Boys Don't Cry Unless Hillary Swank Makes Them
The summer of 2004 was a uniquely cataclsysmic time. Tim McGraw wanted us to live like we were dying, which seemed like a particularly glib demand given the inexplicable escalation of the Iraq War. Despite the location of the WMDs that Raw Dog Dicky Cheney was so excited about remaining a relative mystery, the “shocking” moral turpitude and systemic unethicality of the Enron and WorldComm execs was revealed to us, and their unfolding criminal trials confronted America with the idea that flagrant, unchecked capitalism and monopolization was perhaps, maybe, sorta kinda a bad system. Icons were toppling left and right—from Michael Jackson’s tragically bizarre and excoriating trial by jury and trial by very public humiliation; to Martha Stewart’s sentencing related to a salacious insider trading scandal (to summarize in the words of Ina Garten, “if you can’t make your own intuitions about stocks, illegally store buying them is fine!”). Fucking Shrek had a damn summer sequel in which he beat out The Boy Who Lived having a time in Azkaban, Peter Parker, the hot mom from The Incredibles, snow-apocalypse Jake Gyllenhaal, AND LITERALLY JESUS CHRIST for the number one box office spot in the age when blockbuster films were still a. good and b. relevant. Lil Jon was still raking in his millions two years after instructing us all on how to skeet hither and yon, but decided to destroy our peace of mind yet again by incessantly screaming “YEAH!” at us all summer (and, truly, until we perish, I imagine). And the Summer of 2004 was the peak crisis point of my being a Truly Detestable Thirteen-Year-Old.
Yes, in the Summer of 04, I was a cool 13 going on 30 pounds overweight, in the dawning era of poorly digitized dick pics, when Christina Milan coquettishly demanded that we dip it low and pick it up slow, actions I could not physically achieve in a sexy or even quasi-functional way (actually, scratch that, I excelled at picking things up slowly and doing most things pretty lugubriously). My un-diagnosed bipolar and manic-depression were rearing their Cerberus-esque heads (corresponding with the onset of my mother’s menopause—retroactively, I pity my father having to live through this calamitous time). Whatever vague, laughable semblance of a social life I had, I more or less killed with my crippling anxiety and violent anti-sociability (this is how I talk about myself in interviews now, so I am an exceptional self-promoter). And, to complicate things, I was beginning—gradually and unfathomably awkwardly—to come out as bisexual (except not really in those terms, because that language didn’t really exist, nor was I willing to except any reality that wasn’t dramatically black and white). So, much of my Summer of 04 (I think if I keep repeating this as if it’s a thing, I’ll make fetch happen (ANOTHER SUMMER OF 04 GHOST)) was spent helping my mom cope with her menopausal depression by deciding which of our household knick-knacks might receive the highest appraisal on Antiques Road Show, and pouring myself into every movie I could get my hands on to distract myself from the debilitating depression of waking up and putting on shoes and generally existing.
I certainly binged every movie with the same voraciousness that I binged every single consumable food item in my home—including the aforementioned Harry Potter (on the day it premiered, thank you very fucking much); Spiderman 2 (it is the best and only watchable comic book movie and I stand the fuck by that); the Dawn of the Dead reboot; and the unforgettable, life-changing classic The Grudge. But the Summer of 04 was defined by four films (and outstanding debts to Hollywood Video RIP) that were watched and re-watched and became fundamental to my core being—Mystic River (which, with my uncontrollable attraction to Sean Penn and Laura Linney truly made this a hormone disaster for me); 21 Grams (which, yet again, features my husband Sean Penn and is my favorite film of all time, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR ASKING); Monster (which is a WHOLE situation that I’ll get to here at some point); and, most pertinent to this piece, Boys Don’t Cry. Boys Don’t Cry was not, of course, a film that came out in the Summer of 04 or 2004 at all, but importantly, I watched Boys Don’t Cry obsessively during a summer where I desperately needed some model of queerness and some narrative that wasn’t dominated by heteronormativity (also it’s my fucking blog and I make the damn rules).
Released in 1999, right before the world maybe should’ve ended as predicted from the perfidious Y2K Bug, Boys Don’t Cry is as poetically simple of a story as it is devastatingly gutting. Starring baby versions of Hillary Swank and her two front teeth (as Brandon Teena), Chloe Sevigny (as Brandon’s love interest Lana Tisdel), Peter Sarsgaard (as Lana’s ex, John Lotter), and grown up Alicia Goranson (in her most memorable non-Becky, post-Roseanne role), the film is the dramatic restaging of the final few months of real-life trans-man Brandon Teena.
It is critical, of course, to know who Brandon Teena was, the life he led, and the brutal end of his life that was a result of not only the monstrous hatred and violence of the individuals who murdered him, but legal and medical systems that systemically reinforced the destructive bigotry against trans* and queer people. Born in 1972 in Lincoln, Nebraska (which, in that era, screams FUN for anyone living outside of a heteronormative structure) Brandon Teena was born Teena Renae Brandon—a fact which I only mention because his mother named him after her pet German Shephard, which is some hillbilly, nomenclatural logic that I deeply, deeply understand and resonate with—and raised, alongside his sister, by a single mother after his father passed away. Shockingly, Brandon was described as tomboyish in his youth, and began identifying as male in his early adolescence. After dropping out of his devoutly Catholic high school because of his understandable balking at the school’s rigid policies on homosexuality, abstinence and dress code, Brandon began binding and more demonstrably presenting his gender identity. After a failed attempt to enlist in the military—because, pathetically, the military refused his designation as male—Brandon began working at a gas station and endeavored on his first major relationship with a woman. Brandon started therapy, only to be repugnantly told he was suffering a “gender crisis,” and was never able to seek beneficial counseling for his sexual assault earlier in life.
In 1993, Brendan relocated to Falls City, Nebraska (which, again, sounds like A BUNDLE OF FUN) where he befriended Lisa Lambert, Lana Tisdel, Tom Nissen and John Lotter, and began a romantic relationship with Lana. When Brandon was arrested for forging checks, he was placed in women’s prison—an abundantly common and deplorable practice trans* men and women are forced to endure, which gravely jeopardizes their physical and psychological safety and wellbeing, in addition to erasing their identity. When Lana bailed Brandon out of jail and public records were released erroneously identifying Brandon as female, Brandon’s world immediately and horrifically disintegrated, culminating in his gang rape and consequent murder at the hands of Tom and John (and facilitated by the despicably offensive and fatally negligent work of the sheriff handling the cases). Brandon Teena was murdered at the age of 21 on New Years Eve, 1993.
Boys Don’t Cry focuses on these final months when, perhaps most painfully (and perhaps, to some extent, a bit embellished for the film) Brandon was seeing a glimmer of the life he wanted and knew he deserved—identifying as a man, in a relationship with a woman he seemed to care tremendously for, and, he presumed, free from the castigation and scrutiny and danger. The film not only is superbly-acted—with an Academy Award win for Hillary Swank (for Best Actress, which is, obviously, wildly problematic on certain, specific levels), an Academy Award nomination for Chloe Sevigny—but Boys Don’t Cry, is also directed and written by an openly queer woman (and Ivy League educated—jussayin’, bitch works), Kimberly Pierce, whose painstaking devotion to showing every dimension of Brandon’s true self and truest narrative is gorgeously evident in every scene. In the face of misinformation and egregious bigotry, Pierce’s film stands as a testament to dutifully exploring and exposing Brandon’s story.
Watching Boys Don’t Cry as tempestuously pubescent recent-teen who was struggling with ~~queer thoughts~~, but, more frighteningly at times, struggling with the terror of the perception, treatment, and, in my mind, the imminent, uniform rejection of those around me—who I loved and who I didn’t even know—had a seismic impact on me. I certainly had my standard, tacky reasons for being enthralled by the film: let’s be honest, there are few things that get me feeling a certain kind of way like Chloe Sevigny doing literally, fuckall anything; and I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out if I’m attracted to Hillary Swank or not (I watched decidedly un-sexy Million Dollar Baby too, too many times trying to figure this out, and then watched the decidedly VERY sexy The Gift and found myself very attracted to her, but also aroused by swamps? Jury’s still out). But the enormity of the film, for me, was in the visceral poignancy of isolation, of that agonizing yearning to fit in and find love and the normalcy that you deserve. I can remember the ineffable hum of pained excitement watching Hillary Swank’s Brandon love and fuck, and be the being he was supposed to be with such vividness that I feel transported to my thirteen-year-old self (it truly horrific thing). Moreover, the class representations that were put on center stage in Boys Don’t Cry—which is to say, rural and working class—and their intersectionality with trans lives and queerness was monumentally crucial for me to see. So much of my piecemeal queer community growing up (especially in high school) was built upon and comprised of queer and trans* individuals who identified just as strongly with their country/rural/motherfucking redneck as hell essences as they did with their queerness (as they absolutely should). The type of trans* identity or queer identity that was so easily derided, seen as laughably or offensively incongruous, or, more often than not, avoided entirely, that encompassed rural self and queer/trans*/bi/ self was depicted with beautiful realism and respect in Boys Don’t Cry. Additionally, it managed to execute this depiction while simultaneously showing the grotesque hatred and impulse for violence towards trans* and queer individuals that was and continues to be so horrifically de rigueur.
The film has some glaring, irrefutable issues, to be absolutely certain. Boys Don’t Cry, aside from the creative behind-the-scenes team, is stacked with cis, straight individuals (although, I believe Chloe Sevigny identifies as bisexual, but that could also be my wishful ideation), a consistent issue in films that could be somewhat excused in 1999 but, then again, absolutely shouldn’t be. The fact that a straight, cis woman (who, again, did an astronomical job in her portrayal of Brandon) was cast as and won an Academy Award in the Best Actress category stings so viciously that it cannot and should not be overlooked. Furthermore, while Brandon’s story should undoubtedly have been brought to light, and should be continually discussed, the film exists as a stark and tragic reminder of the unacceptable paucity of narratives and films centering around the voices, lives and unfathomable struggles of POC trans* individuals. While it is paramount to explore the tales of prosperity and love within the trans* community (POC and white alike), it is utterly critical to have narratives and films that discuss the disproportionate rate of violent crimes enacted against POC trans* individuals, especially trans women of color. HRC documents at least 29 reported murders of trans* individuals in 2017, and as of Summer of 2018, the number of trans* fatalities (again, staggeringly trans women of color) had already reach 22 (which, of course, does not account for unreported murders or acts of violence). The heinous bigotry towards and violence against trans* individuals and trans people of color is unconscionably rampant, and to rely on fetishizing media like Orange is the New Black that do not present the complex dangers and narratives of these people is, to say the least, reckless.
And so it is not without profound conflict and grave acknowledgement of the alarming flaws with the film that I talk about and praise Boys Don’t Cry. I cravenly wish the availability of diverse films, the success and visibility of trans* and queer actors, and the multiplicity of narratives had been cornerstones of my nascent queerness. But I certainly cannot deny the pivotal role Boys Don’t Cry had in shaping my queerness, and the importance, albeit marred by its intractable problematic quality, of watching the film and understanding Brandon’s story. Boys Don’t Cry is a necessary examination of a narrative of trans* men—which, it should be noted, is a demographic that is conspicuously and distressingly absent in so many films and discussions about trans* communities and the brutality they often face, which indicates a disturbing and unique brand of bias that few people seem willing to address. And Boys Don’t Cry gave me an outlet that, despite the inexorable tragedy at its core, gave me some sort of hopefulness and connectivity that is inextricable to my sense of queerness.
(And on a lighter note, Boys Don’t Cry, was one of the first films to receive AGGRESSIVE censure for a sex scene that was TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE because it depicted not only Chloe Sevigny’s character receiving oral sex, but unflinchingly showed her POV and her pleasure during oral (the film received an NC-17 specifically for the close-up on JUST HER ORGASMIC FUCKING FACE WHICH, OK, WANTON SEXISM, TAKE SEVERAL SEATS). This is major in and of itself, but like, the scene is really, really good. Like it’s good. It’s just. A good. Scene.)