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

By Dominic Clarke | /Bent July 28, 2014 at 11:16AM

The penultimate installment in this series looks at perhaps the most mainstream film about a transgender man
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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