This week we watched Boys Don’t Cry, a heart-wrenching drama that delves into the complicated notions of gender. It comments on the social conditioning of gendered norms and the struggles and implications of being a passible transgendered individual today.
The main character Brandon, was born Teena, who has a vagina but has known her entire life that she was meant to be a boy. She chooses to live her life as a male; without having ever gone through any reconstructive surgery to aid her in externalizing her internal feelings. In Nebraska (in America in general) being transgendered is not widely accepted. We live in a phallocentric society, and it is that obsession with what-is-between-each-other’s-legs that leads to Brandon’s unfortunate end. This tragedy was very intense, and real, and leaves the viewer questioning why? Why did this need to happen? What were the reasons?
Roles like Brandon challenge an actor to think outside of the orthodox and uproot the foundations they grew up on, really giving the actor an opportunity to start fresh. Before this role, Hilary Swank may not have known that gender is a socially constructed notion passed down through generations of oppression and social conditioning. A role like this can literally change a person’s paradigm on life. Hilary’s deconstruction of gender is apparent in every aspect of her performance. There is not a moment in this film that she is not thinking about how her actions are being perceived. This is both integral to the performance and the survival of Brandon in this small Nebraskan township because if Brandon’s actions were to abstract reality too much (philosophers like Judith Butler conclude) people will begin to act violently; they begin to feel like an outsider; are othered by Brandon’s identity. Brandon was a passible man. From the way he walked to the way he moved his head and used his eyebrows, you could tell that Swank put a lot of hours into differentiating male and female gestural and behavioural movements in order to accurately execute Brandon’s every move. This suspended the audience and Brandon’s peers in disbelief (and landed Swank 28 different awards including an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Leading Role… no big deal.) It is that dedication to the art of acting that we do not see anyone.
The men that raped Brandon felt deceived or othered. In that deception they took action; action that established dominance over Brandon and Teena simultaneously. This was their only reason. They did not want to hurt Brandon, or scare Brandon, they just wanted to let Brandon know who the boss was, and it is that phallocentric mindset that keeps people like Brandon hid even 15 years after that movie was made. It is that phallocentric mindset that defines masculinity and cripples societies by keeping them trapped in systems of oppression and gender norms. It is time for change; Boys Don’t Cry and the portrayal of Brandon are monuments and catalysts for it.