I watched Boys Don't Cry again this afternoon. (It was comforting to watch something that had a tangential relationship to school in the midst of my cold - which still is ranging as I type this.) In part, I watched Boys Don't Cry because Judith Halberstam gives it an extensive treatment in her book, In a Queer Time & Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.
Boys Don't Cry was released in 1999. Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for a leading actress for her portrayal of Brandon Teena. Kimberly Pierce, the director, did an earlier version of the film that was released in 1995. This was later expanded using the same title into the award-winning film.
The story of Brandon Teena has received extensive treatment in film and print. In addition to Pierce's films, there is an earlier documentary from 1998, titled, The Brandon Teena Story. In addition, in print, Donna Minkowitz covered the story for the Village Voice bringing it to national prominence, John Gregory Dunne covered it for the New Yorker; Dinitia Smith wrote a novelized version about it and Aphrodite Jones preserved it as a true crime story.
All of these movies and articles came out in a relatively quick time frame from the initial murder of Brandon Teena in 1993. Pierce, who most certainly learned about the story through the work of Donna Minkowitz, released her lower budget version of Boys Don't Cry in 1995. This evolution of a story from the Village Voice to a major Hollywood motion picture is an interesting story in and of itself of cultural production. In addition, the production and performance of this story impacted the gay and lesbian movement profoundly. While inclusion of transgender people and issues were being discussed in 1993 and 1994, by the time the film was released, transgender issues were much more understood by the activist community, there were new, nascent organizations to serve transgender people from a service and advocacy perspective, and the nomenclature of the movement was more T inclusive than it had been in 1993. Thus, for me, two parts of the stories of Boys Don't Cry include the cultural production of the story and it's impact on the GLBT movement. Into this milieu enters Judith Halberstam to make her intervention in 2005.
Viewing the film today, I was struck not by the gender transgression. I don't remember being struck by it in my initial viewings of the film either. Perhaps that is because I was familiar with the story both from a narrative perspective as well as the determined significance that it had in the GLBT activist community at the time. What I was struck by in the film today were the class issues and the construction of masculinity, not by Brandon, but by the other women in the film.
While Halberstam argues that the film creates a "transgender gaze," I found the film much more about a female gaze of a transgendered body, known and unknown. Halberstam writes, "In deploying the transgender gaze and binding it to an empowered female gaze in Boys Don't Cry, director Pierce, for most of the film, keeps the viewer trained on the seriousness of Brandon's masculinity and the authenticity of his presentation as opposed to its elements of masquerade." (p. 89.) Halberstam continues with her argument that Pierce abandons the transgender gaze for a lesbian gaze in the final scenes of the film.
Let me begin with the female gaze of the other women in the film. The first woman viewing Brandon is Candace, who Brandon meets in a bar. Candace's interaction with Brandon is counterpointed wtih Candace's interaction with another, older man who approaches her at the bar. Brandon, who has already told his gay male cousin that women like him as a man because he cares for them, when held up next to the older, heterosexual man, is clearly winner from a desire perspective in the heterosexual female gaze. The ensuing scene the next morning with Candace and her child, Brandon again performs his masculinity, not from his perspective, but from the perspective of Candace and her desires for a male partner.
There is a moment in the film where Lana's Mom looks intense at Brandon. There is that sense of fear and dread that crept into me that Brandon would be discovered. He wasn't. The heterosexual female desire for a decent man who is kind and caring transcends generations in the film. It is wanted by both Candace and Lana as well as Lana's mom. Some of the scenes with Lana's mom during the discovery that Brandon is not the man that he presents invite speculation as to her responses, as an older woman, to the situation. Moreover, her inability to act to stop the violence against Brandon and Candace angered me. I expected Lana's mom to have some sort of agency in adulthood to intervene in the rage and confusion that her adolescent and post-adolescent children and their friends experienced. She did not have that agency in real life and Pierce emphasizes it in the film.
Finally, there is the heterosexual female gaze of Lana, which Halberstam argues is transmogrified into a lesbian gaze at the conclusion of the film. First, if that is the case, it is a powerful commentary on the state of lesbianism (the Brandon Teena story happened the very year that the happy lesbian couple graced the cover of Newsweek magazine) that lesbians are more acceptable for the gaze to revert. Second, I think that Lana is as conflicted about her gaze as the viewer. She first wants to swear to her family that Brandon is male. She says, I know what you are, as though she can see his real self. When she is forced to look at the naked Brandon she seems to respond more to the violence of the situation than to the revelation of Brandon's genitalia. Overall, I think that Lana's gaze is created by her as an adolescent female presumed to be heterosexual. Perhaps she wouldn't be; perhaps she was a lesbian; perhaps she was a heterosexual who would in the future partner with a metrosexual male. In the film, however, she is a young woman experiencing sex for the first time. Either way I think it is her gaze in which Piece invests for the film.
The other element of the film that struck me so powerfully today was its portrayal of working class people. particularly working class older adolescents. One element of the film is the constant discussions of how to make money and how to make a life that is outside of the lives of their parents in Nebraska. At one point, Lana says after noting that the only thing she likes to do is Karaoke, "Can you make money doing Karaoke?," and Brandon responds, "People make money doing all sorts of things." In addition to presenting a vision of masculinity that these young women connect to, Brandon presents a vision of economic self-sufficiency that is away from the economic dead-end of Nebraska. I think that gender and class are so intimately intertwined in Boys Don't Cry; almost to the degree that I find it difficult to separate what is more significant to the women in the film--the tenderness of Brandon's masculinity or the possibilities that Brandon envisions for economic independence.
I think that part of Halberstam's project in In a Queer Time and Place is to establish the transgender person as an answer to feminist critiques of gender; for Halberstam, the transgender body is the liberation of the person from the constraints of gender. She wants Pierce to take that view and present that vision through her film. However, I think that is too prescriptive for the film, and for the broader transgender community. While Halberstam's readings of the transgender bodies as interesting exceptions to the system of gender hegemony, they are also contextualized exceptions. Moreover, I think that there is a disconnect between Halberstam's reading of transgender bodies and presentations and the lives that transgender people live.
The experience of living as a transgendered person has changed in the intervening years between Brandon Teena's death and Halberstam's book. In many ways for the better, although clearly there is still an intense social anxiety about transgender people. Still there are more role models for transgender people. However, the lived experience of transgender people is, I believe, increasingly one of more entrenchment of gender binaries as opposed to breaking open the gender hegemony. I think that Halberstam's analysis does not take this into account. Yet it may the critique of hindsight as opposed to the work of creation.
I'm including three items below. First, the Village Voice review of Boys Don't Cry by Michael Musto. Then an action alert from GLAAD in which they encouraged people to contact The New Yorker about Dunne's article, "The Humboldt Murders" (not available online, but in the library on microfilm). Halberstam takes this article to talk mightily as well. Finally, I found online what I believe is the original article on Brandon Teena from Donna Minkowitz. It does not correspond to Halberstam's citiation, but her citation of Dunne's article was incomplete as well.
Copyright 1999 VV Publishing Corporation
Village Voice (New York, NY)
October 5, 1999, Tuesday
SECTION: Film; Pg. 212
LENGTH: 883 words
HEADLINE: INDIE FIRST-TIMER KIMBERLY PEIRCE: FAST, CHEAP, AND IN CONTROL,
BYLINE: michael musto
Murdered nonconformist Brandon Teena has become a transgressive icon of daring and ambiguity, a poster person for the gender rebel as misunderstood victim. A biological female, Brandon not only passed as a boy, he (as Brandon's often called) wowed the ladies with tender lovemaking that made him a better straight man than the ''real'' ones. When his secret got out, the girls stayed true, the guys became violent, and the legend was cemented.
Kimberly Peirce, the director-coscreenwriter of the new Teena flick Boys Don't Cry, is more of a clear-cut entity. She's an out lesbian and a total woman who talks in a rat-tat-tat style, with an inexhaustible clarity. She also runs a very tight ship, and admits, ''Absolute creative control is my number one goal because that's the only way to protect the movie.'' But on the set of an indie, she says, ''everything's changing in front of you. You say, 'Let's shoot the merry-go-round scene,' and someone says, 'But there's no merry-go-round!'''
I had a brief ride myself when I was warned that someone behind the scenes was worried I might do a ''crazy article.'' Peirce told me she never said that, only that she was afraid she'd have to tell me gossip. In our talk, she gracefully patched things up, ultimately giving me hints of gossip anyway.
Her movie--shot in 30 days in and around Dallas--zeroes in on the relationship between Brandon (Hilary Swank) and Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny), who fell for the idealistic drifter, only to have the local thugs mess with their fairy tale. The pace is at times deliberate, but the attention to detail pays off when the dark story kicks in and the film emerges as a distinctively acted powerhouse. In contrast to the acclaimed '98 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Peirce says, ''I got to have a real character. Instead of repeating the facts, I got to understand why he lived as he did, then bring the audience inside this adventure. I don't think a documentary could do that.'' With typical assurance, she feels her version is realer than the nonfiction one.
Peirce had been working on a thesis about a woman who posed as a man during the Civil War when she read about Brandon's tragedy in '93. Fixated, she went to Falls City, Nebraska, where she attended the murder trial and, along with transsexual author Kate Bornstein, visited the farmhouse where Brandon was killed. ''This was a trailer-park girl who didn't have role models or economic means,'' says Peirce, ''but created a fantastic vision of herself.'' Bonding with his own future murderers, Brandon was a hit until he moved in on their turf--nabbing Lana--thereby upsetting the clique's macho stasis. Finding out that Brandon had a vagina was the last straw for these Cornhusker State ex-cons, who proceeded to strip him of his masculinity, his pride, and his being. ''I think Brandon was destined to die, given the way he was living his life,'' says Peirce, sadly.
Peirce hails from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ''which is not unlike Falls City.'' An animator-photographer, she quit college and went to Japan for two years, ''where I had my brain split open by sensation--it's so beautiful.'' In '95, she filmed the Brandon story as a short, having written the script as a Columbia film school graduate thesis. For the feature-film lead, she interviewed every butch lesbian and transgender actor she could find, but not men or male-to-females, insisting that the base person should be a biological woman, ''because that's what Brandon was.'' Alas, most females wanted no part of it in '96--one gay actress was afraid the sex scenes would reveal her as a lesbian--''but in '98, after Ellen, there was a proliferation of gay images and it wasn't a stigma anymore. We were flooded by the agencies--but it didn't help because none of these girls knew what it was to be a butch.''
In came an audition tape of a young woman in a cowboy hat, with a sock in her pants, a cut on her lip, ''and that face and those eyes,'' beams Peirce. Tori Spelling? ''No, Kate Winslet,'' she laughs. Actually, it was ex--Beverly Hills 90210--er Hilary Swank, who makes a stunningly cute boy and a charismatic enigma. Swank wore the same outfit to a live audition in New York, which she flew to at her own expense. ''I strapped and packed, as they call it,'' relates Swank, who came to know Peirce as ''a very smart woman, very articulate and passionate, with a strong vision.'' Swank's take on Brandon? ''People are either magnetized or threatened by a person living their dream, and they the killers were threatened.'' Swank doesn't rule out that at least one of them was attracted to Brandon--as a woman, that is.
The film's crux is the rape/murder scene, which Peirce recut no less than seven times. ''I wanted it to be perfect,'' Peirce says. ''I wanted to show the mechanics of hatred--to see from all sides what was pushing into this retaliation of violence against difference. I'm sure that was frightening to the studio. I wrote 10-page memos trying to explain the importance of everything.'' How controlling--in a good way. As for that gossip, does Kimberly Peirce have a lover? No, she confides. ''Who can date a filmmaker? A couple of girls have tried, but I tell them, 'I'm unavailable.' I redefine unavailable.'' Clear enough?
GRAPHIC: Photo: "i wanted to show the mechanics of hate."
Credit: robin holland
LOAD-DATE: October 5, 1999
Brandon Teena Gets Dunne Wrong
take action > glaad alert > archive > 1997 > Brandon Teena Gets Dunne Wrong
January 24, 1997
In the January 13 New Yorker, crime writer John Gregory Dunne wrote "The Humboldt Murders," which examined the 1993 Nebraska murder of Brandon Teena and his two friends. Dunne does not understand Brandon's transgender identity, and describes him as a stereotypical "predatory" butch lesbian. The author insists on referring to Brandon as "her" for most of the piece. "That Teena Brandon (Brandon's birth name) had been able to pass herself off as a man to the officers was not that surprising," Dunne writes. "She was known as Brandon, and as Brandon, she, as he, had declared his love for and slept with a number of women in Falls City and Humboldt." Dunne also seems to point to Brandon's male-identification as "confusion," and "gender disorientation," though by all appearances, it was anything but confused. "She [Brandon] was undereducated, her ambition was limited, and, most important, she was without positive identity." Dunne also tries to speculate as to the source of Brandon's transgender identity: "Then there were stories about how she had been sexually molested by a male relative. It was as if somewhere in this litany of gender uncertainty, rejections by men and furtive molestation there might be an early clue, a first cause, a reason that would make Teena's subsequent ventures across the gender divide easier to accommodate." Dunne refers to many of the women Brandon pursued and dated as "nymphets," and despite the fact that Brandon always vehemently denied he was a lesbian, Dunne refers to him several times as "the butch."
Because Brandon Teena lived in a world where his access to support services and transgender discussions were essentially nonexistent, he was isolated as a transsexual. He repeatedly asserted that he was not a lesbian, which is disregarded. Dunne's labeling of Brandon's constant desire for women and his self-identification as a man a "sexual ambiguity," is nothing more than a rationalization for Dunne's own belief that Brandon was simply a butch lesbian who couldn't accept her sexual orientation. Additionally troublesome is the portrayal of Brandon as a smooth cassanova, a seducer who lured women to his bed and deceived them. This portrait is a hackneyed old stereotype of "predatory" butch lesbians who prey on "feminine" women.
Brandon Teena Was a Woman Who Lived and Loved As a Man
By Donna Minkowitz
April 19, 1994
The Lincoln Journal reported that the deceased was "buried in men's clothing, wearing her favorite cowboy shirt and black cowboy hat." But a day later, a Brandon relative will prod the paper to print a correction stating that the corpse had, in fact, sported "a black-and-white striped shirt purchased in the women's section of a local store." The woman christened Teena Brandon caused even greater consternation when she reversed her own first and last names three years ago. "Keep the faith," [Father Paul] Witt encourages her survivors, "even though you have encountered something that doesn't seem to make any sense." It is unclear whether he's referring to Brandon's murder or her penchant for adopting a male persona and dating women.
Last November, Brandon Teena blitzed into Falls City, a dusty farming community in the southern tip of the state, asking to be introduced to the most attractive women in town—even leafing through a new friend's phone book and requesting that she point out the best-looking girls so Brandon could invite them to "his" birthday party.
Two days after Brandon arrived in Falls City, every teenage and young adult woman in town was after this pool player with the jawline of a Kennedy, who could often be seen in a White Sox jacket and slicked-back hair. To the girls he fancied, Brandon brought perfume, roses, and teddy bears, as well as the cards and love poems other boyfriends were too crude—or too repressed—to send. Sometimes he'd call a limousine to take a girl to work, or, with Elvis-esque extravagance, give a woman his entire paycheck. When it came to making out, Brandon was rated heavenly, and unlike most boys, he never pressured women for sex. (One of his favorite songs was "Shoop," in which women rappers Salt-n-Pepa instruct men to "get your lips wet.")
Every former girlfriend the Voice talked to says Brandon was the best boyfriend they had ever dated: the most alluring suitor and certainly the best lover. No wonder that, both in Falls City and back home in Lincoln, where Brandon had also passed as male, girls were always hanging on his arm. "But when she saw Lana Tisdel," swooned the Chicago Tribune, "Brandon focused exclusively on her."
After they spotted each other at the Kwik Shop, Brandon asked Lana, the most glamorous 19-year-old in this economically depressed town of 5000, out on dates to Hardee's and the movies (where they saw Addams Family Values), and they fell in love in about two weeks. "Brandon was nicer and looked better than any boy I'd ever been with," says Lana, a cool, shy, and soigné blond who met him one evening when she was singing karaoke country-western songs at the Oasis, Falls City's only nightclub. "With a lot of guys around here, it don't matter what the woman wants, but Brandon wouldn't tell a woman to do anything—he asked. He knew how a girl liked to be treated."
Even after Brandon's true gender became known—when she'd been jailed on check-forging charges in late December—Lana stood by her, not an easy thing to do in a town where gossip is the major form of recreation.