Back to 1999: How trans folks negotiate the complicated legacy of Boys Don't Cry, 20 years later
The Oscar-winning film may have been pioneering, but at what cost to the community it represented?
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Throughout 2019, this column has occasionally looked back at the landmark year 1999 was for LGBTQ representation on film from my personal perspective. And while any retrospective on said year in terms of LGBTQ film would certainly feel incomplete without the inclusion of Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, I'm not exactly sure it's my perspective that warrants much of anyone's time in that regard. As it did for many cisgender LGB people, Boys Don't Cry certainly made an impact on me: it was essentially my introductory text to transgender identity issues. But a much more imperative conversation is the impression it had — and continues to have — on the community it was something of a pioneer in representing.
Boys Don't Cry centres on the real-life story of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), a trans man who becomes a victim of a brutal hate crime in the midst of a search for both himself and love (with Chloë Sevigny's Lana Tisdel) in small-town Nebraska. Released at a time when mainstream conversations about transgender identity and issues were basically either non-existent or very problematic, the fact that Boys Don't Cry went on to win Swank an Oscar and make $20 million (off a $2 million budget) was a very big deal at the time...but at what cost, exactly?
20 years later, it's hopefully not hard for anyone paying attention to see where some major problem areas lie. Boys Don't Cry was written and directed by a cisgender woman and starred one in its lead role. It featured brutal and graphic physical and sexual violence, excessive at best and traumatic at worst. And while it may have been pioneering in its representation of trans identity, that representation is arguably flawed and limited in its scope.
Considering all this from a 2019 lens is obviously complicated. So this week's column opens things up to trans folks with various relationships to the movie so we can all try to understand what the legacy of Boys Don't Cry has become from the perspectives that really matter.
Lucas Silveira, musician
I waited to watch Boys Don't Cry until after it was released on video. I was one of the too few who knew of Brandon Teena's story before it came out, and I was concerned it would be too traumatic to watch in a public setting. I made the right decision.
The first time I'd heard of Brandon was on the trashy Geraldo Rivera daytime talk show. I was 12. The guests were his girlfriend, her mom and the two men who raped and murdered him. They appeared via satellite from prison.
Not only was this the first I'd heard of Brandon, it was also the first time I'd heard of anyone who was like me: a boy, born a girl. So of course I was riveted but also horrified by the circumstances of his death and subsequently traumatized by everything I had just seen.
This was my first and only representation of trans men in the mainstream media until once again his story surfaced when it was made into a movie.
When I watched Boys Don't Cry, I still wasn't out as trans. I'd actually repressed who I was so deeply that I believed I was just a lesbian. Part of that repression was due to hearing Brandon's story on that show; I figured if that was the result of telling someone your truth, then I'd be better off hiding for the rest of my life.
When I watched the movie, it brought up more than I could chew. I recall being in a deep state of paralytic fear throughout the film as I watched Hilary Swank doing what I thought was a brilliant job of portraying Brandon.
Many people had issues with Swank playing him as she was not trans identified. I never did and still don't — reason being is that it was 1999 and to be an openly trans male actor would have meant dire consequences for the man who did it. I believe it would have destroyed their life. My main concern, always, with any member of my community is safety. And Brandon's story is one of the reasons why I hold that space inside me.
I know the movie wasn't perfect. I know the director wasn't either. But awareness of our existence was next to nil at the time. I feel the director did the best job she could with the knowledge she had at the time. For me, what I came out of that movie with was that Brandon's story had been told, and that was vindication for me on a very personal level. It also created mainstream awareness that trans men existed. The reality is that still even now, most cis people — and even some queers — are under the impression that only trans women exist. Hard to believe but it's true.
I watched Boys Don't Cry once. I most likely will never watch it again — not because I don't respect the film but because for me, as someone whose body felt so much fear due to the initial knowledge of Brandon's story, I feel it would be too overwhelming. But I feel it should be a film everyone watches simply to witness what the power of hate can do and how it can destroy the light of someone simply trying to live their truth.
Anna Daliza, writer and model
When I was very young, I would go into town with my parents on Sundays to rent movies. On the few occasions we brought home a Hilary Swank flick, I remember my dad remarking on how beautiful she was. Suffice to say we had never brought home Boys Don't Cry. And in more recent years, I've avoided it based on my friends' cautions. But I watched it today for the first time.
I wanted to hate Boys Don't Cry for the decision to cast a cis woman as a transmasculine person. But stronger than my disappointment in Hilary Swank's futile effort to honour Brandon Teena is my feeling of being horrified at what I just watched. I can't remember the last time a movie made me nauseous. The true story of Brandon Teena is horrific, but the garish brutalization and ultimate massacre of Brandon was the portrayal only a cis director would choose. In its fetishization of trauma, this movie might inspire an ounce of cis people's sympathy, but has the potential to (dare I use the buzzword) trigger trans people.
You could reduce my harsh judgment to the fact that I've been spoiled with more dynamic and positive portrayals of trans characters both in films and tv shows — I need not even mention the likes of current shows like Pose and the impact they have on our community. However, for argument's sake, back in 2001, just two years after the premiere of Boys Don't Cry, Silas Howard — a transmasculine director — made By Hook or By Crook. Films like his, directed by and starring queer actors, always convey more authentically the stories of the lives of trans people.
Boys Don't Cry might have at one time meant something to trans people, but in my opinion there are better films to fill its place in the queer film canon.
W.M. Martin, microbiologist
Boys Don't Cry was the only game in town. As a young person questioning their gender identity, I had systematically watched nearly every film I could find featuring trans women. Trans men-led media was much harder to come by. I don't remember if I even made it the whole way through Boys on the first pass. The film seemed very dark, both in cinematography and in story, and I had enough darkness in my life already. Not to say that I couldn't later relate to its portrayal of performed toughness or the exploration of masculinity. However, I can never ignore that fact that, at his core, Brandon's character is a liar. He lies about his family, his past and his legal circumstances. I have spent much of my adult life with an ever-present fear of being labelled a liar. Once transgender people are seen as liars or "traps," we are much more likely to be killed — as the film so graphically depicts — and reinforcing this stereotype on screen isn't helpful. I haven't come out of my viewings of Boys feeling empowered or represented, just more afraid.
Caden Mark Gardner, film critic
I saw Boys Don't Cry when I was not supposed to be up — and not at a suggested age to watch a hard R-rated film. I was 10 years old and it was an early Saturday morning. I was up before my parents were. I did not seek it out; it was a product of channel-surfing. I watched about the last 75% of it, so it took a moment to realize what it all was and that the character of Brandon Teena was based on a real person. Now at age 10, I knew there was "something up" with me but did not have the language nor the image of who I was then. I cannot really say this film impacted my trans journey; if anything, it felt like something that was just there, in the way seeing a trans person on Sally Jesse Raphael or Jerry Springer's TV shows were — something where I would just feel bad from watching it.
I would watch the whole film years later with more of an understanding of who I was, and with that came a lot more frustration and irksomeness after being told — all from cis people — this was the best film we had to offer on a trans male story. Boys Don't Cry was made for and by cis people who were seeing a trans character for the first time. Any trans resonance about the film — that I do not deny does exist — was not what the filmmakers had in mind. I simply believe that to be the case and no amount of contradictory Kimberly Peirce interviews over the years can change my confidence that Peirce, her crew and her producers really thought of trans men like Brandon or myself as the audience during the filming of it.
Brandon as rendered in the film — who, I will note, is pretty different from the Brandon Teena that I have familiarized myself with, due to finding the film lacking — gets a classic sympathetic but reckless outsider-turned-victim portrayal that is hardly a revolutionary or original concept. Sure, it was true — but "based on a true story" true, where the film leaves out a lot about Brandon's romantic history and simplifies his gender identity to just be a series of mirror shots and dress-up, not to mention that the film was based largely on a piece in The Village Voice that author Donna Minkowitz admits to botching and mistreating Brandon's transness. Nonetheless, I can see why people then and people now still think it is valuable in trans representation. It "humanizes," albeit so often in a typical reductive "trans narrative" way: our humanity is earned posthumously and after brutality in the forms of sexual and physical violence. Boys Don't Cry is still, by default, the most well-known film of a trans male lead 20 years later — which should be considered more damning than praiseworthy.
ZacKey Lime, drag king, House of Kings
As a non-binary, "FTM" transmasculine person, I did not need to watch this film. The first half is long and tedious, the second half tragic and humiliating. This film does not deepen understanding of myself or of the world around me. I don't need to see violence and humiliation on a screen to know that it exists. But maybe cis people did; maybe they still do. As the only FTM-focused film of its kind and especially during its time, Boys Don't Cry was as a bridge to let cis people sympathize with a likeable character and gave them an opportunity to acknowledge a trans experience. Ironic how all the positive aspects of this film have to do with cis people learning...perhaps that's because it was directed by a cis woman with another cis woman playing the lead. Suffice it to say that though this film has not aged well, it will always be cornerstone in the history of trans representation in mainstream media.
Who's your audience? This is a key question for every artist, and Boys Don't Cry is the example I often use. I don't know many queers who've watched that movie. I don't know that we need to — we've lived it. I watched it; I don't need to again. I remember the man who came with a gun to my house in Rock Creek to shoot me. We don't need a film to relive that trauma.
Who does need to see Boys Don't Cry? Straight people — but to see it as witnesses, not as spectators. Boys Don't Cry can slide into that long tradition of tragic narratives where we get to be seen as long as we are killed in the end. Vivek Shraya's work Trauma Clown comes to mind, as she asks: "What is it about the suffering of marginalized bodies that's so appealing?"
Still, we need straight people to witness it, most of whom have no idea the kind of courage it takes every day for us to just walk out our front doors. And straight-passing LGB folks need to see it too — and I'm leaving off the T, the 2S and the Q here very deliberately. Because we know. We already know.