By Mavis D'Silva Oct. 22, 2019
When Boys Don’t Cry released in 1999, it started a conversation about the trans community. But the movie is not without its flaws. It is criticised for inaccurate casting – Hilary Swank, a cis straight woman essaying a trans man – and for being ambivalent regarding its protagonist’s trans identity.
Back in 1999, when Kimberly Peirce’s debut film, Boys Don’t Cry released in America, it managed to mainstream a conversation that was often silenced in a world habituated to heterosexuality. It was arguably one of the first commercial films that threw light on the trans community: Based on a true story, it traced the life of a trans man, who was gang-raped and murdered in 1993 after acquaintances learnt of his identity.
Twenty years later, when I watched the life of a 21-year-old Brandon Teena (born Teena Renae Brandon) play out on screen for the first time, I had my reservations about Hilary Swank, a cis straight woman essaying a trans man, aware of the complications of representation that it entailed. Less than 10 minutes into Boys Don’t Cry, my apprehensions had almost vanished. I felt that the actress – sporting a sharp jawline, boyish hairdo, and men’s clothing – convincingly projected the anxieties of a trans man who outwardly wanted to fit in even when he didn’t question his identity himself. Swank’s evocative turn made it clear as day that Brandon Teena was a young male born into a female body, who couldn’t afford an expensive sex reassignment surgery but craved to be seen by the world exactly as he saw himself. In the film, Brandon finds a glimpse of this acceptance or an illusion of it, when he moves out of Lincoln, Nebraska with three complete strangers. Brandon’s spontaneity was presumably an integral part of his personality. It’s this very trait that led him to Falls City where Teena Brandon ceased to exist, birthing a smitten Brandon Teena who meets Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny) and pursues a pivotal romantic relationship with her.
For me, it’s the scene when Brandon and Lana get intimate that spoke volumes about the film’s intentions. Lana remains silent when she notices Brandon’s taped chest, as if saying, “I don’t exactly know your story but we’re in this together now… nothing else really matters.” Something about the moment felt so concrete, like an assurance that there is somebody out there who will care and love you for who you are; who will not demand that you hide yourself. It’s a feeling best articulated in a scene where Lana declares her love for him even after Brandon tries lying to her, telling her that he was born a hermaphrodite.
Even with its flaws, Boys Don’t Cry bore the burden of a torchbearer for depicting an oppressed and underrepresented group of people. Hart-Sharp Entertainment/ IFC Films/ Killer Films
Even with its flaws, Boys Don’t Cry bore the burden of a torchbearer for depicting an oppressed and underrepresented group of people.
Hart-Sharp Entertainment/ IFC Films/ Killer Films
But Brandon’s identity also becomes his downfall. When the rest of his “friends” learn about it, there’s no room for understanding. Instead, there is plentiful of disgust and anger. Two of his friends, Tom and John, get excessively violent while confronting him. Brandon is forced to strip off his pants to reveal his genitals. It’s a disturbing, disorienting sight when they force Lana to look. But it’s also this moment that the film’s gaze pulsates with clarity: It makes the viewer process the lengths that bullies can go to express their repulsion. A fact that is confirmed in a barbaric scene later on where Brandon is dragged to a car, beaten up, and raped. Perhaps, the more inhumane part comes after the act: They dress him up and warn him to keep mum about the rape before they silence him forever.
Like all film adaptations, Boys Don’t Cry too comes with its set of inaccuracies, but the reasons behind its complicated legacy go beyond it. The film is criticised chiefly for being inaccurate in its casting. But 20 years ago, filmmakers weren’t schooled or invested in the significance of representation as keenly as they are now. Today, it might be impossible to ignore that part of the criticism.
Also, its attempt to acquaint the audience with the idea of a trans identity can seem deceptive, especially because the film doesn’t directly label Brandon’s gender and continues to harp on a presumed identity crisis to explain the fact that Brandon identifies as a transgender man. To someone who has never heard of or encountered a person like Brandon, he may simply be termed as a tomboy or butch. The film’s ambivalence regarding Brandon’s trans identity is an undeniable flaw that revealed itself when multiple critics, who praised the movie, its characters and storyline, went on to use incorrect pronouns for Brandon and referred to him as Teena. Some even concluded that Brandon Teena was a lesbian.
Boys Don’t Cry is a reminder of the middle ground, that makes it possible for a film to have two sides to itself: It can be flawed while pointing out a systemic flaw.
Even then, it’d be unfair to apply a 2019 lens to the movie. Even with its flaws, Boys Don’t Cry bore the burden of a torchbearer for depicting an oppressed and underrepresented group of people. It picturised a horrifying act of hate crime that a layman may have necessarily not heard of and gave voice to a community that was often silenced, that had no representation at all.
Despite the criticism, Swank herself, is proud of the movie, even now. In an interview, the actress acknowledges the criticism against the film but also argues its necessity. “…if people knew the outpouring of letters and people on the streets who have come up to me in tears, thanking me for telling their story… I hold on to that,” she said. Riki Wilchins, the founder of GenderPAC, offers another argument in favour of the film’s existence in a WUMM essay, “It’s not fair to go back and apply standards 20 years later that didn’t exist back then. What she [director Peirce] did is a major, major accomplishment. It legitimated and made possible all of these other representations that we’ve had since.”
Twenty years since, perhaps that is the legacy of Boys Don’t Cry. In the time we live in now, you either love a film or you hate it; a film can either be good or bad. Rarely do we see beyond that. In that sense, Boys Don’t Cry is a reminder of the middle ground, that makes it possible for a film to have two sides to itself: It can be flawed while pointing out a systemic flaw. Boys Don’t Cry does exactly that.