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Book Review - Boys Don't Cry
Boys Don't Cry
by Kimberly Peirce (Director)
Twentieth Century Fox, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 21st 2004

The true story of Teena Brandon is a difficult one to portray, as director Kimberly Peirce explains in her DVD commentary to Boys Don't Cry.  It is very hard not to fall into cliché when showing a girl who wants to be a boy, and Peirce wanted to show her life from the inside without imposing external preconceptions onto the role.  From the start of the film, it is clear that Brandon has a male identity, and she is not only dressed as a male right from the start of the film, but she also acts as a male.  She goes through various milestones such as getting in fights with other men over girls and hanging out riding in the back of flatbed trucks holding onto a rope as they go round in circles in a lot.  It is only half an hour into the film that we see Teena get dressed, wrapping up her breasts so they don't show and stuffing her underwear to create a manly bulge.  One of the main reasons the film is so successful is Hilary Swank's incredible performance: she carries off the boyish looks and adopting masculine mannerisms without appearing ridiculous.  Of course, it is an easier transformation than men acting as women, who so often just look like drag queens.  Nevertheless, Swank manages to make it entirely convincing. 

In her commentary, Peirce refers to Brandon mostly as a male.  The relationship between Brandon and Lana is a dangerous one as it becomes more sexual for several reasons.  Most obviously, there's a danger that Lana would realize that Brandon is not a man, although Peirce talks a lot about how Lana knew all along at some level that Brandon was not male, but wanted to hold on to the fantasy that Brandon could be her boyfriend, because he was the perfect boyfriend.  But the more serious danger was from other men, who often tend to react angrily and violently to other men stealing their women.  Men also react violently to men whose masculinity is in question.  So as Brandon's secret starts to come out, Lana's jealous friend John wants to hunt him down.  Eventually Brandon is raped and killed by John and his friends.  The horror of the violence that leads up to Brandon's death is wrenching.

One important dramatic problem Peirce had as director was needing to hold onto the audience throughout the movie, keeping Brandon as a sympathetic character.  It is clear that Brandon did many things that led to getting raped and murdered, but there can't be any suggestion that Brandon brought it on himself.  It certainly seems that some of Brandon's choices weren't so smart: getting involved in petty crime, ending up in prison, and, according to Peirce, not doing well at hiding his female identity.  On the other hand, the violence and intolerance that he experienced was not his fault at all.  The movie is successful in keeping the audience on Brandon's side, and not becoming frustrated with him for taking too many risks or being self-defeating. 

Boys Don't Cry leaves some details rather unclear.  In particular, it doesn't spell out Brandon's psychology.  We do know that Brandon is attracted to women and dresses as a man.  We also get a strong sense that he wants to act like a male and to take on a male identity.  What we don't really find out is to what extent Brandon considered himself a man in some sense.  As far as we can tell, Brandon never thought of himself as a lesbian.  Sometimes female-to-male transsexuals describe themselves as men trapped in a female body, while others say that they want to become men.  Some reject any rigid duality of men and women.  In this movie, we don't find out very much about how Brandon thought of himself or what events were formative in his childhood in creating his self-conception.  That is not a defect of the film, but it is a notable feature.  We know about Brandon's charm and warmth, and we see the love between him and Lana, as well as his behavior as man, and that is enough for us to feel strong empathy for him, but he remains mysterious in some ways. 

There aren't any deleted scenes and the featurette included on the DVD is fairly uninformative, but Peirce's commentary adds a lot to the film.  While it is a depressing and upsetting story, Boys Don't Cry is a strong movie that bears repeated viewing, so this is a DVD worth getting. 

 

Links:

·        FTM International page on Brandon Teena

·        glbtq page on Brandon Teena

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

 

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