Back to IndieWire

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Protests: Why We Should Listen to Trans Activists Criticizing The Milestone Film — Editorial

Whether or not the celebrated queer film and filmmaker are worthy targets is irrelevant. Transgender people are tired of being erased in movies and television. We need to hear them out.

“Boys Don’t Cry”

In 1999,”Boys Don’t Cry” became the first film to represent transgender masculinity in a believable way. However, at a recent Reed College screening that point was lost on a group of transgender students who showed up to protest it. Visiting filmmaker Kimberly Peirce was greeted with signs declaring “Fuck Your Transphobia,” “You Don’t Fucking Get It,” and “Fuck This Cis White Bitch.” Their beef wasn’t new: The movie portrays the plight of a transgender man, but it doesn’t feature a transgender performer.

While this may be a misguided attack on a respected queer filmmaker and vital piece of independent film history, it would be irresponsible to dismiss the complaints outright.

Over the 15 years since the film’s release, Peirce has faced criticism for casting cisgender actress Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a transgender male. She’s also been criticized for directing the film as a cisgender lesbian, and for erasing from the film’s narrative the murder of Philip Devine, an African-American man who died by the same hands as Brandon Teena.

READ MORE: ‘Modern Family’ Will Feature Transgender Child Actor Jackson Millarker

The concerns of these demonstrators are rooted in their own experiences of erasure, discrimination, and violence. (I am white, gender non-conforming, and trans masculine.) “Boys Don’t Cry” is a vital film, simultaneously joyous and brutal; it was game-changing in its representation of trans existence at the time.

But how far have we progressed since then? Sure, we’re a far cry from “The Crying Game,” but Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Eddie Redmayne was nominated for “The Danish Girl,” and — despite witnessing the public outcry that followed those two recent films — Mark Ruffalo is producing “Anything,” with Matt Bomer cast as a transgender female sex worker (another overused stereotype.)

To his credit, Ruffalo apologized eloquently to the trans community, tweeting: “I hear you. It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.” That’s more than Peirce has done.

The glowing praise heaped on men for daring to play trans women insults trans people. Playing a trans woman is a shortcut to awards consideration precisely because it’s considered brave for a cis man to don a wig and allow his masculinity to be questioned. But what about the bravery of the 21 transgender people who were murdered in 2016?

The casting of cisgender actors in trans roles says to trans people: You do not matter. You are not good enough actors to tell your stories. You are just a man in a dress, an unattractive woman. Your survival is not as important as our bottom line. You do not exist.

It is not fair to then say to those people: Hold your horses. Progress takes time. Be grateful you’ve got Laverne.

Amazon

To be fair, progress has been made. In his acknowledgement of the trans community, Ruffalo has already done more than most. Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor have both said in interviews that while they stand by Tambor’s casting as Maura on “Transparent,” they didn’t realize the repercussions until after the fact. “Her Story,” an independent web series made by transgender writer and actress Jen Richards, was nominated for an Emmy award this year. And The Academy recently set a precedent that a trans actor can be submitted in both gender categories.

But just because things are better than they were does not mean they’re resolved. Such is the lesson of Black Lives Matter — and, for that matter, the dangerous myth that Barack Obama’s election solved racism in America. Young transgender people like these Reed protestors may have benefitted from the wider acceptance that films like “Boys Don’t Cry” helped usher into Hollywood, but they are not wrong to demand more. To dismiss their concerns because their tactics are caustic would be a mistake.

READ MORE: Jill Soloway On Why She Addresses Race Head On In ‘Transparent’ Season 3

Like the people of Ferguson when Michael Brown’s grieving father told them to “burn this bitch down,” or the brave women of Black Lives Matter who stormed the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally despite being told “Bernie is not your enemy,” these students used incendiary tactics to make their point, and it worked.

The question we should ask is not whether these actions are disrespectful to a celebrated queer filmmaker. We need to explore what should change now — so that, in the future, transgender people won’t feel their only recourse is to label a celebrated queer filmmaker as a bitch.

Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , ,


Comments

Mike Delane

As an actor who has worked with trans actors, I can tell you: they are always really bad at acting and don’t understand technical acting. If they could, then they’d get roles. Acting is a sacred art form, its not a f’ing corny drag show. Real actors who have studied their craft for decades know this, and Swank knows this. Its as simple as this: take classes for years and step up your technical acting game, transpeople! You cant just expect roles in Hollywood films, indie or not, to be handed to you based on gender. cis actors who have studied craft > trans actors expecting a handout, every, single, time.

Sarah Lidocaine

I am perfectly comfortable ignoring anyone who begins a conversation with “fuck this cis white bitch.”

That said, what I really want to see is a transgender person play a cis person. Then we’ll know how good an actor he or she is.

    Enrique

    Exactly

Enrique

Nah. People bitch about anything nowadays besides what are they gonna do with the film? It exists done.

Vin

It’s amazing to me that these ridiculous quotas apply to the craft of ACTING. I mean, how ridiculous is this? And to boot, the people whining about this, are whining about representation quotas for a group that comprises (generously) .3% of the population. Any filmmaker worth his or her salt (sorry if I offended by using gendered pronouns!) is going to choose the better actor than the politically correct choice. BTW, it is stupefying that the American left focuses on such idiotic grievances. Fascism is on the march across the west. The American left is engaging in such trivialities because it’s – ironically – a movement borne of privilege. The privilege of first-world westerners to focus on stupid sh*t, as opposed to concerns of real justice and tyranny. Get your heads out of your asses. A real storm is coming.

    Ontheplains

    Let’s be fair here. Most of the American Left has little interest in these type of grievances, no more than every conservative is a Tea Partier. There’s a reason a good portion of the Left deems this type of protestor to be a part of the “Regressive Left”. The Left wants progressivism – this is not that.

Henry

UGH! This article! How many trans actors do you think there were in 1998 when Kimberly Peirce made this film and could have pulled off carrying an entire film? 0.01, *maybe.* In 2016, it’s more of a relevant question, as trans visibility is much higher now, and there are more actors. But directors still want the best person for the job, and sometimes the trans actor isn’t that person. For an audience to call Peirce names is just wrong. Ask her the questions, but listen to her answers before you go off on her. Hilary Swank won a fucking OSCAR for her performance, which brought more attention to the lives of trans people than a hundred angry protests ever did.

Eric

To second what Sarah said, no, I don’t have to pay attention to people who say “Fuck this cis white bitch.” You write so many articles about sexism in the industry, but somehow deem this to be acceptable? The word choice you may find unflattering, but you never condone it as much as you do apologize on the protesters’ behalf. And you can’t possibly make the BLM comparisons—are trans people living under similar conditions because of a movie from 1999? Give me a break.

I feel like Indiewire is always trying to be on the side of righteousness. Look at Sam Adams’s “Is Boyhood racist?” article for further proof. There weren’t enough Mexicans in Texas—but did he care about the production process enough to find out why there weren’t many Mexicans? No. He just deemed the final product unsavory to his liberal values. You’re doing the same here—it’s not the transgender movie you want.

Also, I think it’s irresponsible for a site like Indiewire to apply 2016’s transgender views as if they were just the same in 1999. To suggest that they were is completely naive, and indicates a lack of knowledge of the transgender movement in general. In 1999, transgender wasn’t a zeitgeist movement; it was a punchline. You could tell transphobic jokes galore and who would call you out on it? Certainly nobody online, what with wifi and smartphones not really being things back then. No, this does not mean you have to like Boys Don’t Cry because of it, but don’t act like it makes no sense that a cis actress played a trans man back then.

Sakulus Londo

cinephile

Cinephile

This article perfectly embodies what is so problematic about parts of the excesses of political correctness (that were far too easily exploited by Donald Trump and contributed to his disturbing victory). If a white man or someone from the political right had attacked a female filmmaker, they should and would rightly be criticized and taken to task for it. The same, however, should apply to ANYONE doing so — shouting down and verbally assaulting a woman by screaming “fuck you” and “bitch” –, no matter their ethnicity, gender etc. There is no reason to defend and apologize their vitriol attacks, no matter how noble their motives may be.

Kimberly Peirce is an acclaimed independent filmmaker who made a celebrated film giving voice to people that were hardly ever heard or represented before. Can she still be criticized for it? Of course. Can there still be discussions about the how of her depiction? Sure. But the end doesn’t justify the means here: there is a difference between a sensitive, differentiated discussion that Peirce was open to, and slurs that are reminiscent of hate speech.

OF COURSE one should discuss and explore the change that people feel is needed and let be heard the diverse voices of people and groups that feel under-represented, as this article suggests. But that doesn’t mean one should NOT “ask whether the actions of the protesters are disrespectful to a celebrated queer filmmaker”, as this article also, absurdly, indicates. YES, one should ask it, and one should give the answer: that these attacks were completely disrespectful, out of line, and utterly destructive. Because how should the topics that are raised be discussed if one side doesn’t want to engage in a real discussion at all?

Vic

It’s tough to find anyone GOOD to do your script, straight, gay, trans, etc. That’s the first point of order: not to be politically correct, but to get the best folks possible to make your film work. I’m sure that had there been an amazing Trans actor available, they would have used them. Why not? It only would have helped the film. However, if you HATE this choice, make your own film and show everyone how it’s done. If it’s so fricking easy to “do it the right way”, please, dear God: show us all how it’s done. If not? Stop attacking filmmakers with more soul and determination than you’ll ever have from spending literally YEARS to produce a film that had close to ZERO commercial chances if it did not work 100%. They did and it does. Everything else is woulda, coulda, shoulda Tuesday morning Quarterbacking. Stop it. Fighting amongst ourselves his how progress stops. Again: show us all, don’t tell us in a holier than thou tone. You’re attacking your allies.

    AVLdem

    Yes! This!

    Jamaica Knauer

    Amen, Vic.

Laurian Colbert

I really do not have a problem with cis people playing trans people… as long as it’s a cis-woman playing a trans-woman, and a cis-man playing a trans-man.

Michael

So it follows then that only gay people should be cast as gay characters, and criminals should play criminals, etc, etc….
Where does this thinking end? Peirce and her cast and crew were very respectful and progressive for their time and they opened a lot of people’s eyes. They can stand tall and deserve respect, not harassment.

Enrique

Indie wire has become the Buzzfeed of film sites. “Fuck this cis white bitch” how nice.

Laurian Colbert

When you have a man playing a trans-woman, what you are telling the world is that that is what trans-women are: a man in a dress pretending to be a woman. A woman should play a trans-woman. To a woman it would be intuitive to portray a person who is uncomfortable passing as a man, which is exactly how trans-woman feel.

Brian Padian

FAT BILLY

Marthia

Those trans activists are Mr. Trump of trans community – they are selfish, divisive, ungrateful, hateful, no manners. It’s the word from my friend who is trans woman.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *