Writings on cultural history have repeatedly emphasized the necessity of representation for understanding social and political processes. It has been pointed out that images and ideas have a contributive role in the shaping of social and political networks, and are not merely excesses overlaying a more ‘basic’ reality. Such an investigation ranges from the examination of social groups and the images they project or contest, to how, “at the level of the state, procedures and categories used to order the ‘real’ are generated” (Vasudevan 171-185). Cinema is an important site for the mapping of cultural constructs and signifying practices that constitute the formation of social identities. Narrative cinema, in its unfolding of images into a semiotic system creates a fictional space where notions of ‘real’ and imaginary’ are subsumed into the larger political category of representation. Representation brings us to another important question regarding the medium of cinema itself. Cinema, in the moment of its emergence was received as a ‘popular’ form of art, aesthetically inferior to literature and opposed to the traditional definition of culture. Virginia Woolf, among others expressed that the “alliance” between literature and film was “unnatural” and “disastrous” to the two forms. (Boyum 6). Where literature was high art, cinema could only be qualified as kitsch, lacking complexity or an aesthetic rendering of life itself. The early attempts to legitimize cinema as an art form resulted in the prolific adaptation of literary texts into the cinematic landscape, though not without contention. Debates regarding adaptation, or the transposition of literature into film does not directly concern my paper, however it leads one to a larger question of film as a text interpreted through a theoretical framework, often considered limited to the written text. Where writers use words the filmmaker uses photographic images, both being signs referring to an arbitrary relation between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. The difference, however, being “the immediately recognizable quality of the one; the image, and the highly encoded nature of the other; the word” (Boyum 21). It was such an argument to which film theorists object critiquing the ‘myth’ of the lack of symbolism in cinema. Immediacy then is an effect produced by the codified image.
The representational natures of both these art forms sketch out their propensity to reflect the social reality and historical moments in which they are placed. The narrative film understood as belonging to the domain of mass culture cannot be placed below, in a hierarchical relationship with literature. As both can be read as cultural text, a theoretical approach to cinema as a signifying practice entails a critique of the ‘natural’ and ‘real’ as it is often conceived in the ideological space of culture. The discourse of cultural history itself constantly problematizes the notion of ‘authenticity’ as both ‘culture’ and ‘history’ are understood through the intersection of subjectivity, memory and the politics of the state.
This paper looks at such a document, the film, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) directed by Kimberly Pierce; it explores the way fixed identities are inscribed on bodies and subjectivities through various regulatory norms, reflective of the dominant ideology’s bid to establish a singular definition of culture. The movie, based on a real life incident that look place in Nebraska, U.S.A., is a fictionalized narrative attempting to create a cinematic text, where the ‘real’ becomes a point of departure towards exploring the social and cultural context. The story of the film revolves around the question of sexual identity of Teena Brandon / Brandon Teena, a young Lesbian woman who is also a transvestite. Teena Brandon disguises herself as a boy, lives the role, and journeys to Midwest America to escape prosecution for a spate of thefts committed by her. Subsequently she falls in love with a disenchanted girl, Lana and dreams of a secure future with her. However, as her biological identity is discovered, she is raped and murdered by two of her acquaintances. The movie however, goes beyond the outlined incident, as it investigates the notions of gender, identity, normalcy, in a hegemonic heterosexual culture. My entry point into the film text would be using feminist and gender theories looking at the way power operates in the binary framework of thinking about gender. In this case the heterosexual itself is an episteme which produces and reifies the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as stable and ontological (Butler 19903-33).
Feminist poetics broadens the meaning of poetics to understand it as a dynamic process of working on texts. Hence, one needs to look at histories of the making of texts and subjects who are in negotiation with textual processes made or they themselves made. Hence, social semiotic representatives and feminist theory have extended the meaning of texts to include the visual, the filmic, the corporeal (Threadgold 12). Film’s powerful “misfiguring” of the female and the reproduction of power hierarchies is what feminism seeks to engage with (Humm 37). As Maggie Humm observes, the visual is epistemologically privileged in the western imagination, as cultural images become knowledge and points of reference in a social space (Humm 3-39). Hence, to create a discursive category of women’s cinema where some of these questions are explored, Humm advocates a turn to the domain of culture, where feminist film analysis becomes a political stand, drawing from feminist theories hitherto considered tangential to film theory.
Boys Don’t Cry opens with a long shot of two cars racing each other in a highway and as one car zooms ahead, the camera focuses on Brandon Teena (played by Hillary Swank) driving the speeding car and the look of triumph in ‘him’. The history of cinematic portrayals of American car culture is long and varied. Car racing and highway risks leading to crashes have a symbolic value reflecting on the construction of masculinity in culture, where dangerous living and its sense of power contribute to the performance of a masculine role. Elizabeth Badinter in her descriptions of some of the dominant images and traditions of masculinity in western society suggests, “Boys are forced to take risks that end in accidents (e.g. various sports); they smoke, drink and use motorcycles and cars as symbols of virility. Some of them find confirmation of their virility only in their violence, either personal or collective” (141-142).
Brandon’s playing the part of a boy entails her to internalize and practice what are understood as signifiers of masculinity. Cars are one of the recurrent motifs in the film, to the extent that when Brandon is found out to be a woman, she is repeatedly raped inside the car belonging to the culprits, John and Tom, whom she meets in a bar while on the run. Racing cars and winning signify a sense of competitive masculinity in Brandon as she constructs her social identity not in terms of her biological one. Hence, the precariousness of her role-playing has to be hidden by incorporating all the dominant images of the cowboy American male. Drinking and driving, getting into brawls, physical injury caused by risky games, is indulged in by Brandon to acquire the social recognition as a masculine self.
The car racing first shot is followed by a full shot of Brandon looking at herself in the mirror, dressed in clothes culturally identifiable as male. One learns that these clothes belong to Teena Brandon’s friend and confidant who is also the moral voice begging social adherence of Teena. Clothing, associated with gender threatens to undercut the ideological fixity of the human subject. By pointing out the artifice of gender identity, cross–dressing can seen here as a willful disruption of the fixity of that ideology. Cross–dressing consequently in the case of Teena, denaturalizes what is conventionally understood as natural, sexual difference. In films of sexual disguise the plot creates comic situations around mistaken identifications of gender. Stereotypes become the object of laughter shared by the director and the audience sharing a common code of what is real ‘truth of sex’. However, the narrativisations of such themes instigate questions about the way gender is socially constructed and manifested through the naturalized dualities of masculine / feminine. Annette Kuhn in “Sexual disguise and Cinema” points out
Far from being a fixed signifier of a fixed gender identity, clothing has the potential to disguise, to alter, even to reconstruct, the wearer’s self. Clothing can dissemble …… put another way, clothing can embody performance. The potential threat to fixed subjectivity and gender identity represented by clothing goes a long way towards explaining the social prohibitions on some kinds of cross-dressing, and containment of others within traditionally acceptable forms and practices. (172)
In the films where cross-dressing is a central theme, clothing is set up as a deceptive signifier, yet suggesting the existence of a ‘true’ or ‘real’ self and a stable gender identity deriving from the subject’s biological sex. Films like Tootsie, Some Like it Hot etc. are representative of this stance. Kuhn goes on to state that such films often end up emphasizing the ‘true’ gender of the character to disavow the idea of sexual perversion by treating sexual disguise as a professional need and not a willful endeavor. When sexual disguise is established as transvestism, it is constructed as clinically pathological or even socially threatening as in the case of Psycho. Boys Don’t Cry challenges these cinematic conventions and the audience’s knowledge of them by interpreting the act of cross-dressing as potentially subversive of the normative sanity in a heterosexual world.
Teena’s first experience of dressing like a man and going out on a date with a women leads to her being chased by men who discover her transgressions, targeting her to verbal abuses of “freak bloody dyke and faggot”. Teena is constantly reminded of her transgression constructed by society as ‘sickness’ as we learn that “her mother locks her up” and is getting her “treated by shrinks”. Socially she is made to believe that her act of tranvestism is a perversity which needs to be corrected as is her lesbian tendency. Teena’s character hence becomes a threat to the sanctity of the heterosexual world, where her choice of being a homosexual is already a sexual deviance coupled with her will to destabilize any fixity of gender through transvestism.
“You’re dyke, why don’t you admit it”-- Teena Brandon is told by her friend. Admittance then would truncate her performance as she will have to resort to acting her biological part of a woman and not create any trouble. “Trouble” as Butler points out is the exercise of the agency of the female ‘object’ who returns the masculine subject’s gaze and contests the authority of the masculine position and its depending on the female object as an ‘other’, thereby exposing the illusory nature of his autonomy (Butler 19990, xi).
Henceforth, the narrative traces Brandon’s meeting with Candace, John and Tom at a bar and escaping with them to Falls City from Lincoln, following a brawl where she attempts to defend Candace from sexual harassment. Falls city is an unknown space for Teena (who now calls herself Brandon) where she falls in love with Lana, a young bored girl who lives with her alcoholic mother at John’s house. Brandon meets Lana at another local bar where Candace, Lana and other girls perform Karaoke. In the cinematic space, Brandon joins the audience of men watching the girls, as the camera from the point of view shot sees Lana through Brandon’s eyes. This sequence becomes another of Brandon’s transgressions, as she is an unacceptable entrant into the masculine audience in the bar. Brandon along with other men in the bar shares the scopophilia that the medium of cinema enables. Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” states that the male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure making the women erotic objects of the characters on screen and the erotic object for the spectator in the audience. The image on screen necessitates a “masculinization” of the spectator, irrespective of the actual sex or gender. Brandon’s presence in this case becomes an ambiguity in the fabric of male bourgeois cinema where the woman is always an object of desire and consumption. Brandon is evidently a disruption in the pro-filmic audience and the spectator watching the final event. Brandon’s own performance resists the masculinization of the camera or the audience at the bar as she is already playing out her multiple identities as a woman, a lesbian, a transvestite and a man. Hence, as Brandon does not fit into the ‘imaginary signifier’ of the film structured by the unconscious of patriarchal society, Brandon’s punishment becomes inevitable as she intrudes into the heterosexual world of the narrative. The films bring out these nuances of the form as it teases the interpellated viewer’s notion of gender in a heterosexual economy of which the film is also a part. Brandon’s ‘masquerade’ disables the construction of the female object, the ‘other’ who is the subject of the gaze of camera in an imagined masculine space.
As the narrative traces Brandon, now living in Candace’s
house, the audience becomes a voyeur to the process of her transformation
into a boy. Clothes, objects and gestures contribute to her changed
persona as a man, urging the audience to look at the constructed nature
of gender. The audience, a part of the heterosexual cultural hegemony
is made to confront their own anxiety to locate Brandon’s ‘true’
self as her sexuality or gender cannot be categorically placed within
the binaries. The film therefore plays on the narratives of sexual disguise
where misidentification is ultimately exposed bringing about an order
affirming the audience’s knowledge of the truth. If gender is
the cultural meaning that the body assumes, then gender does not necessarily
have to follow from sex. Butler in her book Gender Trouble
The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender itself becomes a free floating artifice, with the consequences that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one. (6)
Gender is performatively produced and played by the regulatory practices demanding coherence as there is no gender identity pre-existing its expression in a given culture. Gender is a “repeated stylization of the body” a system of repetition achieved through actions, gestures, clothes, language etc. in a regulatory framework, which over time discursively produces the notion of a natural being (Butler 33). Brandon’s successful disguise as a man confirms Butler’s formulation as her gender does not mirror her body or her sexuality. Foucault, in the History of Sexuality suggests that the singular construct of ‘sex’ is produced in the service of social control of sexuality and regulation. Such a construction conceals disparate sexual functions uniting them within discourse as a “cause”, an essence which marks all sensation, pleasure and desire sex-specific. However, Foucault dismisses the possibility of emancipatory model of sexuality in occasions where sex is not acknowledged as historically produced and as an effect of power relations (Foucault 154-158).
Likewise, Butler while discussing the film Paris is Burning points out that drag is not always unproblematically subversive as it uses heterosexual signs to hide the shame regarding gender (Butler: 1993 223-243). This is precisely the limitation in Brandon’s own self-construction. While Brandon’s gender crossings are subversive in a heterosexual cultural space, Brandon’s subjectivity is not yet liberated from compulsory heterosexual. Brandon as she falls in love with Lara, attempts intimate physical relations of heterosexuality. As Brandon becomes comfortable with her desires and is accepted as a man, she does not realize the way her masculinity is a cultural construct like her sex. Her sex becomes a shame for her particularly expressed in the scene showing Brandon’s disgust of her body and its functions. Hence being a boy gives her a legitimate right to exercise her sexual preference as lesbian. The film follows this anxiety in Brandon, her need to marry and replicate the norms of the hetero- patriarchal society as she steadily begins to imagine her disguise as her true self. Butler, again discussing the role playing of the ‘butch’ in lesbian relationships states, "Presence of so-called heterosexual conventions within homosexual contexts, as in the case of butch and ‘femme’ are historical identities of sexual style. The replication of heterosexual construct in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so- called heterosexual original" (Butler: 1990 31)
In the case of Brandon, Butler’s formulation stands
partly true. Brandon’s sexual and social performance as ‘butch’
while debunking the idea of the original, betrays her urge to fix her
outward appearance of a masculine self as her ‘true’ self.
Her desire to marry Lana and seek a haven in the “world out there”
reveals her urge to attain a heterosexual legitimacy, the only thing
that would grant security to subjects like her. Brandon repeatedly denies
the sexual choice of lesbianism, hence she is not quite playing the
part of a ‘butch’, rather she has to prove her masculine
self to John, Tom, Lara and others for social acceptance. Lana too in
moments of physical intimacy reveals her bisexual identity. However,
as she narrates her sexual experience to her friends, the social group
wherein she belongs, the camera through the technique of parallel cutting,
shows her engage in sexual intercourse in heterosexual terms. Nevertheless,
Lana as the movie progresses is the only person in Brandon’s immediate
context who accepts the various identities that Brandon creates for
Lesbian and gay men have historically been assumed to have ‘twisted’ gender identities. Thus repetitive performances of hegemonic asymmetrical gender identities, like repetitive performances of heterosexuality’s, also produce a host of assumptions about what constitute ‘proper’ behavior/dress in everyday spaces which congeal Over time to produce the appearance of ‘proper’, i.e. heterosexual, space. (Valentine 147)
Brandon's acceptance as a lesbian woman by Candace and Lana becomes a threat to the masculinity of John and Tom. The rape meant a way to make Brandon realize her vulnerability as a woman daring to ‘masquerade’ as a man. Brandon is subsequently killed along with Candace by John and Tom signifying the threat even in ghettoized gay or lesbian spaces where the masculine subject takes the state's interventionist role of restoring the moral order.
The film Boys Don't Cry, as I have stated before is based on the real life role playing by Brandon Teena and her ultimate rape and murder. However, the fictionalization attempted by Kimberley Pierce attempts to explore the subjectivity of Brandon in a masculine culture. The title, suggesting social construction of masculinity as machismo is an ironic look of the way stereotypes are circulated and performed in a patriarchal society where the feminine is always an 'other'. Brandon cannot be restricted as a complete masculine identity or a feminine one. In the scene where Brandon recounts the violence before the police, the camera in a close up shows tears filling Brandon's eyes and trickling down her face. The cultural construction of masculinity in the dictum 'Boys Don't Cry' implicitly shaming the 'other' does not find expression in Brandon. Brandon acts tough and masculinity is a negotiable space and not the ultimate objective which makes her an elusive figure in patriarchal society.
The film is preceded by a book by Aphrodite Jones called All She Wanted (1996). The book which is not discussed in the paper is a historical study of Brandon's case as a freak incident caused by the immaturity of Brandon in not recognising her "sexual problem". A work of non-fiction, All She Wanted uses the police files of the "Brandon Teena" case falling in the genre of true crime writing. The author, Aphrodite Jones is herself a journalist who investigates and sensationalises Brandon’s story as a true crime thriller. The book or the 'real' incident is not a reference point, as the ‘real’ itself is an 'effect' produced through the networks of state and dominant culture. The film in its departures, by creating a fictional world around Brandon, is the director's rendering of the event through temporal and spatial signifiers. The film is a text of cultural memory interrogating the politics of gendered violence, where the definitive notion of gender itself imparts the society the right to correction and persecution. Yet, the correspondence between sex and gender while being normative, also has the space for deviations necessary for patriarchy to operate as the regulatory moral and social order. The cinematic text in telling the story of Brandon Teena relocates her from the police files, in a culture, exploring her subjectivity as a sexual dissident and yet a subject of the same moral society.
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