Boys Don’t Cry

Earlier this year The Teena Brandon Story was a blockbuster documentary about a true story—a rape and preventable murder involving a Nebraskan male trapped in a woman’s body. Now a feature film, Boys Don’t Cry, dramatizes the same events. The film is directed by Kimberly Peirce, who also handled the screenplay. Teena Ray Brandon (played by Hilary Swank), at 21 years of age, has the temperament of a man and dresses the part of a man, including using a sock to show a bulge in a pair of jeans; a sex-change operation is sought when funds are available. The tagline of the film, which began with the provisional title “Take It Like a Man,” is “A true story about finding the courage to be yourself.” Leaving Lincoln to party in Humboldt (Falls City in the film), a small town some 75 miles from Lincoln, Teena becomes attracted to Lana Tisdel (played by Chloë Sevigny) and vice versa, and the two become lovers. Teena displays considerable masculinity in cigaret smoking, beer drinking, bronco riding on a pickup truck, and in having sex with Lana, but fits into the familiar paradigm of a stranger in town. Teena prefers to be called “Brandon,” the birth surname, and is assumed to be a man by everyone in town, but the police run a check on Teena’s identity after an arrest for a misdemeanor check forgery charge. The police then out Brandon by releasing the name “Teena Ray Brandon” to the town’s newspaper for the column on recent arrests. John, Lana’s longtime boyfriend, is jealous about Teena’s whirlwind romance with Lana, so after reading the newspaper, he makes an issue of Teena’s sexuality. Together with his friend Tom (played by Brendan Sexton III), Teena is stripped to reveal female rather than male genitalia. Teena is then tormented by the two boys, who act out of jealousy and prejudice but also because of the “lie” that Teena pretended, in their view, to be a boy though anatomically a girl. On Christmas Day 1994 they rape Teena. However, police refuse to prosecute John and Tom, who are former felons, and they soon proceed to murder Teena. The story is a variant of the Romeo and Juliet paradigm in which two lovers are not allowed by the conventions of society to consummate their relationship, though in this case only one of the lovers dies. The two murderers, titles tell us at the end, are convicted and imprisoned. Had Teena admitted in the beginning that she was anatomically a woman but wanted an operation so that her male personality would fit with her anatomy, would everyone have been understanding? Certainly not. But how would Teena have been able to develop close relationships in a world that does not yet understand or accept the transgendered? As the film unfolds, we realize that the problem is not Teena’s but ours: When will society be ready to accept a male personality in a female body or vice versa and why must such persons have operations just to be accepted by others? For raising these questions, Boys Don’t Cry has been nominated by the Political Film Society for an award as a film exposé and for an award in the category of human rights. Meanwhile, Lana has filed suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for invading her privacy through the film, thus ensuring that some of the issues will be posed even more stridently in the public arena. MH