I work in a transitional living program for homeless queer and trans youth in Hollywood. Sometimes people donate comp tickets to hockey games or talk show tapings and so we go on field trips. A few months ago we got a bunch of passes to a screening of Boys Don’t Cry, the fictional film based on the life of Brandon Teena, so me and about seven of the residents loaded up in a van and went to join the motley kids and avant gays at the Sunset 5 theater in West Hollywood.
If you don’t know the story, “Brandon Teena” is the posthumously constructed name for a young transgender man whose birth name was Teena and who went by, among other names, Brandon. Brandon was raped and murdered by two friends in the Nebraska town in which he’d settled and lived as a boy. The movie tells a story of his transition, passing/not passing, sex life and murder.
Audiences and the press alike have responded enthu-siastically to the movie, smitten with actor Hilary Swank’s soft-butch boyness and crushed by the violent, tragic injustice of the film’s conclusion. Though I, too, was wrapped up in and moved by the film, my viewing experience was situated in the specificities of my company--young homeless kids of color whose own lives were marked (like Brandon’s) with the violence of poverty, sexual abuse, and gender regulation. There was nothing distant and removed about what they saw on the screen, and the shock of viewing registered not as “How could such violence take place?” but “How could this be happening again?”
My troubles with the film, then, start from the question of what it means to portray extreme violence committed against “others.”
The two scenes of Boys Don't Cry that I am particularly interested in are the one in which the two guys who later murder Brandon tear off his clothes to reveal his “true female” body, and the scene that follows soon after in which the same boys beat and rape Brandon. These scenes are horrific in their detail and duration (at least what I glimpsed from behind my hands, shielding my eyes and blocking my ears). In interviews and articles, the justification posited for such great extremes is that they are supposed to somehow truly represent the nightmare of the crimes committed against Brandon and, by extension, all trans and "female" bodies. Their horror serves to educate the public.
However, moving beyond some static notion of representation in which images “reflect” the structures of power in culture, and toward an understanding of how images in fact embody and transmit power, it becomes apparent that the viewing of such degradation inflicts its own violence on the audience. Not that viewers sit passively still as the movie happens to them, but depending on your own situatedness (race and class and gender) the movie impacts you differently. Boys Don’t Cry is lauded for opening up people’s eyes to the endangered position of queer/transgender people, but whose eyes need such opening? Not trannie youth, poor kids, queers of color--people whose eyes and whole bodies are daily subjected to the “truth” of what it means to be disposable in American culture. I want to suggest that the visual experience of the film’s violence cannot be isolated from the other kinds of violence (physical and psychical) experience by lots of people, including the youth with whom I work. Pinning the worth of the film on how it “opens people’s eyes” privileges the viewing experiences of those who are not implicated in the violence of the images, for example white/rich gays and gender normative people of all sexualities. The viewing experience of someone who finds their own life history projected on screen is summarily disregarded. The youth I suffered through the film with left it sobbing, shaken for days. And, as with everything else wrong in their lives, they more than survived.
My other general concern with the film is the narrow confines of the conversation it provokes. While the gay press especially has focused on the debate surrounding the depiction of Brandon as trans rather than as a lesbian who had no access to gay culture, the whole network of race and class issues has been completely ignored. As is often true in the simplifying machine of american discourse, we can only tackle one topic at a time--a movie is about race or gender, never both. One guy I know, when asked what he thought of the film, said it made him glad he didn’t live in Nebraska. This response points out the problematic of setting the film in the white-trash isolation of rural america. The transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny of the narrative can be attributed not to the structural inequalities of american social organization, but instead to the backwardness of small town hicks. Metropolitan folks can leave the film horrified about what happens “out there,” and the location of injustice remains, as always, somewhere "we" are not.
In addition to refusing any critical examination of the working-class cultures populating the story, Boys Don't Cry completely eliminates from the narrative a young black man named Philip DeVine, a friend who was killed with Brandon. DeVine was the boyfriend of the white woman who was also killed with them. That this elision has not provoked outrage is testament to the white agendas of the gay and mainstream presses. There is no space in this contained story of trans-bashing for the story of a murdered black boy, or the violence enacted against "miscegenation." Just as white gays often claim the murders of queers of color as simply “gay hate crimes” not motivated by race, Boys Don't Cry denies the shifting and multiple forces and objects of a systemic regulation of bodies that includes the murders of Brandon and Philip. A more complicated conversation would examine the related positions of colored and trans bodies in the united states, exploring the connections and disparities of racism and transphobia.
But such a conversation is not possible within the parameters of Boys Don’t Cry. Even as the film’s narrative exposes the “otherness” of poor rural communities, it exploits a (gay) nostalgia for the “american heartland,” a sentimental yearning for fictitious memories and idealized simplicity best encapsulated in the poster-boying of Matthew Shephard.
This heart of America is expressly white (coded as “clean-cut”) and constructs gayness/transgenderism in relation to nationhood such that people of color have no place within these borders.
Like Matthew Shephard, Brandon’s heroic position is established through his “everyman” status, his all-americanness; an implicit whiteness frames the tragedy of his story. Including his african-american friend would have disrupted the constructed equations of gender, race, and nation on which the narrative depends.
While I respect some of the work accomplished by this film, and the dialogues it helps begin, I nonetheless want to trouble its position in popular culture. Why must the transgender cross-over hit concern crimes against white people? Why must the story we run to see have poor rural drunks as the criminals? Where are the films exposing upper middle class violence against poor people and immigrants? Why do hate and criminality get attached, once again, to the “uneducated?” Where are the glossy magazine articles about the grassroots organizing efforts of trans people of color? Where is the national mourning for murdered black and latino and asian bodies? We must not simply be satisfied by the presence of transgender topics in film or popular discourse, but we must question how the terms of these conversations foreclose real dialogues about race, class, sex and nationality.