Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations between Caden Gardner and I about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. This installment is on Kimberly Pierce’s Oscar Winning feature Boys Don’t Cry (1999).
Trigger Warning: Rape, Murder, Discussions of Sexual Assault
Caden Gardner: For our discussion series with Body Talk and our book, our focus is the representation of transgender people in cinema. Our last couple of discussions have been looking back at depictions that have long been associated with the trans image, and the positive and negative connotations those images brought to the trans community at large and our own experiences with those images (some that arguably buck consensus). But overall, we want to get into why some of these depictions have succeeded or failed in presentingwhat it is like to be a transgender body on-screen. Due to the long history of negative imagery of trans people on-screen, nuance is usually out the window. It seemed that real life trans people, in a lot of instances, came first, and then films and other visual media played catch-up by depicting these lives, which for the most part have been quite bad. Ignorance is not a one-way street for bigots and transphobics, even the well-meaning people pushing recent depictions who want to tell trans stories fall into similar trappings, partly due to them not being the best people to tell these stories This brings us to the 1999 Kimberly Peirce film, Boys Don’t Cry, that is still today, nearly 20 years since its release, the most mainstream portrayal of a transman on-screen. The film is based on the 1993 rape and murder of Brandon Teena in Humboldt County, Nebraska. One can argue it is a true crime treatment of the story (with much dramatic license of the details in the crime), so for me, as a transman, it has long been troubling that this film remains the placeholder as the go-to film of transmen in cinema. Willow, this is one of these films where I feel like when I mention I hate it, there is some level of surprise from people. I will go into details about my various experiences and initial exposure to it, but when did you first watch it and what was your initial reaction to it? Has it changed over time?
Willow Maclay: In 1999 I wasn’t really paying attention to movies beyond whatever was happening with Pokemon (Not a great movie) or Sailor Moon (truly great movie). I wasn’t likely to have caught wind of this narrative around the time when it was coming out or receiving Oscar buzz and later awards so I don’t have the context of being around the film at the time like I have with representations of transness afterward which also received awards recognition like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (garbage), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club (garbage) or most recently Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (garbage), I can imagine it was the same types of discussion we normally have around these movies and performances, but with a much quieter transgender presence in that voice. When I first heard about Boys Don’t Cry it was post-cinephilia and I was browsing late night programming on the Independent Film Channel or IFC, and I stumbled across this program about censorship in movies with the MPAA. That movie was called This Film Is Not Yet Rated. In that film Kimberly Peirce discussed how hard it was to get Boys Don’t Cry released with an R rating, because of the sex in the movie (the ratings board had no problem with the murder). If I recall correctly it was Chloe Sevigny’s orgasm they protested. Which is fucked, but totally enlightening on what kind of images about queer people are accepted within the mainstream and which ones aren’t. Boys Don’t Cry piqued my interest because it was a queer film and in my early days of cinephilia (2007 or 2008) I hadn’t seen a lot of queer films, let alone movies about trans people so Boys Don’t Cry was immediately appealing, and I’ll be honest enough to admit that I liked the film at the time, because it made me cry and it felt “important”. If a movie affected me during those early years of cinephilia in a way that moved me to tears, whether exploitative or not, I thought it was remarkable. I didn’t have the knowledge as a cinephile or as a queer person to distinguish images or narrative on a deeper level at the time. When revisiting the film much later, I had a different reaction, and it was one of sickening disgust. This was after I became used to the single minded approach around transgender people in the mainstream: that we’re only worth caring for if we’re six feet under ground. Boys Don’t Cry is only unique in that trans men haven’t had a pattern of mainstream narratives. This is one of the only examples. When did you learn about this movie or watch it, Caden?
CG: The term ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ was in the ether for me before I had watched the film. Whether it was just the turn of phrase (men are taught to be hardened and strong, not vulnerable), The Cure song (Editor’s note: Great Song), or the movie. I did watch it when I was up much too late on a late Friday night, early Saturday morning channel-surfing and found the film. I was about ten or eleven, not yet in puberty, and being labeled a ‘tomboy’ for my more masculine expression when I knew there was something more there to that, but did not have the words. I was aware that Hillary Swank won an Oscar earlier but did not know it was for playing a real-life transman. It was mid-movie, when Brandon is already in Humboldt County (Peirce treats the Nebraskan setting like a bumfuck nightmare to the point where it is so over the top that the logical conclusion can only be death) and is passing until shit hits the fan, and the male friends Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and John (Peter Sarsgaard, contemporary cinema’s most punchable face) turn on Brandon, and expose him to Brandon’s girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny) to see his anatomy not being of the male sex. It is a scene and image that stuck with me years later. I kept watching and just felt a sense of dread not because the movie was successful, but that it felt like I was being singled out by a movie in that moment. “That could be me,” I thought. It was an early recognition that I was feeling something at odds with many norms and had no idea how or who to talk to about it, but the film itself still felt on the outside looking into Brandon’s life. I just see a transman getting raped, murdered, harassed, and these are by people who he claimed as part of his tribe.
When I revisited it later on in college, thinking that perhaps that this film was still important for its place in a rare mainstream film on a trans life, I thought that perhaps I was giving it an unfair shake. I had issues with a cis woman playing the role and the fact that I was viewing it with members of my college’s gay, bisexual, and lesbian community, with one particular viewer who seemed stuck on speaking about Brandon Teena in female pronouns (that I repeatedly corrected her on in the post-film discussion), was not helping. I was closeted then, there was no trans presence on my college campus (I only talked to a counselor and a few friends about my trans identity in college despite living in an LGBTQ house). The film got worse for me and the fact it is begging for catharsis in its final images of Brandon, in a voice-over stating a letter, while Lana takes the road to leave a murder scene and Falls City while Peirce presents in text both Brandon’s name and his dead name in tandem with his birth year and death just rang so hollow for me. There is something about the way Peirce presents Brandon’s life leading up to his death, where it’s just a succession of events that present an individual’s impulses, and intertwining his history of lying, criminality, and deception with his trans identity that always made me uncomfortable. Now, Brandon Teena did have a criminal history, was an impulsive person, and a transman who did these outsized gestures to women he liked that also caused him to steal in order to be the best boyfriend in the world in his eyes. But as far as wanting to know what his images were in presenting masculine (that also was clearly psychological) why he went stealth, how he came onto discovering what we now call gender dysphoria and why it seemed to click for him in ways his family could never understand, feels absent. We just see a boy trapped in the wrong town and the wrong time, and strangely an onus that looms heavily over his behavior that led to that moment. That this still remains the most visible trans male portrayal in American cinema and mainstream cinema is frustrating.
WM: I can’t imagine watching this film with an LGBT group and being on the outside looking in to their experiences. Did it feel like watching it with those people crystalized issues for you that this is essentially a transgender movie made for straight and gay cisgender people alike?
CG: In my experiences the few times where the concept of transness came up were rare and when they did come up, I did want to disassociate from people about it by ignoring it or not talking about it. One example that I can give is that my freshman roommate was pretty grossed out by talking about transwomen, when I once heard her referencing something she saw on some daytime talk show and the disgusted face that she made. Never interacted much with her after that in college, for multiple reasons, but knowing that she would have been like Lana Tisdel’s mother in this film if she knew this about me, was enough of a reason to not talk to her further. In my later years in college while being at an LGBTQ house, really stretching my closeteted presentation of a trans ally to its limits, I did feel like I was with a lot of people still coming to terms with their sexuality and identities, and they were not fully immersed in queer culture. New Queer Cinema was something most of my friends, the queer people on campus, even people who I took film classes with, were not aware of, so I didn’t have a lot of people besides professors to talk to about Todd Haynes, to give one example. But Boys Don’t Cry was selected by a housemate to curate for my idea of giving my college’s house more of an imprint on campus by doing an LGBTQ film series. Boys Don’t Cry was the most mainstream of the bunch. It won Oscars, but it was also produced by New Queer Cinema icon Christine Vachon, who earlier in the decade broke through with films by Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes’ [SAFE], among others, pushing films and filmmakers that cultivated cinema on the periphery, made in response to the mainstream, thumbing noses at the respectability politics that formed around the gay & lesbian community after the height of the AIDS crisis. Boys Don’t Cry was not really deep or something you can confuse for academic scholarship or the work of a prankster, but a linear narrative film. It was a broad, true crime paperback of a movie and not really the kind that interrogates the audience’s own prejudices, misconceptions, or assumptions towards transmen. My viewing party was pretty bummed out by it. Some people left during the rape scene. I do not really blame them. You are just watching somebody suffer (the shooting script of the Boy Don’t Cry screenplay that I read had the alternative title, the groaner, Take It Like a Man).
Boys Don’t Cry is a film where I do not feel like it can be watched except to remark on the central performance being ‘so brave’. You know those kinds of roles. They always afford some strong film critic plaudits of those exact words. Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena is very much in the realm of other queer cinema martyrs, Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. I include names of the performers because it turns into the performers themselves being seen as the martyrs just for undertaking the role. These people suffered for their art! Give them an award! The two of the three that I mention are cis men playing transwomen. Swank is to me similarly in the realm of, ‘This is not a role for you to play’. Brandon Teena could not medically transition due to lack of funds and having no access, but it was something he kept promising girlfriends that he was doing and had the intentions of doing so at some point, as per documentary The Brandon Teena Story. But here is the thing, and something that is perhaps lost on our cis allies, that in this case would include Kimberly Peirce: To be trans and to have a gender identity is something that is so psychological and innate. It is not an article of clothing and it is not mere expression. Identity can certainly be in conversation with presentation and inform our expressions and look as trans people, but they are not interchangeable. There are different aspects of what it is like to be trans but identity is the focal point. So when Kimberly Peirce posits that she has some knowledge or insight into a dead transman’s identity (Peirce had access to Brandon Teena’s diaries as research- as though everything we put out there on the page is the whole story and keep in mind, Brandon never makes these declarations, these are merely Peirce’s theories), whom she never met, I am deeply troubled by that, especially when due to directing this film, Peirce is often called upon to discuss trans issues.
WM: In hearing Kimberly Peirce talk about this movie I get frustrated with the lens in which she sees transness. Frequently in interviews she’ll slip in and out of pronouns for Brandon and say things like we couldn’t have known who he would have ended up as in the future. I think Boys Don’t Cry is almost like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale for her and I think that’s only magnified with how she shoots this movie. The blue skies of Nebraska are open and endless and they whoosh past like a millennium falcon entering light speed. Almost everything is magic hour or lit by headlights. It’s under the cover of darkness, but I think she wants us to feel this open ended magic of the area and of the time and of Brandon, but I think the film fundamentally doesn’t understand who he is or how Trans Men live. What do you think?
CG: I definitely think Peirce and other cisgender people in the LGBTQ community (most notably cis women) miss things. It is easier for them to be attached to aspects of masculine expression because androgyny among women has long been more socially acceptable than feminine androgyny for men. Queer women and masculine expression have their own various communities and sub-sets. But again that is different from identity.
Peirce claims that Brandon’s impulses to live as a trans man were on a whim with no previous reference points to go out and live this way. I’m assuming this is based on her reading of his diaries, but I call bullshit. The viewer does not see any visual aids for what may have inspired or informed Brandon’s identity, what informed his masculine expression that even despite not being on hormones did help him pass. I just find that difficult to believe that Kimberly Peirce could not find a thing to use. I absolutely saw and observed behaviors not because I wanted to pass or deceive others, but because I observed and absorbed things because seeing the way another man carried himself was something I felt was part of me. I liked it. It was so me. Over time, I became aware of those movements and aspects of my personality long before I was on hormones as being more than just a phase. I was always trans. In terms of being an observer, aside from looking at Lana, I do not see Brandon as the type of trans person who keeps in mind how people look at him. Brandon has a couple of mirror scenes, one of which, while bound up and in some really sad looking boxer briefs he cracks a smile to say, ‘I’m such an asshole!’ What does that mean? I still do not know! I would hope it is not about how he passes or what he is getting away with and yet the text and portrayal of events just makes me think it is that. But I am unable to get a read of Brandon, whose life is unfortunately defined by murder.
WM: I wrote a piece not too long ago called “Defining my Girlhood”, and in that piece I considered how I became myself without a foundation of passed down femininity or given a torch to be a woman within my own family tree and live in their bonds of womanhood. In that piece I proclaimed that my own girlhood was observational and I took things from other women and made them my own. One of these examples was Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. I felt a kind of deep connection to her, and I’ve been learning about who I am through movies or through other women in my own life ever since. I think, because transgender people, for the most part, are not given a childhood in which they can live out their gender identity, we react strongly to others and practice in our own time. Even without the language or the concept of transness we latch onto these things and it informs the type of person we become later. I took everything I ever could from my mom and other childhood girlfriends. That’s how I learned to construct myself out of nothingness and make the internal feelings I was having of gender rise to the surface on my external body, along with hormone therapy later. I bring this up because Kimberly Peirce insists that Brandon became a man through his “imagination” and I think that’s such bullshit. We always have a foundation even without direct images or familial lessons.
It’s something that for the most part cisgender people don’t really consider. I think the majority of cisgender people are uncomfortable by transness, and in the case of trans men struggle to understand it at all, because there’s even fewer mainstream outlets for you to present yourselves. It’s why it’s still okay to ask Daniel Ortberg, who just came out ,if he felt like was joining the other side, “the enemy”, and get away with it, as if there isn’t something already innate. It’s never a moment where a flip is switched on and suddenly you have to transition. It’s something that bubbles to the surface. In Brandon’s case there is everything in his life that we know of that points to his own transgender identity like the fact that he was stealth for the most part, went by male names constantly and looked into sex reassigment surgeries. That Kimberly Peirce in interviews always seems to put a little distance between Brandon’s identity, and his reality is damning. In Boys Don’t Cry the narrative is framed with Peirce’s understanding of transness, which is limited at best, and comes across not as a story of transness, but of queer women. I think this is present in the form, Swank’s performance and in the overall tone of the film. The entire movie is a misgendering, because of how Peirce interprets his real life narrative through her own lens. It’s telling that when we eventually get to the end of the movie they dead name him, as if he had a dual identity. It’s the last little cherry on top of an already unfortunate movie, but I think it ultimately points to why there needs to be more transgender directors making films about transgender people. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about death, because it’s the entire reason the movie exists. The death image is more valuable in a cinematic sense than one of life among transgender bodies. It’s a real shame it’s the only image of transgender men in mainstream cinema.
CG: It is accurate to say we, as trans, do construct and put together things that we can get from what we want. Some of those things are minimized so that we can only get a little of at the start but over time everything works out. We see things, observe and absorb- figuring out what we like and do not. I personally knew a lot of what I did not like first because I was raised to be female and encouraged to be feminine. Even in getting the breadcrumbs of wearing jeans (and other masculine clothing), playing sports, being in a predominantly male friend group for a lot of my adolescence, there was still something missing. People around me noticed, but could not put their finger on why. My father was always bemused by why I kept asking him what he would have named me were I a boy. My mother hated how I would walk and sit down, often slouched with my legs spread, and felt I was at a distance from her because I had rejected a lot of feminine things that she wanted me to do and be.
I am sure there are people who will read this, mainly cis queer people, get what we are both saying, relate to some of it, but stop at the identity part. I think Peirce is a queer woman trying to make connections. She portrays Brandon in a classic archetype (and arguably a queer one) as an outsider running on id and going for some high, risking it all, like some daredevil wanderer along the frontiers and highways of rural Nebraska (the reality is that Brandon never left the state but pretended to be from someplace else with a place to soon go, wooing Lana to join him). There is something romantic in how she shoots Brandon driving in close-up. Peirce’s attachment to the character that she dramatized for the screen is undeniable and in a way understandable, as it was her first feature film, but I do think she is attached to her interpretation and presentation of somebody she knows from interviews, research, and a diary rather than a real person. Her Brandon Teena is a construct but not a construct that works as a trans male character. Dysphoria is not really made to feel like the everyday, but we get the most extreme sexual trauma and violence, not to mention an outing. There is not a scene where I can really claim that Brandon is defending himself or his gender. He just goes quiet being found out in public. Swank is high-pitched in her voice in those scenes where he gets outed by his circle of friends. It is a choice and that pitch stays when the character is raped. Her vision and Peirce’s of an impulsive, eager to please man “with a secret” is one that always feels like a hyperactive child unable to sit still, willing to fib if it gets strangers to like him. I can get why that the interpretation exists, because Brandon Teena was always framed as boyish and eager to please, but the only backstory we are given of Brandon is somebody with a history of criminal activity who was later sent to a mental institution by his mother (the documentary notes that he told family members that is where he finally was able to finally find the words to connect himself to a trans identity). The way that is revealed still makes me bristle, it is photos of Swank as Teena when presenting as a cis woman. The “secret past”, because we know of his trans identity from the start, as revealed by the film just feels like something to pull the rug out for the audience and I am not really sure why that choice is made. Cautionary tale? Peirce seems completely okay with criminality and passing to be intertwined in this story without presenting a counter point of why. This is a story of an outsider who was pushed into this (somewhat surprising, queer cinema and general queer narratives have plenty of stories like Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that present a multi-faceted life of being queer when you are a deemed and treated like a criminal for that, then of course you will behave like one) due to lack of means, access, and a better support system. Instead, Brandon to her is somebody who imagined his life and acted on by any means necessary, which crazily lets society off the hook in not thinking that Brandon’s actions and choices he made were informed by a lack of support and general intolerance by society. This movie is a real mess, and frankly, it would not take much of a film about a trans man to knock it off its pedestal for me, personally.
WM: As a Trans Woman, I’ve got a little bit more to pick from in appreciating movies that are directly about transgender characters, but I sympathize, because it’s not like there’s a great deal of depth to choose from on my side of things either. We’re kind of fucked either way, but from your perspective it is worse.
I’m going to talk about dysphoria for a moment and the film’s odd relationship with mirrors. The most obvious of these is the scene you mentioned briefly earlier where Brandon tapes his breasts and gets dressed for the day. This is shot in a way where audiences can interpret Swank’s body (which is something I’ll get to a minute), and there are these gentle reminders of how this body is made. I’ve said previously in this series that Transgender Cinema has to be a cinema of bodies, but this isn’t what I’m talking about. This is cis gaze, and a total misunderstanding of transgender bodies and how we navigate being inside our own skin pre-transition. The most damning image of these is the close-up on Swank’s crotch. It’s only there to show how flat her genitalia is in underwear. There is no penis. The image lingers, but we fucking don’t do this sort of thing. During Pre-transition mirrors are like this horrific thing. It’s something to flee and yet there’s this moment where Brandon is almost vogeuing and modeling, and I find that really bankrupt. There’s no reconciliation moment where Brandon comes to terms with his body and then checks himself out. No, it’s just this moment of titilation, and I find it really gross. You could perhaps argue the “I’m such a jerk” comment is his reconcilation, with his body, but again, I don’t know what those words mean in the context of this movie. It makes little sense.
There’s also this throwaway scene earlier in the movie where Brandon gets his period, and I’m not sure why that’s in there other than to remind audiences of Brandon’s biology. It isn’t a catalyst for a moment of dysphoria or any depth other than raising the stakes of someone discovering a tampon in the house he’s currently residing. It’s totally useless, and the film has a handful of these moment that only echo the same sentiment. We’re constantly being told Brandon isn’t who he says he is in these useless scenes, because the film has no conviction to argue for Brandon’s affirmation of gender.
And regarding Swank’s body. Swank is often earmarked for this performance when people discuss the greatest best actress winners of the last twenty years or so, but I don’t think she has an understanding of how we coexist in our own skin. She reportedly lived as a man for a month, but I’m not sure what that would entail? I’m assuming it’s cross dressing, binding the breasts, and other superficial things. I’m not suggesting she take testosterone, but I don’t think there’s any real way for her to understand dysphoria or how trans men lived without significant research, and by that I mean really talking to us. Going method isn’t necessary. Just understand where we’re coming from. She never carries her body in a way that felt real to me. Brandon passed in real life, because he had the confidence and the know how to amplify how he was presenting himself so he would be as safe as he could be while also being able to live as a man. It’s a tight rope, but we figure out how to publicly present. Swank’s demeanor is jittery and like she’s constantly scared of being found out. Passing is 75% confidence. Swank has none of that, and I’m supposed to buy that this character passes? I don’t. Swank only ever feels comfortable in this role when she’s being humiliated or punished.
CG: The shot of Swank’s was what I meant about the saddest looking boxer briefs in cinema. It is so baggy. I went through a massive weight loss and my boxer briefs never looked that baggy. But it is there in the film and it looks ridiculous. You are right about the horror of mirrors. You feel at odds with what you have outside versus how you feel on the inside. Brandon gets a haircut at the beginning and apparently that is all it took for him to step out and present. As somebody who had his hair long for an extended period of time even after I started transitioning, haircuts are crucial but there were ways that I passed in spaces with longer hair. The real Brandon Teena photos are interesting to look at as he has a bit of a bouffant and a baby mullet- versus Swank’s more traditionally masculine crew-cut- that for the time period seem like either gender could have pulled that off. But it is about confidence above all else and it takes a lot of it to do what Brandon does.
And hell yes that menstrual period scene being played for nothing when I would say for most trans men in my position, the moment you stop having periods while on hormones is one of the biggest reliefs. I cannot imagine Brandon, an active dater who concealed his biology for as long as he could in relationships, did not feel like that having a period was only a mere inconvenience, especially while dating women. It’s devastating. There are too many visual reminders that Brandon is ‘not like other guys’ that feel like these pokes from the outside and they are for the cis audience and not trans people.
I go back to this assumption that due to decades and centuries of androgyny for women to present as more masculine in expression that there is this assumption that cis woman can get away with and pull off portraying a man or passing as a man more so than cis men pulling off playing trans women. Again, it does not help that cis people will argue that Brandon never medically transitioned (as though he truly had a choice when even with health insurance, it can be costly especially in the 90s) that it is okay for a cis actress like Swank to portray him and that her presenting a masculine expression is enough. She does not pass for me and it is mostly because of lack of effort than looks (although how she’s shot by Peirce, who wants to remind people that Brandon is laboring a lot on passing in every gesture, puts her at a disadvantage). The gestures feel labored, and yeah, jittery like he is getting away with something. It’s closer to the three little boys in BoJack Horseman passing as Vincent Adultman and answering all questions about their life with, “I did a business”. I get angry that this performance is considered good or something where if I ever disclose my trans status to people that their first image and popular culture associations are going to be this. Trans women likely get this a lot with a lot of negative images too (editor’s note: shout out to Buffalo Bill). I am not sure how widely acceptable those associations are now thanks to more trans women being visible. But Boys Don’t Cry was probably one of the most mainstream depictions of trans-related media where it was the focal point, and not some third act reveal of a trans character a la, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Soapdish, Dressed To Kill, or to some extent what became of The Crying Game’s sensational marketing campaign. It had respectability and prestige, but that does not mean a liberal film with good intentions does not still fail or fundamentally fail in casting. Boy Don’t Cry failed. The Brandon Teena doc is giving us insight of who he was beyond a boy with secrets, and also what drove him to be take the steps to risk who he wanted to be, and for a certain period of time, through confidence and hustle, was able to live that way. Swank plays Teena too meek for me based on what I know about Teena.
|Brandon Teena and Lana Tisdell|
CG Cont: I cannot say a transman immediately could have improved the material or done this story right. Honestly, it is strange for me to approach this as a transman’s story. As is I feel nothing in the performance and presentation where I am truly seeing a transman’s story on-screen. It is the end of somebody’s life that I am seeing but I feel like I am missing a lot of crucial aspects while also feeling emotionally and psychologically bludgeoned by violence and hateful attitudes depicted on-screen. I can only say if a trans man was portraying Teena or was directly involved in the script and direction, that I think I would have seen a different movie. Not necessarily a better one, but something where I could see not only expression, but also identity.
WM: It’s interesting, because in our previous installment on Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean we praised Karen Black, which is a cisgender performance of a transgender character. So what’s the difference? For me there are two main differences between Swank and Karen Black and why I think one performance works and the other doesn’t. The first of these is simple, and it’s that Karen Black is a cis woman playing a trans woman, which I think is more palatable, even if cis women by and large don’t understand the mindset of transgender women. A transgender woman can be physically no different than a cisgender woman in almost every way. We share fundamental aspects of living with a feminine gendered body that we both understand. A cisgender man cannot look like or understand a trans woman on that level. That’s mostly a superficial reason, but one I’ll personally admit to getting hung up on. It immediately takes me out of the movie. The second reason why Karen Black’s performance works and Swank’s doesn’t is that Black intuitively understands the mindset of her character, her history, and imbues that character with a lived in backstory through gesture, movement and body language. I don’t know shit about Hillary Swank’s Brandon Teena. From what I can gather from The Brandon Teena Story documentary Brandon was a ladies man, who made big gestures and his dream woman was fucking Cher (Speaking of Five and Dime), but in Boys Don’t Cry all we know is that he’s unsure, scared, heterosexual, maybe in love and then he dies. Brandon’s a prop. We’ve said before it’s just a death narrative, but it bears repeating.
I’m frustrated that this movie doesn’t work, because I do think Kimberly Pierce is capable of being a good director. I’m fond of her Carrie remake, which ironically is a better trans movie than this one simply through its understanding of body horror. Additionally, I think she totally understands how to shoot sex from a place of queerness, and she comprehends the weight of a woman’s body in the image. That’s where she essentially fumbles with Brandon. The one aspect of this movie that I do like is Chloe Sevigny’s portrayal of Lana Tisdell. I think Chloe is the only person who gets away unscathed in this movie. Her character feels real to me and she sells that woozy, overwhelming feeling of love very well, but then again Chloe Sevigny was unstoppable in the late 90s.
On a totally separate point I also think the scenes involving rape are appropriately handled, because they’re completely psychologically damaging in a way that feels so totally devastating that it’s physically difficult to watch. It’s an atomic bomb, where Brandon’s sense of self is completely taken away, and I feel that’s accurate and appropriate being a survivor myself. It has weight and consideration of how evil this act is that a lot of movies gloss over. Having said that the film doesn’t have enough earlier moments where Brandon feels like an actual human being to offset that scene’s brutality. to offset its brutality.
I ask myself rather frequently if this movie should have ever even been made. Brandon’s death along with Matthews Shepard’s had already created some long lasting change in how hate crimes were processed in courts and in laws so to recreate this movie feels like vulture cinema to me in the worst way, I almost believe True Crime, as a recreated drama is a vicious inhumane act in and of itself. It always rubs me the wrong way.
CG: If you take into consideration the lack of trans male narratives with this much mainstream attention before and after. You can clearly see that its human interest story had little to do with seeing a trans body on screen. The film received major attention by critics and audiences alike because it starred a group of up and coming actors with growing clout at a certain time in American independent film. The trans male narrative was merely coincidental and a curiosity. It was the true crime nature which surely drew Peirce and everyone else into Brandon’s narrative and with all the gory details of a maligned, misunderstood minority getting tortured, raped, and killed in what many people would dispose of being some hick town (much like Laramie, Wyoming) far away from their more forward thinking environs it was sure to be a success. It is being invested in a story without feeling any responsibility for who killed Brandon Teena and why. There have been enough trans stories and narratives to know it just does not happen in ‘flyover country’but in the red state-blue state phenomenon that took over American culture around this time and after. There were side effects where gross-generalizations of regions and the people took hold. White Falls would seem hostile and the lack of access Brandon had in any part of Nebraska at the time has been documented that he would have close to nothing, but that is not really explored in the film. Yet, aside from Lana (and I do not think she is enough, as much as I think Sevigny is fine in her role), there is nothing in the film for me to think Brandon should have hung out with those people. From the start, Sarsgaard’s performance as John Lotter is so high-strung, violent, and over the top, that every thing is telegraphed and you are just left to wait for the clock to hit zero and the bomb to go off as an audience member. Peirce makes everybody in the audience see it, but somehow Brandon cannot. Peirce portrays Lana as ‘the one’, noting one suitor for Brandon at the start of the film that erodes because he was found out, but is she one worth Brandon’s life being endangered? It simply could have been wrong place, wrong crowd, wrong time, but Peirce really does romanticize the pairing, she keys in on Brandon’s grand gestures for Lana when what we know is that was his modus operandi with other women he dated. Lana was just the last. Peirce seems to want to piece together perhaps why he wanted to stay, but there is such grotesquerie in Brandon’s surroundings from the start and it is just is untenable for me just watching it as a viewer. It leaves me with dread.
WM: It leaves me with dread as well, and there is a kind of foreshadowing spread throughout the entirety of this film. Roger Ebert said in his review that Brandon is this person who “flew too close to the flame“, and while I’m not totally here for beating a dead horse on language not being up to date or people misunderstanding trans issues before we were ever really out in full force in the mainstream, I do think he nails why this film feels awkward for us and is engaging for cisgender viewers. And it’s the same story we’ve seen repeated in patterns about transgender characters. It’s the Tranny Martyr complex. This situation where this queer defined person is destroyed by people or circumstances that were completely out of their control and this story is repeated ad naseum in attempt to give weight to our stories, but only ever paints us as this tragic man or woman who tried to change biological destiny (a term cis people tend to throw around). In their mindset, and within something we call the cisgender gaze this trans character is belittled, crushed and ultimately made nonexistent in an attempt to foster sympathy. I think these films are only useful from our perspective as a cosigning on how we already feel surrounded by cisgender people. In Brandon’s unfortunate case his story is stripped of anything except the murder, in both of his cinematic representations (the doc isn’t much better)
I think it does make sense that within the context of this movie that Brandon would invest in relationships that would reaffirm his gender in a social setting, which is why he maybe chased bad people and wanted to get married so badly, but to me these are cries for help rather than a diagnosis on why he was murdered. The why isn’t important, because it was his transenss that got him killed, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in a red state or a blue state it’s still dangerous to be transgender in the United States of America to this day. I don’t think movies are the be all end all for social change or anything of the sort, but there’s certainly something symptomatic in the American psyche where for the most part the only times we’ve been on screen are to be murdered, turned into a joke, or a tragedy of failed transition. The mainstream isn’t interested in our livelihood or our goals. It’s a lost highway of corpses, fools and monsters. There’s no space for us, and we both know there’s even less for trans men. There’s still issues of invisibility on your end of things and I don’t think Boys Don’t Cry‘s wishy-washy position on Brandon’s identity and transness help matters
CG: Him flying too close to the sun is a perfect description of Brandon’s behavior through Peirce’s eyes. He seemed to go from station to station in his story in some game of passing that felt like Russian roulette; Brandon would either not have a figurative bullet to his head or he would with his actions. There is an onus on trans people being murdered, in real life and in fictional portrayal in film and television, that death looms closely to them and it will consume them in the end because they took steps to be who they are that flies in the face of conventions and social norms. You would think with the pushback the queer community had as far as gay, lesbian, and bisexual representation, a post-The Celluloid Closet look at queerness on-screen, that people would learn and know better not to let trans people also fall into these tropes on-screen. Instead, in the case of Boys Don’t Cry, we have those very same people who bristled at straight people telling their stories with these harmful stereotypes and well-meaning depictions of martyrdom still being quite negative for people within the community, doing the same thing to trans people. They are part of the gaze who looks into our community. Despite out common ties and some of us in the trans community also belonging to those communities, there is still a distance and misunderstanding that happened and continues to happen.
I have personally felt, and I know a few other trans men who have confided and spoken to me about this very thing, resentment from women and queer women for being a trans man. It was as though I had betrayed their values system, like a punk band that signed to a major label that I had sold out to the patriarchy. They do not understand that I did not transition to reap the benefits and privileges of men. I and trans men all over the world transition because we are affirming an identity that is within all of us and are ourselves as individuals. We are not doing it to get ahead, we are doing it because we are trying to live and save ourselves. What my identity is versus a cis woman or queer woman’s identities are vastly different. That is not always understood and I think that’s where there is friction, resentment, and misunderstanding. You can tell me all you want that what I did somehow offended your feminism and worldview, but the dysphoria and suicidal thoughts and self-harm that loomed over me for years had to be dealt with and I would not be talking with you today had I not done it.
What I just said is perhaps eye opening for people and that is due to the paucity of trans narratives, let alone trans male narratives in film. We still lack a space and a forum to really present and champion our voices, but those artists are out there. There are trans filmmakers out there but still what usually happens first is trans actors getting exposure by way of cis filmmakers, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine and going way back to the likes of Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis in those Warhol and Paul Morrissey films. But let us talk about a rare trans male film that was made as Boy Don’t Cry was released, the 2001 film, By Hook or By Crook by Harry Dowd (best known as being writer Maggie Nelson’s partner, who featured prominently in her book, The Argonauts) and Silas Howard (who would later direct episodes of Transparent and has made features, web series, and shorts since). A rare trans male film written and directed by trans men.
|Harry Dowd and Silas Howard|
WM: By Hook or By Crook has such a loose, punk rock freewheling nature to it that I immediately gravitated towards. It’s almost groundbreaking, because as trans people what sort of cinema are we going to sculpt when there’s no roadmap on how to make these narratives? When there’s no language I guess you can do anything, and I get that vibe in By Hook or By Crook. A real, “fuck it, lets make a movie” attitude with swagger and real lived in transness that’s just there on its sleeves in a really refreshing way. I keep chuckling to myself about Silas Howard’s opening line of “I’m like Dorothy, but with biceps and no dog” or something to that effect. That’s real shit. I described myself in an email once as being like Cher Horowitz, but I didn’t need the heels to be six feet tall (I’m 5’10, but who’s counting?)
CG: By Hook Or By Crook definitely felt like a continual extension of American indies from the 90s as Indiewood was emerging and the more idiosyncratic voices graduated to prestige awards film. It definitely has DIY punk elements to it that are charming in ways where the shaggy qualities and occasional loss of plot, I can forgive. Both Howard and Dodge came from queer spaces of punk and art, part of why the punk elements of it feel so right. They are clearly intelligent individuals, both of whom I believe came from the working class but were never as down on the luck as their characters. There’s no tragic quality to this. It’s comic while noting that due to their situation of their gender dysphoria being treated like a pathology that they fell into this path of crime and wander around looking for a community. The nods to The Wizard of Oz, searching for a home and a tribe, feel true. And the conversations of Dodge and Howard’s characters feel revolutionary to me. It is treated as a matter of fact in the really deep, and often traumatic details of their life that they are airing out, but they are telling it to another person with a similar life experience so it is said with a level of understanding that many trans men so often search for. And then the imagery of this film just won me over. It’s filmic grain gives it a timelessness and that there is an image of Silas Howard in a denim sherpa jacket walking in the open spaces of the Midwest made me ‘feel seen’ in a way that I have rarely experienced in cinemas. I have that haircut, I walk like that, I have that damn jacket!
|By Hook or By Crook (2001)|
WM: I think the conversational aspects of the movie are some of the more incredible parts about it, because like you, I recognize a truthfulness in that, and I’ve had hours long conversations with trans men and trans women about childhood, aspirations, growing up, dysphoria, how stupid gender is and everything else and By Hook or By Crook totally has that same reality running through its dna. I think it’s a cut above most films made by trans people because I do think it understands our experiences, but also has the benefit of being directed in a manner that amplifies its DIY and underground roots. It feels like you can pinpoint the connective tissue of that movie to the queer cinema movement of the 90s and the punk rock movements of the Pacific North West in this really fascinating way while also carving a totally new path, because it’s made by these two transgender men. The film is shaggy and imperfect, but I like those flaws. I like that it doesn’t try to make these big social change aspirations. It’s just a fucking movie that these two trans guys made, and I think their personalities totally come across in a way that feels authentic to me. It’s rare. It’s something for us, and that might be why it’s buried underneath countless other movies about LGBT people that are worthless. As trans people we’ve got to start sculpting our own canon. The movies that are indirectly about transness, the body horror films, the documentary realism and the movies made by trans people. Watching By Hook or By Crook and singing its praises is a good start. It’s on Vimeo. Everyone should watch it.
CG: It feels so authentic and as you said, it thumbs it nose at respectability politics (much like its New Queer Cinema forefathers and foremothers) and also is not about making discussions of gender straight out of academic scholarship that I think seems to be the expectation certain circles have about films on trans people and the spectrum of gender identity. You feel like these are characters talking about their experiences that are informed by the lives of their co-writer-directors.
I wish I had seen this when I was younger but am grateful that a film that predated something like Tangerine, existed as a kind of buddy film in finding somebody just like you out there (something pre-social media, pre-internet really taking off). I was often anti-social and isolated for feeling like I was alone until I connected with people like you and others. It is so very important to find your space and your tribe, even if it is just one person that can be so major and vital to keeping that person alive.
And yes, people should absolutely watch By Hook Or By Crook. It’s on Harry Dodge’s Vimeo page so he is encouraging people to check out his and Howard’s work, in addition to his shorts that I am interested in watching. We do need to start looking into our artists to build and mold a cannon that’s more than just exceptional, rare cases of the mainstream getting it right and the allegorical, while also building out of what we have. Construct out of nothingness was the term you used, and it applies not just to our lives as trans individuals but to whatever becomes of the trans film canon.
|By Hook or By Crook (2001)|
** Ren Jender’s 15 year retrospective piece on By Hook or By Crook for The Village Voice
**Caden’s piece on Moonlight, which briefly discusses Boys Don’t Cry
**Interview with Silas Howard about working on Transparent