places the blame on Brandon’s shoulders
for his death (Rigney thinks it does; I disagree) the issue is that people in
the trans community do face extremely high rates of assault and violence
directed towards them, most frequently by heterosexual cis men. I think that
normalizing the transgender experience in film representation rather than
having trans people serve the usual negative roles of murdered, murderer, or
butt of jokes would be very helpful for both the trans community and social
acceptance by the cis community. Vito Russell has discussed that mainstream
films about gay issues are not made for the gay community. Boys Don’t Cry is a film about a trans man that was not made for
the trans community. Aside from the problematic blurring of Brandon’s gender
identity, I do think it is a valuable film and solid representation for the cis
community.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

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Comments

Kelly Mae

You're right on point with your observation that society lacks an understanding on trans women because when you have male privilege it's hard to get why anyone would want to lose it. Nice explanation on the difference between sex and gender. There are this who still see this as a lesbian movie but you clearly and cleverly dissected it and now I'm going to have to buy it so I can watch it again. I've read your other pieces and I know you read the comments, what's your focus in academia? And where do you teach?

Davon

BDC is one if the most heartfelt trans movies that did well in mainstream, I think because it had buzz worthy actors and because people wanted a vouyeristic look into a tragedy. I remember when Brandon was murder and for a while I refused to see this film, the fear I felt was all too real and I was living in a small town where you had to drive for almost an hour for the nearest gay bar. My parents were supportive but my mom lived in a constant fear that I would be murdered in a similar way and as I would tell my mom not to worry I always did it aware that it was a very likely possibility. Now I live in a big city with a nice community that supports me but the fear still remains. It's important for young writers like yourself to remember and remind others of the fear and to keep on fighting on. You have to keep on, you owe it to your community. Keep on writing these articles please. Keep them coming! Thank you.

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