Brandon goes to Hollywood (1): Boys Don't Cry and the transgender body in film.
Cinematic representations of transgender characters have been notorious for their portrayals of the transgendered as psychotic serial killers or as figures of fun and comic relief. Prior to Boys Don't Cry, films that included a transgender character invariably represented that character as abnormal and disturbed, hence dangerous and othered. (4) The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent example of the way in which the trans figure is othered and the heteronormative gender and sexual order reinforced and stabilized. In this film, the self-castrated killer murders and skins young women in order to stitch together a female body suit. The motive of the killer is portrayed as stemming from the desire to possess and to become the unattainable, a biological woman. His anger stems from the "illusion" that, born in the wrong body, he is literally cheated out of what is rightfully his.
Almost always, the trans threat is contained via death at the hands of an authority figure, one that represents both order and stability. (5) In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, the biological (read natural) female triumphs over the unnatural, delegitimized pretender to all that is female and feminine. This film implies that biological sex is fixed at birth, that the desire to change one's biological sex is rooted in abnormality and psychosis, and that the ultimate and unattainable wish to change one's sex leads to both madness and murder.
The Silence of the Lambs is just one example of a number of contemporary films that portray a male-to-female character. In contrast, female-to-male characters, prior to the release of Boys Don't Cry, have gone largely unrecognized except in what I would call a heterosexual format. Two such mainstream films with a female-to-male lead are Barbara Streisand's Yentl (1983) and the teen comedy Just One of the Guys (1985). (6) Both female leads cross-dress and pass in order to gain access to areas deemed off limits to women. Unhappy with the limits placed on her because she is a woman, and rejecting the role of wife and mother, Yentl disguises herself as a man in order to gain an education typically denied to nineteenth-century Jewish women. A comic and asexual marriage to a woman ensues in which Yentl tries to educate her wife, Hadass, and show her that women do not have to live life in servitude to their husbands. The heterosexual norm is re-established with the revelation of Yentl's deception and also with the revelation that she has fallen in love with a male friend, firmly securing her as a heterosexual female.
Just One of the Guys is almost identical in plot to Yentl. An ambitious high school student applying for a prestigious journalism award decides to enroll in a new high school disguised as a boy. Her goal is to report on the secret life of males and their attitudes toward women. She reveals her disguise only after she falls in love with a male friend and tells him of her feelings. As in Yentl, a comic queer scene ensues as the male friend assumes he is listening to a declaration of gay love from his best friend. The only way to prove she is biologically female is to remove her shirt and reveal her breasts. The heterosexual norm is re-established, and the two pair up at the end of the film.
As the above films suggest, the male-to-female and the female-to-male, has had a fairly sustained history in film, but the masculine-identified lesbian woman is somewhat more difficult to find. (7) There are three compelling exceptions to this observation: The Killing of Sister George (1968), Bound (1997), and Set if Off (1996). Each of these films depicts female/lesbian masculinity and, I suggest, creates a tradition of representation for the depiction of female masculinity that Boys Don't Cry will emulate. Unlike Brandon, however, the lead characters in each of these three films never attempt to pass as male, and all are either coded as or identify as butch lesbians. Beginning with The Killing of Sister George, we see female masculinity represented as a corrupt form of masculinity manifested in a sinister desire to exert male authority, power, and control. Female masculinity is never rendered as something separate from male masculinity but is instead portrayed as a weak copy of a potent original. Furthermore, films such as Altman's Sister George (8) suggest that the masculine woman is doomed to enact a destructive desire for a masculinity that can never be fully realized and can only be unsatisfactorily copied.
Recently, the butch has taken center stage in the Wachowski Brothers film noir thriller Bound (1997), in which a butch-femme couple outwit the mob and get away with two million dollars. In both Bound and Set it Off, starring rap star Queen Latifah as a tough butch bank robber eventually killed in a police stand-off, the butch is placed on the fringes of society as an outlaw element enmeshed in a lifestyle of crime and violence. Female masculinity, in both cases, poses both a literal and metaphoric threat to male masculinity and the sex/gender binary. The threat of the masculine woman is linked to her manipulation and co-optation of masculine gender characteristics. Alisa Soloman compares the "passing" butch to Augusto Boal's concept of invisible or guerrilla theater. Like the passing woman, guerrilla theater masks its theatrical/performance status. Ultimately, Soloman argues, butch is the "most dangerous queer image" because it challenges male privilege and points to the constructed nature of masculinity: "butches threaten masculinity more than they imitate it; they colonize it. Making aggression or toughness or chivalry or rebelliousness their histrionic own, butches reveal the arbitrariness with which traits are said to belong to men. Rather than copying some 'original' image of masculinity, butches point to the embarrassing fact that there is no such thing; masculinity is an artifice no matter who performs it" (Soloman 37). To take this one step further, I suggest that the exposure of the construction of gender by the masculine female accounts for the ways in which masculine-identified women are often symbolically castrated in mainstream film.
A patriarchal society can only benefit from constructing women's bodies as weak, fragile, dependent, and physically dissimilar to the male/masculine body. Cultural definitions of womanhood are not just dependent upon biological sex but upon shaping the body to fit cultural expectations and mandates, explaining Wittig's claim that lesbians are not women, at least not in the heteronormative sense of the word. The construction of a woman's body is related to issues of power and control. Drawing on Foucault, Sandra Bartky argues that the late twentieth century is marked by the increased surveillance of the body. This increased control of the body is overseen by a number of "regimes of power" including work and school. School is primarily structured as a place of preparation: for adulthood, responsibility, and full-time work. School then prepares individuals (bodies) for the surveillance and regulation they can expect to encounter and conform to throughout the lifespan. This manufacture of the "docile body" is crucial to the effective functioning of a "disciplinary society." Bartky goes on to note that the creation of "docile bodies" is especially significant for women because disciplinary practices also engender the body. Women, then, have an additional layer of discipline/docility inscribed upon their bodies that is made visible in the form of femininity and acceptable forms of female behavior.
Following from this, the female body is a site that must be both controlled and tamed. Female masculinity is a sign of a resistant body and is read as deviant, transgressive, and subject to greater control and censorship. The history of the masculine woman in culture (and in film) is also bound to the history of the female body. The female (and feminized) body must be kept under control, rigidly stylized, and differentiated from that of the male/masculine body. In other words, if women lose (as in old age) or reject their femininity and hence appear "mannish" or masculine, if they begin to blur or challenge the clear cut boundaries between the two genders, then men and male bodies are implicated in cultural definitions and perceptions of the female body as unclean, corrupting, and sinful. The fear is not only that women will become more like men but that men will become more like women.
On the surface, Boys Don't Cry appears to hold the potential of rendering gender in excess: the figure of Brandon Teena can be read variously as butch, male, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, and heterosexual. He appears to embody a number of contradictory sexual and gender identities, not a small part of which accounts for the ongoing media fascination with his life and his murder. Although female masculinity comes to the forefront in this film, I argue that the film works to subsume the transgressive potential of the gender outlaw within a lesbian framework and narrative, one that reduces and, ultimately, nullifies Brandon's gender and sexual excess.
The destruction of the transgressive power of the female-to-male is enacted through the symbolic castration of Brandon Teena graphically portrayed in two key scenes: the revelation of Brandon's biological sex when his assailants, Tom Nissen and John Lotter, strip him and force his lover, Lana Tisdel, to acknowledge that he is biologically female; and the long (and mostly gratuitous) rape scene that ends with Brandon promising his rapists he will stay silent and not report their "secret." The revelation of Brandon's biological sex through the forced removal of his clothes is a powerful and central scene in this film. Nissen and Lotter's refrain of "Are you a man or a woman?" echoes throughout and forms the core of Boys Don't Cry as it, and they, work to untangle fact from fiction regarding their interpretation of Brandon's sex. That there is something or someone to be untangled, that there is a actually a moment of fact that can be separated from that of fiction when it comes to the representation of sex and gender is something this film never interrogates.
The repetition of the question "Are you a man or a woman?" signals a breakdown in meaning. The act of asking and answering this question indicates a rupture in the seemingly solid and identifiable categories of sex and gender. The question, through its repetition, is queered, and hence so is the notion of sex, gender, and sexuality. Alexander Doty argues that the "queerness" of any mass culture text is not about identifying any inherent properties that the text might hold or exhibit and that are somehow just waiting to be discovered, but is instead about examining properties that are closely related to "acts of production or reception" of the text (xi). Doty refers to this as "constructing the sexualities of texts." Defining queerness as an "open and flexible space," he describes texts, and moments in texts, that are anti- or contra-straight (xv). The repeated question, "Are you a man or a woman?" It asserts the transgressive position of the female-to-male transgender body and forces a recognition that sex and gender do not necessarily follow along heteronormative lines of male/masculine and female/feminine. The sexuality of this text, for a while, is decidedly queer.
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. This queer moment is interrupted with the revelation of Brandon's biological sex and the reassertion of a biological fact, that Brandon is female. This moment, however, leads to further questions: Can this queer moment place Brandon's biological sex in doubt? Can a "woman" appear masculine and pass as a man and still be a woman? Or a man? Is a space opening up for a third term, one that cannot be fully represented by either that of male or female? These questions continue to linger even as the film attempts to secure Brandon's identity as both female and as a confused and/or closeted lesbian.
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. Brandon is no longer the "better boyfriend" or the better man, but is instead a victim forced by his attackers to take responsibility for the crimes committed against him. The securing of Brandon's identity as biologically female is a symptom of a national desire for fidelity, unambiguous identity, and loyalty. Brandon is a marker of difference and of inconstancy, a threat to both individual and national identity and security. He is a marker of split allegiance in a country and an ideology that has little room or patience for anything less than a "whole" or "unified" identity. I suggest that Trans is the marker between difference and hegemony. It can function as resistance to all that is posited as the norm or normative. Despite Brandon's desire for "normality" he comes to stand for an act and an identity (transgender) that represents resistance and a desire to remain separate and "different" rather than seek the obliteration of assimilation.
The violence of rape and murder as a means of engendering the body is significant, especially when seen in connection with the family dynamics that spring up around Brandon in relation to Lana, Nissen, and Lotter. Brandon is taken in by Lana's family and accepted as a family member, a rhetoric that lulls Brandon into a sense of belonging and security. The violence that springs from these relationships is connected to the rhetoric of family violence, especially in terms of the final objectification of Brandon when he is stripped and then eventually raped. Teresa de Lauretis argues that violence itself is "engendered in representation" (266). As an example, de Lauretis examines the creation of the concept and the term "family violence." Although spouse abuse, child abuse, and incest are all acts that have been documented in history, these acts were not seen in relation to the family and as a social problem until the creation of the term "family violence." The term itself brings the concept into existence, and thus a vital connection is made between the semiotic and discursive with the social (266). At the center of the family are gender and power relations. Therefore, gender and power relations are also at the center of violence in the family. De Lauretis goes on to argue that the rhetoric of gender and the rhetoric of violence put men and women into opposite and opposing positions. This construction and this opposition engender violence. The masculine and feminine positions, whether in relation to science, myth, or narrative cinema are always constructed as the actor (masculine) and the acted upon (feminine). A rhetoric of violence constructs the "object as female and the female as object" (274). I suggest that the graphic representation of Brandon's rape and murder constructs Brandon as the female object of family violence. The violence itself engenders Brandon, reasserting his identity as female.
The censorship of Brandon's body emerges literally in the case of his rape and murder but also figuratively in the film's failure to take Brandon seriously as a man, rewriting his identity as a masculine lesbian. The question of whether or not Brandon's girlfriends knew he was biologically female is explained within the context of the film when Lana accidentally discovers Brandon's "secret." During a long sequence when Lana and Brandon have sex for the first time, Brandon's biological sex is revealed. Shot from Lana's point of view, the audience, along with Lana, glimpses cleavage, and Brandon's secret quickly unravels. From here the film cuts to a close-up shot of Brandon's clothed genital area as Lana feels around for, ultimately, what is not there: Brandon's male genitalia (that Brandon wears a dildo is not taken into consideration in this shot). Finally, Lana caresses Brandon's chin and neck searching for signs of hair growth. Lana discovers Brandon's "secret" yet consents to sex with him, fully aware, the film suggests, that Brandon is a biological "woman."
Has Lana suspended her disbelief or is she accepting the lie at face value, enabled in her actions and choice to have sex with Brandon because of his masculine appearance and the knowledge that her friends believe Brandon is male? Later, Lana tells two female friends about her night with Brandon, and the film cuts between shots of her having sex with Brandon and shots of her telling her friends about that night. The "truth" lies in between these two scenes: Brandon's secret and Lana's secret knowledge are both revealed, and the relationship between Brandon and Lana is written as a consensual lesbian relationship.
This representation of Brandon fits a more mainstream understanding of female masculinity, linked as it is, in the public mind, to lesbian sexuality. Rendering sexuality visible through gender expression eases the anxiety produced by the non-conforming or queer body. Brandon's ability to veil his biological sex, gender, and, hence, sexuality, creates panic and fear because the stereotypically identifiable traits of the lesbian (masculinity) are rendered invisible through his ability to pass as male: masculine traits cross the line into "the masculine." According to Butler, "The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist'--that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender" (17). Hence, the assured destruction of Brandon and the realignment of sex, gender, and sexuality to make Brandon readable on the sex/gender scale.
What happens when the female-to-male cannot be read as a butch lesbian but instead crosses the gender barrier and passes as male? Gender exists in imitation and in appearance, there is no being behind the doing and no reality to the claims gender, sexuality, and biology purportedly make. At the center of Boys Don't Cry is the ability of Brandon Teena to successfully pass as a man. As a female-to-male, Brandon brings into question all that was once grounded and stable and posits the question who/what is a real man and who/what is a real woman? There is a two-fold pleasure/tension to the viewing of Brandon Teena on the cinematic screen: the pleasure derived from his (Hilary Swank/Brandon Teena) ability to pass as male, and the pleasure derived from prior knowledge of the secret at the heart of the film and at the heart of Brandon Teena's life, that he is really a she. The audience's attention is riveted upon finding gaps in the performance of gender, comparing their knowledge of masculine gender characteristics with their knowledge of Brandon's biological sex.
In part, this pleasure/tension answers the question as to why the death of Brandon has become such a fascination in this country since his murder in 1993. (9) It is not the murder per se but instead an enthrallment with Brandon's ability, for a brief time anyway, to get away with the unthinkable, to cross the seemingly grounded and solid lines of gender, for a woman to become a man. Brandon's desire for "normality" is itself a transgressive act. The fulfillment of his fantasy proves that borders are permeable that reality and appearance have no substance, and that women can be men and men can be women. The borders between the "normal" and the "abnormal" have been crossed, a transgressive act in itself. Not only is Brandon's body censored, therefore, but so is his desire for "normality." The fascination sparked by Brandon's story is closely bound to his ability to "fool" an entire community and to the depths of fear and hatred this sparked, not only in his two killers, but also in the Falls City community. Despite this fascination and the pleasure derived from it, the dissonance created by the transgender figure of Brandon Teena is erased. The factors which spark interest and fascination are resolved within an explanatory narrative that fits mainstream notions of gender and sexuality.
Brandon's desire to pass as a man is wrongfully explained as sexual confusion, an internalized homophobia that made it preferable for him to pretend he was really a man rather than face the knowledge he might be lesbian. This normalizing narrative makes sense to a culture that is itself homophobic, a culture that in many quarters either believes homosexuality is a sin that can be "cured" through therapy, or that no one, if they could, would "choose" to be gay or lesbian. It makes sense then that a young woman from the rural Midwest would choose to transform herself into a man in order to escape the reality of her sexuality. For a while, the film seems to argue, Brandon found the love and acceptance he seemed to need and want. As long as no one knew his "secret" Brandon imagined he could be "normal."
The opening scene implies Brandon's cross-dressing is a symptom of internalized homophobia. Opening shots of Boys Don't Cry show Brandon entering his cousin's trailer in order to escape the angry (male) relatives of a young woman he is dating. The men call Brandon a "dyke" and warn him to stay away or they will kill him. Brandon's cousin insists that "Teena" face up to the fact that she is a "dyke" and stop pretending to be a man because she is going to end up jail if she isn't careful. It is not clear at this point why the cousin thinks Brandon will end up in trouble, but the implication is that Brandon's actions will lead to some form of punishment in the future. The opening chase scene suggests not only the violence to come but also that 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: first the male relatives of the unknown young woman and later Tom Nissan and John Lotter, friends of Lana Tisdel. This is a scenario, the film suggests, that Brandon is both familiar with and also finds somewhat exhilarating. He enters his cousin's trailer laughing and elated (rather than in fear of his pursuers), thrilled with the idea that, although biologically female, he is the best "boyfriend" that many of his partners have ever had and that for a while at least the masquerade is successful. Although the film quotes Brandon explaining a desire (need) to cross-dress as the result of a "gender-identity crisis," it portrays Brandon as someone who cross-dresses for the thrill of the deception and the possibilities this opens up for him in terms of dating and acceptance from the young women he is interested in and later, after he meets Lana, as an expression of his sexuality and internalized homophobia.
It is important to note that while Boys Don't Cry acknowledges the homophobia and the violence of Nissen and Lotter, it, like the townspeople of Falls City, places an element of blame for what happened on the shoulders of Brandon. The film suggests that the source of Brandon's demise is his outrageous confidence in his ability to pass as male. His crime is a crime of arrogance: to violate gender norms while not expecting punishment. This attitude arises out of a culture that regularly and publicly punishes those who do not fit into the conventional categories of male and female or masculine and feminine. Brandon's failure, the film suggests, is also tied to his inability to realize the series of mistakes he makes in trusting the people of the town of Falls City and his believing the reality of his own lie. His naivete and his confidence, the film suggests, work to pull him into a situation that proves fatal. It is also this naivete and confidence that allows the audience both to sympathize and to identify with Brandon.
Despite knowledge of the outcome of Brandon's life, the audience is placed in a position of continually rooting for Brandon, willing him not to make the fateful decisions that he comes to make. Pierce accomplishes this by emphasizing crucial decision making moments that offer Brandon (and the audience) a point of escape from the inevitable end. Early in the film, just a few days after his arrival in Falls City, Brandon contacts his cousin, who persuades him to return to Lincoln. Candace arranges a ride for Brandon and, for a moment, the film offers an instance when Brandon might have escaped Falls City and the approaching violence. While Brandon waits outside for the trucker who is going to give him a ride back to Lincoln, a car pulls up containing Lana, Candace, Nissen, and Lotter, who encourage Brandon to join them and forget the trucker (who, they are quick to point out, looks "psycho" anyway). Brandon, unable to take his eyes off Lana, gets in the car and goes on a joy ride with his new friends, who are eager to include him in their circle. Achieving full acceptance and inclusion for the first time in his life adds to both the excitement and the danger of his position. This moment of choice is represented as a turning point for Brandon, a moment that pulls him into the series of events that eventually lead to his rape and murder. The characterization of the trucker as "psycho" by Brandon's new circle of friends suggests the central binaries operating both in this film and in the culture at large: Who is the criminal and who is the victim? Who is friend and who is foe? Who is lying and who is telling the truth? Where is the line between image and identity? Who is a man and who is a woman?
Public reactions to the murder of Brandon are tied to the above questions, but especially with the issue of deception and lies. According to Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, makers of the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, "residents of Falls City, the site of Brandon's murder, seemed more concerned with the fact that Brandon lied and misrepresented himself to the women he dated: People would say, 'She lied and no one should do that.' The lying was a big thing" (Yabroff). In the same interview, Muska notes that "the people involved didn't treat the murders as anything remarkable--it was all rationalized into something they could understand. In their eyes the murderers were nice guys" (Yabroff). Brandon's deception is fundamental to understanding the public representation of both his life and his death. The idea that someone could lie about something as seemingly fundamental as gender becomes an issue almost impossible to surmount and a question that continues to plague both the life and the death of Brandon. In addition, the effect of Brandon's misrepresentation on the women he dated is also at stake. Once revealed, Brandon's "secret" leaves these women open to charges of lesbianism. The media and the public were unable to answer the question of how Brandon's girlfriends were fooled. Muska's explanation of the unexplainable probably comes as close to the truth as any: "I think it's fair to say they suspended their disbelief because Brandon was such a great guy" (Yabroff). In order to rationalize the murders both the press and the public had to turn "such a great guy" into a monster, albeit a "nice" one: someone who is misguided, psychologically disturbed, a liar, and a thief. These circumstances begin to overwhelm the representation of Brandon and distract from the central issue that one of the fundamental categories of human organization was wholly and successfully violated.
The reaction of the Falls City townspeople, and society in general, to Brandon and the murder comes from a belief in the immutability of gender. A cursory look at mainstream film and television suggests that when gender lines are crossed they are often crossed in a visible and marked manner. Ultimately, the secret is an open secret. It is a part of the entertainment "image," and as entertainment it remains at a suitable and acceptable distance from "real" life. Mainstream cross-dressers such as RuPaul, an individual who has achieved celebrity status as a "drag queen," never attempt to pass as the opposite sex but instead are recognizably "in drag." Other mainstream cross-dressers include such figures as Annie Lennox and Boy George, who, like RuPaul, make no attempt to hide their biological sex beneath their cross-gendered appearance and who include gender markers (10) to indicate their biological status. These individuals represent what it means to cross-dress in mainstream America today. There is no secret beneath the masquerade, for everything is out in the open, so to speak. Inasmuch as the closet purports to hide and protect gays and lesbians, it is the closet, it appears, that ultimately brings about the death of Brandon Teena, the unmarked transgender cross-dresser. The film seems to suggest that perhaps this is the fate of those that can and do "pass."
The mainstreaming of Brandon Teena, his evolution into a marked cross-dresser, occurs through the linkage of Brandon with recognizable Hollywood icons such as James Dean and Marion Brando. The poster art for Boys Don't Cry depicts a young man dressed in jeans, belt, and hat, walking down the center of a highway. This image aligns Brandon with the figure of the drifter or the mysterious stranger who wanders into town with no name and no history. This depiction reflects the classic American Western of the Eastwood variety: stranger arrives in town, saves townspeople, and leaves just as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived. Brandon is depicted as literally saving Lana. Through him Lana finds the strength to leave a town in which she is both bored and. With the arrival of Brandon in her life Lana is literally swept off her feet and given a new sense of optimism and sense of self. After all, it is Lana (not Brandon) who escapes at the close of the film, free to explore both self and world as she prepares to live out Brandon's dreams, dreams that have now become her own.
Through the manufacture of Brandon's image as a rebel and an outsider his life is made to fit within the lines of the classic American male coming-of-age story, a story that often comes with a tragic ending. Yet, it is the tragedy itself that captures the hearts and minds of any audience. At the center of the Hollywood male image is the lonely drifter in a never-ending pursuit of home and a sense of belonging and acceptance. Described as a "love hungry pretty boy" (Kort), Brandon comes to reflect, in the mind of the audience and of the media, the fates of iconic rebels like Dean and Brando, figures who portray a masculinity that is wild, excessive, and out of bounds. Signifying unrealized potential (Dean) or loss (Brando), they crash and burn early or fail simply through the inability to retain their youthful image. Brando is a failure because he succumbed to old age, losing both his looks and his lean masculinity, while Dean and Brandon, through their own excessiveness, die prematurely and violently.
The significance of Brandon's life and death is given a wider perspective in American culture when Pierce locates him within the image of the male Hollywood hero of a bygone film era: "Brandon actually embodies many traits of the traditional Hollywood hero. He had the innocence and tenderness of Montgomery Clift in Red River or a young Henry Fonda, the naive determination of Jimmy Stewart. He was a rebellious outsider like James Dean, a shy and courtly gentleman around women like Gary Cooper." Pierce's comments show how she has worked to combine the erotic wildness of a James Dean with the gentle and non-threatening persona of a Gary Cooper or even, perhaps, a Leonardo Dicaprio. I believe that Pierce is attempting to locate Brandon's masculinity within a register that is familiar and identifiable to a mainstream audience, an audience that might potentially be repelled by the embodiment of masculinity within a female body.
In contemporary American culture, women who dress in male clothing (without obscuring their sexual or gender identity) are often erotized, perhaps explaining the link Pierce establishes between Brandon and cinema icons like Dean, Clift, and Brando. The masculinity that Brandon is associated with is an erotic masculinity, one that forms the basis of heterosexual female fantasy. Described as "charismatic" and "courtly," Brandon's rave reviews focus on the impression he left with his various teenage lovers. The issues of sex, gender, and sexuality are erased in favor of love, romance, and the way Brandon treated the women he dated. It appears that Hollywood has found another ladies man, one who apparently charms young women on the screen as well as in life.
According to Pierce, "younger women have confessed that they loved the sex scenes and that the scenes made them consider crossing over and was that my intention." Pierce's intention is, I believe, to form an identification between Brandon and a mainstream, largely heterosexual audience: Pierce notes that "Even though Brandon was in many ways a traditional hero who would do anything to get and keep the girl, we still had our doubts about whether he would be accessible to a mainstream audience. He was, after all, still a biological girl passing as a boy." The identification that Pierce creates between Brandon and the audience erases his queer identity and any transgressive potential that a transgender figure might offer in terms of opening up a play of sexual and gender identities. Brandon is made into just another film star, another male hero in a long line of Hollywood stars, each offering up the same version of heterosexual love and romance, sex and desire. How is queer understood in the context of this film? According to Pierce, Brandon is a queer character with the queer erased: "we've gained a wonderful queer character whom most people are able to see as wonderful without having to add 'queer'" (Pierce). Is it possible to have a "queer" character with the "queer" erased? Perhaps. For a mainstream audience, the concept of queer is compromised yet, at the same time, no matter how Brandon Teena is represented, he is still a transgender female-to-male and, for a brief time, passes successfully as a man. Perhaps the power of Brandon and the cultural fascination with his story are also linked to the fact that the queerness of Brandon can never be totally erased, that behind all efforts of the filmmakers and the audience to fit Brandon into a recognizable register, he ultimately defies explanation.
Although mainstream cultural texts have no place for the ambiguous or the different, the fact remains that the other is still present, an interrupting (and disruptive) force in the bright realm of the heteronormative. What then is most transgressive, that which passes or that which can be seen and recognized as other? Herein rests the problem: to pass is a transgressive act. Yet, it is an act that goes unrecognized and poses no threat to the heteronormative sex/gender system. On the other hand, that which is recognizable runs the risk of being co-opted by the norm..
It appears that the accessibility of Boys Don't Cry is dependent on the audience's ability to identify with Brandon. This leads me to question exactly whom mainstream audiences are being led to identify with. According to Pierce, they are identifying with Brandon as an embodiment of Hollywood maleness and masculinity: Brandon as a "new Hollywood movie star." This confusion about how to identify Brandon comes through in several reviews of the film that variously describe it as a "tragic romance with strong Romeo and Juliet connections," an exploration of "the contradictions of American youth and identity," and "biography, crime, gay, thriller." One reviewer even notes a flaw in the film: "one disadvantage of a film based on a true story is that many people who know the story therefore know the ending. since stories worthy of being a movie are so often about their resolution" (11) For this person, knowledge of Brandon's death destroys the film's entertainment quality and ruins any potential suspense this drama could create for its audience.
The contradiction and the tension created by a queer and a mainstreamed version of Brandon is further exemplified when Pierce merges "Brandon" with actress Hilary Swank. According to Pierce, Hilary Swank is the living representative of Brandon Teena. In an interview, Pierce describes her reaction while watching Swank accept the Golden Globe award: "It suddenly dawned on me that Brandon had seeped into the Hollywood arena and thereby the American mainstream when I saw him walk up on stage--still embodied by the wonderful Hilary Swank--and accept the Golden Globe on national television" (Pierce). This act blurs the identity of Brandon with that of the actress portraying him. What are the consequences of merging the identity of Brandon with that of Hilary Swank? Which "Brandon" is Pierce actually referring to here?
Finally, however, both mainstream and gay/lesbian media, like the film, work to normalize and explain Brandon's life, gender, and sexuality in terms that mainstream culture can recognize and understand. Boys Don't Cry rationalizes both Brandon and the murders, explaining Brandon as a confused, closeted lesbian and the murderers as violent and intolerant "white trash." I think it is important to remember, however, that, despite these easy stereotypes, Brandon Teena, a transgender character in a contemporary film about sexuality, gender, and a sensational small-town murder, is no cartoon or caricature. Instead, Boys Don't Cry offers a sobering warning about the consequences of being different in straight society. Since the 1960s, when society began to recognize the presence of gays and lesbians, mainstream depictions of lesbians took an ominous turn: "the dykes became predatory and dangerous. Lesbians were still creatures to be conquered or defeated, but now viciously so, as though they were other men" (Russo 154). Although Brandon can in no way be called predatory or dangerous, his lying and arrogance are offered and accepted in many quarters as sufficient cause for the fear and anger he produces in the town of Falls City, Nebraska. And, as in prior representations of trans characters in film, Brandon is viciously conquered and defeated. Is Boys Don't Cry just another homosexual horror show? According to Vito Russo, "Mainstream films about homosexuality are not for gays. They address themselves exclusively to the majority. How should 'we' (society) react to 'them' (me)?" (325). I think Russo's assessment must be considered when addressing the representation of what can be broadly labeled "queer" (or identified as a queer presence) in mainstream film. Boys Don't Cry is addressed to the majority and asks a similar question as that posed by Russo. The message that comes through for queer viewers is one of increased caution: Pushing the envelope of gender and/or sexuality holds the possibility of violence, police incompetence and inaction, and media sensationalism. Lastly, it must be noted that throughout the film as well as the Muska/Olafsdottir documentary The Brandon Teena Story, there is a not so subtle suggestion that indicates a murder such as this could only happen in a conservative state such as Nebraska. Media accounts of the film and the events surrounding the murders neither refer to Brandon as transgendered nor do they cite the numerous acts of violence committed against transgender and transsexual individuals every year in all areas of the United States, including places as diverse as San Francisco and New York.
* I would like to thank Gwendolyn Foster (University of Nebraska, Film Studies) for many hours of conversation on all aspects of queer cinema and for her ongoing feedback, encouragement and support of my work.
(1) Pierce, Kimberly. "Brandon Goes to Hollywood." Advocate. 28 Mar. 2000.
(2) Most notable is the debate that covered three issues of Screen: Halberstam, Judith "The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don't Cry." Screen. 2001 Autumn; 42 (3): 294-98; Henderson, Lisa. "The Class Character of Boys Don't Cry. Screen. 2001 Autumn; 42 (3): 299-303; Brody, Jennifer DeVere. "Boyz Do Cry: Screening History's White Lies." Screen. 2002 Spring; 43 (1): 91-96; White, Patricia. "The Boys Don't Cry Debate: Girls Still Cry." Screen. 2001 Summer; 42 (2): 217-21.
(3) Brandon Teena's birth name was Teena Brandon. Throughout part of his adult life he chose to go by the name Brandon and lived as a male. In deference to that choice I will use both the name Brandon Teena and the masculine pronoun when referring to him.
(4) Films that portray the transgender character as disturbed and dangerous include Psycho, Dressed to Kill, The Silence of the Lambs, and Freebie and the Bean.
(5) See also Caprice (1967) starring Doris Day and Ray Walston as a murderous cross-dresser who in turn is killed by Doris Day. Vito Russo, in The Celluloid Closet, describes these films as part of the "kill 'em or cure 'em" climate of the 1960s (162).
(6) There are a large number of films that, like Yentl and Just One of the Guys, create what Chris Straayer, in Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies, calls the "temporary transvestite." The temporary transvestite film has characters cross-dress usually for purposes of disguise. Since many of these films are also romantic comedies the cross-dressed character returns to "normal" garb and a heterosexual pairing. Straayer includes such films as Victor/Victoria, Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Queen Christina as just a few examples of the temporary transvestite film.
(7) See Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity for an extended discussion of the butch lesbian in film.
(8) An early example of a butch lesbian appears in Robert Altman's The Killing of Sister George (1968). The lead character, June Buckridge (Beryl Reid), loses her part as Sister George on a BBC soap opera. June's crime is that she is a "loud, aggressive, butch lesbian" (Russo 171). June is progressively pushed back into the closet and punished for her overt lesbianism. According to Russo, the "only options are invisibility, assimilation, or ostracism" (173). I would add death to Russo's list of options for butch lesbians. Bound is an exception to this rule but, stereotypes also prevail in this film.
(9) Listed here are just a few of the newspaper and magazine articles discussing the life and murder of Brandon Teena. In addition to wide media coverage the murder also inspired a true crime thriller by Aphrodite Jones, All She Wanted: A True Story of Sexual Deception and Murder in America's Heartland. New York: Pocket Books, 1996; Bunn, Austin. "Fanning the Fame." Village Voice 21 July 1998:33.; Carr, Jay. "Denial and Death in Falls City." Boston Globe 15 January 1999: D7; Dunne, John Gregory. "The Humboldt Murders." New Yorker 13 Jan. 1997: 45-62; Holden, Stephen. "A Rape and Beating, Later 3 Murders and Then the Twist." New York Times 23 Sept. 1998: 5; Konigsberg, Eric. "Death of a Deceiver." Playboy Jan. 1995:92-94, 193-199; Minkowitz, Donna. "Love Hurts." Village Voice 19 April 1994: 24-30; Taubin, Amy. "Splitting Image." Village Voice 29 Sept. 1998: 128.
(10) RuPaul is open about his gay sexuality and his status as a female impersonator. Performers such as Annie Lennox will vary their appearance, sometimes androgynous and sometimes feminine.
(12) Reviews quoted from Upcomingmovies.com
Bartky, Sandra Lee. "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power." The Politics of Women's Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. Ed. Rose Weitz. New York: New York UP, 1998.25-45.
Brandon Teena Story. Dir. By Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir. Zeitgeist Films, 1998.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
De Lauretis, Teresa. "The Violence of Rhetoric: On Representation and Gender." Roger N Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo Eds. The Gender Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. New York: Routledge, 1997. 265-278.
Dory, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.
Kort, Michele. "Gone too Soon: The Brandon Teena Story." Advocate.com. 15 Mar. 2000. <http//:www.advocate.com>.
Pierce, Kimberly. "Brandon Goes to Hollywood." Advocate. 28 Mar. 2000.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York, Harper and Row, 1987.
Soloman, Alisa. "Not Just a Passing Fancy: Notes on Butch." Theater 24.2 (1993): 35-46.
Straayer, Chris. Deviant Eyes Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Weiss, Andrea. Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Yabroff, Jennie. "Documentary Filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir Talk About the Story Behind 'The Brandon Teena Story.' Salon.com. 15 March, 2000. <http//:www.salon.com>.