Boys Don't Cry by Kimberly Pierce Essay

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Boys Do Cry: Hilary Swank and the Politics of a Pronoun," Jean Bobby Noble discusses the movie Boys Don't Cry and the real-life events behind the movie. Noble approaches the movie by focusing on Teena Brandon's masculinity. In fact, Noble places the film within a broader cultural context, which examines the idea of female masculinity. There is some notion of masculinity connected with lesbianism, even in lesbians who do not consider themselves masculine. However, Brandon, as depicted in the movie, did not consider himself to be a lesbian, he considered himself a transgendered person. The mere choice of pronoun, which was a central part of the film, is something to be considered and forms a central part of Noble's discussions of the film. Like the movie itself, Noble's article discusses the fact that society does not have the appropriate terminology to discuss people like Teena Brandon, born as members of one gender, but considering themselves to be part of a different gender. For the purposes of this article, Brandon will be referred to as "he," because, as depicted in the film, that is the identity that Brandon would have preferred. Noble's article focuses on the depiction of gender in the film, and also the depiction of gender with the real life characters outside of the film. Noble also discusses the role that class plays, both in the film and in the controversy with the real life people that inspired the story, but this review will focus solely on the gender issues without delving into the relationship of gender and class.

A film critic reviewing Boys Don't Cry lamented that Brandon had left behind no text (Noble p.142). Noble disagrees with that proposition. Instead, she believes that Brandon left behind an abundance of text. Noble had problems with even finding a pronoun for the use in her article, because giving a gendered pronoun evokes a text associated with that pronoun. "To refer to [Brandon] as 'he, Brandon Teena,' is to surely evoke one text- Brandon as a boy, as a heterosexual boy- an assignation dramatically different from 'she, Teena Brandon,' lesbian passing as a boy; or 's/he Teena Brandon' butch dyke; or 'he Billy Teena,' the 'trailer park Romeo,' all actual names that this subject used at different times in his and/or her young life" (Noble p.143). Depending on how someone choices to view Brandon, helps shape the narrative of the storyline. Furthermore, from Noble's perspective, if someone in commentary chooses a gendered representation of Brandon then they limit the ways that people might perceive that perspective, and, given that Brandon was not so self-limiting, doing that changes the discourse about the movie and about his life.

There is really no way to disagree with Noble's perspective. Brandon's gender is a significant factor in the movie and how Brandon's gender was interpreted played a huge role in the film. Whether Brandon was Teena the girl or Brandon/Billy the boy helps dictate how others responded to the character. Interestingly enough, Noble points out that the film opens with a scene that highlights the ambiguity about Brandon's gender:

In an early scene in the film, for example, Brandon, who is already passing as male, defends a potential love interest against the unwanted advances of a very large man in a bar. Seconds before the man throws the first punch at Brandon, he yells, 'You got to be kidding, you little fag!' The confused epithet marks Brandon as a site where queer identities, unbeknownst to the characters in the narrative, come full circle to a dialogic heterosexuality; it also marks Brandon's success at creating a verisimilitude of soft heterosexual masculinity, an identify overdetermined as failed masculinity (Noble p.144).

What Noble maintains is that characters like Brandon, which are in what Noble refers to as a no-man's land between masculinity and femininity, male masculinity becomes the defining point. She says that "in the No Man's Land between lesbian masculinity, trans-sexual masculinity, and (for lack of a better term, where that 'lack' is significant) 'male masculinity' subjects only temporarily secure by evoking and then repudiating one of the others" (Noble p.144). One sees Brandon repudiating the other identities repeatedly throughout the movie. Though otherwise depicted as a petty thief, the scene in which Brandon is stealing tampons, an item he could be purchasing for someone else, evokes the idea of how strongly Brandon does not want to be associated with a woman. Furthermore, the scene in the jail, where Lana comes to visit Brandon and is confused because Brandon has been placed in the women's prison, reveals how critical it is to Brandon to not be considered a female. He has rejected that identity, and his identity as a masculine male depended upon his rejection of that identity. Therefore, it seems difficult to disagree with Noble's overarching thesis, which is that choosing one identity precludes identifying with the other roles.

Of course, the rape scene in the movie may be the most poignant reminder that, ultimately, Brandon was unable to overcome something that he saw as a deficit: being a woman. While rape victims can obviously be male, the rape scene is a vaginal rape. Like other female rape victims, Brandon inevitably has to be experiencing concerns like becoming pregnant by her assailant, a strictly female concern. Despite his attempts to be male, he is subjected to the most violent act that another person can commit to remind someone not only of femininity, but also of the weakness and vulnerability that comes with being female. Fear of rape is, unfortunately, a huge component of what it is to identify as feminine in modern society. Brandon is ultimately unable to define how others view his gender, in the movie. Ultimately, he is punished for not conforming to the local ideals governing femininity.

In the movie, Brandon has very clearly chosen a gender identity; he identifies himself as a male. That he may not have done so in the past is not determinative of his gender identity in the movie. The very nature of transsexuality, when combined with the pressure to conform to community expectations of how men or women should act, almost dictates that a transgendered person will move between gender identities, particularly during his or her youth. The societal pressure is significant; men should act like men and want to sleep with women and women should act like women and want to sleep with men. Therefore, in order to adjust to various social pressures and mounting confusion about gender identity, one would expect a transsexual to exhibit the type of gender ambiguity that the real-life Teena Brandon allegedly demonstrated throughout her life.

While Noble's exploration of Brandon's gender is fascinating, even more interesting is how the movie treats the character Lana's perception of herself, how that is contrasted with the real-life Lana's own descriptions of her behavior, and how that conflicts with Brandon's depictions of himself. At the heart of it, both Brandon and Lana were both lesbians, since they were both engaged in a homosexual relationship with another biological woman. However, the movie does not treat Brandon and Lana as if they have similar gender identities at all. Is this a way that the filmmaker embraces Brandon's transgender identity, or does it reinforce existing stereotypes about butch and femme lesbians? It does seem to track what is known about the real-life Lana. The real-life Lana appeared to maintain that she only had a romantic relationship with Brandon when she was under the belief that he was a male and had been born a male. In the movie, it is clear that Brandon courts Lana as a male and that, at least at the beginning of their relationship, Lana believes that Brandon is a physical male, not a transgendered female. However, in the movie, it is also clear that Lana does discover Brandon's true gender at some point in the movie. At the very least, when Lana visits Brandon in the women's jail, she becomes aware of Brandon's physical gender.

The problem that the movie introduces without directly addressing it is the impossibility of Lana continuing to believe that Brandon was a male. Brandon was transgendered, but there had been no surgeries or hormonal medications to help transform his body to that of a man's. Any sexually active person watching the movie has to question the ability of woman to pass as a man while having sex with a woman. The close intimate contact required in sexuality simply belies the idea that Brandon could have maintained his male identity in any long-term capacity. The movie does address some issues related to that sexuality, showing Brandon simulating having a penis while having sex with Lana. However, that scene does not address the question of whether Lana did or did not know that Brandon was really a biological female; any woman having sex with another woman could engage in the same behavior.

Moreover, does it really matter when Lana became aware that Brandon was a biological female? She… [END OF PREVIEW]

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