Published: Feb. 1, 2003 By

“I try to laugh about it
cover it all up with lies
I try and laugh about it
hiding the tears in my eyes
cause boys don’t cry
boys don’t cry”
– The Cure “Boys Don’t Cry,” Boys Don’t Cry 1980

“True to form, Dagger sulked, maintained his distance, and buried his face in a bong. He seemed mesmerizingly studied, a cute poseur doing whatever he could to remain one-dimensional. Then Walker opened the couch bed, screwed his old Betacam onto a towering tripod, and discovered Dagger’s secret. He sobbed, shook, begged for any sign of affection and then reconstituted himself the moment he came.”
– Dennis Cooper Period (51)

“When I think of how you make me hate
I want to smash you to pieces
I want to smash you up and screaming
I want to smash you helpless
Down on the floor
Smash you until you’re not here anymore
And I shiver and shake
Shiver and shake”
– The Cure “Shiver and Shake”
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me 1987


[1] The success of the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry was predictable for many reasons. First, it rode the 1990s wave of films and other cultural products that ostensibly argued for tolerance of sexual diversity. However, like most of those films, Boys Don’t Cry did so only by representing lesbianism to the mainstream as soft-core eroticism through images of glamorous young women courting, kissing, and fondling each other. Second, it cashed in on millennial America’s ongoing love affairs with lurid true crime stories and exposés of sexual and gender transgressions within poverty cultures, an entertainment form brought to its apex by The Jerry Springer Show. Third, the film beautifully and dramatically tells the story of Brandon Teena, a petty criminal transsexual from a trailer park, whose friendship with two Falls City, Nebraska ex-convicts, John Lotter and Marvin Thomas (Tom) Nissen ended with their rape and subsequent murder of Teena. They also murdered Lisa Lambert and Philip DeVine with whom Teena was visiting. All three crimes were committed in a stupid and heartless effort to avoid being returned to prison for the rape. The film’s outrage over the crimes and its romantic rendition of Teena’s relationship with Lana Tisdel have been especially appealing to viewers.


[2] Although heralded by many as both a classic story of doomed love along the lines of Romeo and Julietand as an exemplary consciousness-raising experience, the film poses serious problems for cultural critics interested in addressing the institutionalization of gender-based legal inequities. In specific, the film’s overt project of bringing belated justice to the case of rape and murder victim Brandon Teena, who was attacked in response to law enforcement officials’ exposure of his biological femaleness, is complicated by its apparently unintentional participation in our culture’s current brutal erasure of boys and young men as citizens whose civil rights matter. For that reason, I will begin with a brief discussion of the film’s appropriation of the title of a song by The Cure that for many young males has functioned as an expression of their alienation from a culture that denies their humanity.

[3] The most frequently reproduced image associated with The Cure is the famous black and white poster of frontman Robert Smith with his back to us, his long black hair loosely spiked, the neck of his guitar extending phallically from the front of his body in a gesture toward virility that his slumping, dejected posture belies. The words “THE CURE” appear in large print at the top left hand side of the frame, with “BOYS DON’T CRY” written beneath. The Cure, an English band, began performing in 1977 and enjoyed moderate success in the UK two years later with their album Three Imaginary Boys. As the album title suggests, the band often concentrates on unhappiness associated with young men’s failure to enact gender roles successfully, and this album was no exception. The album was re-titled and re-released later in 1979 as Boys Don’t Cry due to the success of this song in the United States.

[4] Typically, Cure songs open up the hidden depression and defeat traditional macho posturing attempts to hide. They convey a sense of the dark emptiness many young men feel as they perform culturally approved masculinity. Seen by many as a precursor to Goth music styles, which are always associated with androgyny, The Cure remain extremely popular with young audiences today, especially those who reject conventional gender roles. While The Cure’s appeal to such fans is obvious due to the band’s florid dramatization of the melancholy aspects of sex, love, and gender identity, the majority of Cure songs dealing with love and/or sexuality are explicitly heterosexual. Although Robert Smith, who represents the band to most fans, occasionally seems to invite listeners to think of him as bisexual as in songs like “Icing Sugar” or “Lullaby,” his public persona is far more often strongly coded as heterosexual. Smith consistently presents himself as a biological male both in his songs themselves and in stage performances. Why then did a film about a female-to-male transsexual borrow his most famous song title?

[5] The most likely explanation is that the filmmakers decided to appropriate the experience of young men as a metaphor for the experience of female rebels against gender binarity, both lesbian and transsexual. Such appropriation is unfortunate for an art work intended to effect political change. It works through the negation of the importance of one group’s suffering, considering it interesting only in its function as a symbol for the sufferings of another group. Over the past thirty years or so, feminist theory has had a great deal to say about cross-gender appropriation. Perhaps one example here will suffice. In the past audiences apparently responded as intended to male poets’ comparisons of their creative travails to the torments and joys of childbirth. Today, thanks to feminist theories, most readers find such comparisons odious, especially when they include the suggestion that the male poet’s labor pains should be seen as more significant. It is now the norm to read such texts as disrespectful of women, and belittling of female experience as a source of authority. To test whether it would be fair to assess the film’s use of male experience this way, one might begin by thinking about differences between how the film and the song contextualize the prohibition against boys crying.

[6] As the lyrics quoted above indicate, in the context of the song “Boys Don’t Cry,” the prohibition represents a lie of culture that young men must enact in order to be understood as masculine. In order to have any hope of acceding to manhood, as defined by our culture, boys must not reveal that they can be reached emotionally. They must model a psychic impenetrability complementary to the physical impenetrability our homophobic cultural definitions of manliness demand. Judith Levine persuasively argues that the general American understanding of masculine sexuality privileges performance over feeling in ways that young, inexperienced males often understand as absolute prohibition of emotional response (170-71). Interestingly, as the above quote from Cooper’s novel illustrates, desperate retreat from one’s emotional needs into a shell of affectless cool is not limited to heterosexual boys. Sexual contact of any sort can be terrifying under these circumstances because of its power to unleash tightly restrained desires to be caressed and comforted, to be given the signs, if not the reality, of love and caring. But within America’s cultural construction of masculinity to be vulnerable means one will be violated. The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” tells us that living the lie of invulnerability doubles the emotional pain boys feel with pangs of repression, and triples it through the necessity of covering over anguish with false nonchalance. The song implicitly describes masculinity as agonizing culturally-enforced fakery. The two other quotations I use as epigraphs suggest the repercussions of such fakery. Boys forced into denial of their feelings experience alienation and rage.

[7] One of the major ways the film departs from this vision of masculinity is in its depiction of a boy who does cry as both tragic and heroic. Brandon Teena differs most from the biological males in his environment not in that his genitalia do not match his gender identity, but in that he is far more emotive. The other males in the film obey cultural prohibitions against the expression of sadness, empathy, or other so-called soft emotions, and display only the anger and cold amusement culturally acceptable as part of masculinity. Teena shows a full range of emotions. Surprisingly, given how vulnerable and responsive to others Teena seems, his performance of masculinity is accepted as convincing by the others around him throughout most of the film. He is only exposed as a “fake” male by a physical examination made by the police after an arrest, which results in his brief imprisonment in the women’s facilities of the jail. In contrast, his unusual success with women is directly attributable to his gentle, highly emotional behavior with them.

[8] Thus, one may conclude that the film treats the admonition against male tears as silly and ineffective. Biological boys may or may not cry, the film takes no interest in the matter, but it laments the fact that transsexuals are harshly punished for gender role deviation, and it suggests they are also more severely punished than biological boys would be. In other words, it is as if the film replies to The Cure’s song and to the male fans for whom it speaks: “What do you have to cry about? The situation of male-to-female transsexuals is far more tragic than anything you will ever experience.” Conveying such a message is appropriative in a way almost identical to a male poet’s claim that writing a poem is more painful and consequently more of a labor than giving birth.

[9] Feminists should know better. I borrow the strike-through of the word “Boys” in my essay’s title from Lacan’s Séminaire Livre XX: Encore in which he strikes through feminine pronouns to signify the function of the concept “woman” as the ultimate anti-universal, the one who is always other to universal man as the subject, always absence in relation to man’s presence, the one whose signifier in language names only what can never be seen, spoken, or understood, even by women ourselves. Lacan asserts that, consequently, for men to move imaginatively and experientially into the feminine allows them to escape the demands of subjectivity under the regime of reason and to think otherwise, in every sense of the word. Alice Jardine astutely describes such theoretical moves, which she calls gynesis, as a sort of mystification of femininity as the unconscious in relation to male (self)consciousness. She attributes this twentieth-century philosophical and artistic trend to men’s paranoia about women’s increasing ability to direct towards men a detached gaze and articulate our own vision of men as seen from the outside. Of Lacan’s theory, in specific, she remarks, “if ‘woman’ in his thought designates that which subverts Subject, Representation, and Truth, it is because ‘she’ does so in the history of Western thought. To make such an assertion is perhaps to continue it uncritically” (168-69). Similarly we might well consider what we continue uncritically when we take “boys” to be the not-quite-men that women are not, can never be, but somehow essentially are, even more so than biological males themselves.

[10] A charming image of this, aside from the problematic one offered by Brandon Teena to whom I will return, is Mary Martin’s famous and much repeated performance as Peter Pan, the boy who could never grow up. Part of the success of Martin’s performance of sweetly heroic and yet vulnerable maleness no doubt derived from the poignancy of the sight of a boy who truly could not become a man — because he was really a woman. Martin’s impersonation of a boy allowed audiences the fantasy of a love affair that could never end with the subordination of the girl to a Victorian paterfamilias, a romance that would always be defined by a playful assumption of gender roles rather than an enforced enactment of them. And the price of that fantasy, gladly paid by most of us, was that the biological boy Peter Pan, as he appears in J. M. Barrie’s novel, was erased.

[11] A much less charming image of boys under erasure has been provided for several years now through media depictions of the “Scared Straight” program. In this program, young men who have committed minor crimes or seem at risk of doing so are taken by law enforcement officials into jails and prisons to be frightened by inmates who threaten them, primarily with rape and sexual torture. Here the erasure is not of the possibility of maturation that depends on biological maleness, but instead of the possibility of being accorded the respect due to a human being in a democracy, which depends on recognition of full citizenship and civil rights. Many criminologists have questioned the effectiveness of this approach to delinquency, with a number pointing out that the program seems to make young offenders more, not less, violent (Finckenauer 140, Petrosino 364). In his conclusion to the most extensive study done of this program, James Finkenauer asserts what should be obvious, “We must recognize that a potential for either social or emotional injury to juvenile subjects exists. This is particularly true where aversive methods are used” (232). Nonetheless Americans not only accept the Scared Straight program as legitimate crime prevention, but also accept the unconstitutional situation of cruel and unusual punishment within our system of incarceration that it exposes. This attitude says much about how we as a culture have come to understand both the legal system and the place of young males in relation to it.

[12] Despite all the angry talk about the system’s denial of victims’ rights to which we are constantly subjected, our justice system seems currently to exist mainly as a means of providing vengeance for victims. It seems increasingly designed to offer reassurance to those more numerous citizens who feel victimized by their proximity to crime and their anxiety that someday it may actually touch their lives. The US is unique among first world nations in its endorsement of the death penalty, which has been repeatedly proven to have no deterrent value. We also seem to be unique in our enthusiasm for rape as a legally sanctioned mode of punishment. At least if the rape is inflicted on a biological male. Countless mainstream and independent films about prison depict the rape of young men as business as usual behind bars, and in many films the topic is treated as comic. Newspaper columnists regularly refer casually to rape as part of the culture of our jails and prisons. Many discussions of child molestation include, as reassurance to the morally outraged, references to the apparently inevitable rape and torture of incarcerated pedophiles. And everyone who is exposed to any form of popular media must be aware that rapists and sex offenders are far from being the only youthful prisoners tortured in this way. Boys who are arrested for property crimes or drug use can expect to be raped in jail. And we all know it.

[13] Aside from Amnesty International and a small number of advocates for prisoners, some of whom are themselves imprisoned, no one seems to be speaking out publicly against this unconstitutional situation. While citizens groups work tirelessly with legislators to make sure that more young men (who already constitute our main incarcerated population) are tried as adults and given longer sentences, unless they are executed outright, illegal assaults on these young men continue unabated and for the most part unaddressed except as a useful way of scaring youths into more socially acceptable behavior. In short, we are creating a culture that gives young men with low impulse control the message that rape is an appropriate form of discipline and a useful tool in maintaining conformity to the majority’s values.

[14] The results of this appalling message get an airing in Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir’s 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, but this aspect of the story is edited out of the later, fictionalized film. Melissa Anderson points out in a review inCineaste, “what is really in crisis, as Muska and Olafsdóttir suggest, is not Brandon’s sexual identity but the male, heterosexual identity inhabited by people like John Lotter and Tom Nissen — an identity so fragile that, when threatened by Brandon’s ‘masquerade’ of masculinity — knows no other response than violence” (55). She notes the sexual identity crisis of men like this is inextricable from “the socioeconomic crisis gripping Falls City and thousands of other economically depressed American cities whose denizens can only move from one dead-end job to the next. Lotter and Nissen’s rage, then, partly stems from a life in which hope has been extinguished” (55). However, Anderson does not discuss the documentary’s persistent suggestion that another source of Lotter and Nissen’s rage was that the punishments inflicted on them during their past imprisonments probably included rape. The film makes the case for this causation explicitly through the interview with Leon Thompson, a prison inmate, who claims that he knows John Lotter was “sexually assaulted” repeatedly in prison and that, upon his release, Lotter wanted to “even up the odds,” feeling that it was, “my turn now.” Muska and Olafsdóttir provide editorial commentary on this claim by focusing on a photograph of John Lotter at the time of his previous imprisonment. He is a slender boy with long hair and a delicate-looking face. More subtly, one of the interviews with the appropriately enraged US Marshal, Ron Shepherd ends with his summing up his opinion of the murders with the emphatic statement, “They’re punks!” Presumably Shepherd, who clearly strongly disapproves of homophobic violence, does not intend this designation to suggest Lotter and Nissen were raped in prison and should be despised for that reason, but as a member of the law enforcement community, he could hardly be unaware of the term’s sexual connotations. Nor does it seem likely that when Nissen’s girlfriend, Melissa Wisdom, solemnly reports he was taunted as a “faggot” after he sexually assaulted Teena, she is implying that this motivated him to attack Teena fatally the next time. Yet viewers might reasonably draw this conclusion.

[15] Through its exploration of the two murders’ pasts, the documentary makes clear that Lotter and Nissen were not simply promulgators of a culture of violence but were immersed in it since childhood and subject to its laws, formally and informally enforced. In contrast, to the extent that Boys Don’t Cry treats Lotter and Nissen as products of a particular society, rather than as emanations of evil, as Lisa Henderson observes, their crimes appear as “a new installment in a long history of popular images of working-class pathology” (301). Caricaturing its subjects as “white trash” and relying on a structure of contrast in which Teena’s beauty and optimistic hopes of future financial success represent virtue while Nissen and Lotter’s “scarred and mottled failures” represent badness, the film avoids consideration of the ways their fear of further victimization may have contributed to their ultimate, horrific crime (302).

[16] As Anderson claims, Boys Don’t Cry represents Lotter and Nissen as adhering to a “concept of masculinity . . . which assumes that committing acts of violence is their birthright” (56). But the film fails to recognize this representation as a distortion of the actual situation of young men who learn through their experiences with our justice system that boys are born with no rights and must commit acts of violence in order to be awarded the respect culturally reserved for the only humans always accorded the right to unmolested existence, brutally dominant males. The film sidesteps issues of hierarchy within masculinity when it virtually ignores the murder of Philip DeVine. Instead it implicitly asserts that the only meaningful hierarchy in America is the gender binarity. Judith Halberstam, who sees the murder of Teena as a “chilling enforcement of normativity” perpetrated as a function of “the male gaze,” remarks that the romantic relationship between DeVine, a disabled African-American and Leslie Lambert, sister of murder victim Lisa Lambert, “could be read as a similarly outrageous threat to the supremacy and privilege of white manhood that the murderers rose to defend” (295, 298). Perhaps their weak intellects did, indeed, perceive DeVine’s murder this way, but should we? The idea that Lotter and Nissen were actually enjoying any sense of supremacy, even in the depressed economy of Falls City, seems absurd, especially in light of the contemptuous assessments of them that their fellow citizens seem so eager to confide in Muska and Olafsdóttir.

[17] What the two young men seem to have experienced was a world not unlike the Vietnam-era wryly memorialized in Johnny Cash’s perennial Country music favorite, “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash adopts the persona of a young Everyman who begins life feminized by a thoughtless patriarch who intends his son to “get tough or die.” Not only did Lotter and Nissen, and perhaps especially Lotter, whom the documentary describes as having the mental capacity “of a nine or ten year old,” lack the intelligence to understand their alienation with the sophisticated irony of Cure fans, they obviously could not achieve the counter-cultural perspective of a self-proclaimed outlaw like Cash, who exuberantly rejects the teachings of the fathers in the song’s conclusion. But they were not left without guidance in a rape or be raped world. Unfortunately, our society conveys ideas about sexuality and gender identity so clearly that even the most simple-minded can grasp them. “A culture that lavishes gentle attention on its young also may encourage tolerance of the vulnerable and discourage physical power-mongering. People brought up to be aggressive and suspicious of intrusions against their own body’s ‘boundaries,’ on the other hand, will be more self-protective and territorial and thus more belligerent, both socially and sexually” (Levine 179). ATeaching Tolerance study of the alarmingly rising violence against homosexual students and those perceived to be gay in our middle and secondary schools suggests that as school policies increasingly seek to enforce conformity in all aspects of the students’ lives, the students become more like convicts, that is more likely to establish a viciously maintained hierarchy among males according to masculine affect. One sixteen-year-old student who bravely decides to come out sums up his subsequent experience by saying, “I felt like I was in prison” (Walker 25). If to be an effeminized male means to have no privileges, then to gain supremacy, or even safety, one must distinguish himself as the opposite of effeminate, and the most obvious and emphatic way this can be done is by beating and penetrating a weaker male.

[18] One of the most interesting omissions from both the films and the published reviews of them is any sustained attention to the possibility that Teena was raped anally as well as vaginally, although Boys Don’t Cry does suggest this, as does the transcript of the post-rape questioning in The Brandon Teena Story. One might chalk this up to a desire to avoid disrespectful sensationalism on the part of the filmmakers. However, the choice should also be considered in light of both films’ representation of Lotter and Nissen’s sexual assault on Teena as motivated by their desire to restore a biologically determined coding of gender they find comfortable. In a Film Quarterly review of Boys Don’t Cry, Rachel Swan goes so far as to assert that the rape is meant to work according to a “cruel logic” that will “reposition everyone according to their ‘god-given’ gender. Brandon has a vagina, so Brandon is a woman. Tom and John penetrate his vagina, thereby reaffirming themselves as men” (50). Obviously the possibility of anal rape disrupts this neat logic.

[19] However, the idea that the objective of Lotter and Nissen’s attact on Teena was to restore gender binarity is more even seriously called into question by the sequence of events after the public disclosure of Teena’s biological sex. Lotter and Nissen first forced Teena to expose himself to Tisdel, who disappointed them by responding with indifference to the revelation that Teena lacked a penis. In fact, in the documentary Lotter expresses frustration over Tisdel’s adamant refusal to agree with him that people without penises and with vaginas are not male. He complains that, even after the multiple rapes of Teena (and Teena’s murder), Tisdel persists in using the male pronoun to refer to Teena and to refer to Teena as her boyfriend. Only after Lotter and Nissen became aware that they could not force Tisdel to reject Teena as another female on biological grounds, did they rape Teena.

[20] If we consider these facts from the case another possible motivation appears, and it is that Lotter and Nissen were jealous of Teena’s success with Tisdel, a woman both had dated, and with other attractive young women in Falls City. That Teena was not a man, whether because he was a biological woman or because his gentler, more vulnerable manner coded him as a boy instead, added insult to their rejection in his favor. The sexual attack, like those we conscience in American prisons every day, restored a familiar order among males in which the strongest and most aggressive dominate and make use of the weak.

[21] Because of the fictionalized film’s obvious manipulation of factual material in order to prevent such a reading, the appropriative spirit of the film Boys Don’t Cry is obvious when we compare it to the documentary. Most striking is the casting choice of then twenty-nine year old Peter Sarsgaard to play John Lotter, who was twenty-two at the time of the murder. In the documentary Mary Anne Greene, a social worker assigned to Lotter discusses his immaturity and inability to function away from his mother or outside of Falls City, despite his being generally treated there as an inferior and worthless person. “We as a culture haven’t come to terms with our responsibility for helping kids like this,” she laments. But in Boys Don’t Cry, Lotter does not appear to be a “kid” at all. Dark and frightening, Sarsgaard looms ominously over delicate, pretty-faced Hilary Swank as Teena and Chloë Sevigny as an ultra-femme Tisdel (nineteen at the time of the murder). Like the real Teena, Swank in male drag looks more like sixteen than the nearly twenty-one she is supposed to be, while Sarsgaard looks closer to his mid-thirties. The idea that they could be in serious competition for the same girl thus seems morally wrong, especially given the current social atmosphere in which enforcement of statutory rape law is generally considered appropriate in cases where the “child” is sixteen or seventeen and the “adult” often only three or four years older. Every time Lotter makes an advance to the naïve and girlish Tisdel, it looks like an attempt at what we now consider child molestation, an interpretation reinforced by his flirtation with her mother, who is presented as his adult equal, and by the scene in which he erotically fondles his own four year old daughter. Thus Lotter’s anger at Teena is coded as being as perversely twisted as his expression of it ultimately was.

[22] Another seemingly deliberate misrepresentation in Boys Don’t Cry concerns Teena’s treatment of the women he courted. Swan and Anderson are typical of the film’s reviewers in referring to the character Swank portrays as “chivalrous” (Swan 47, Anderson 55), but as Anderson’s discussion of the documentary shows, this portrayal is a bit skewed. In the documentary’s interviews “Brandon is remembered as . . . a skillful seducer of young women” (54). And rightly so. The documentary gives us a Teena who seduced one very young and inexperienced woman after another. We can get some concept of just how sexually inexperienced these girls were if we consider their easy acceptance of Teena as male despite his primitive attempts at concealing his breasts with elastic bandages and giving the impression of a penis by stuffing his crotch. His former fiancée, Gina Bartu, repeatedly answers, “I have no idea!” to the question of whether he used a dildo to achieve intercourse with her. The idea of touching a male penis with her hand seems inconceivable to her, even when that penis is penetrating her body. Obviously, Brandon’s girlfriends were not women who thought of the male body as a pleasure source to be touched and explored. Nor were they women who expressed their own sexuality in any way other than by submitting to male attention. In fact, the interviews reveal that most, if not all, of these girls considered romantic cards and presents of flowers and jewelry the primary way a boy could give pleasure to his girlfriend. It says a great deal that the girl Brandon pursued at the roller rink in his first public appearance as a boy — a magical, romantic scene in the film — was then only thirteen years old.

[23] More disturbingly, Teena seemed to specialize in stealing from desperate girls who regarded him as their only chance at escape from rural poverty. His collection of trophy-like photographs of these people, whom if he were biologically male we would probably refer to as his victims, sounds a sour note inThe Brandon Teena Story. So does the reason Gina Bartu gives for breaking the engagement: because he stole her credit card and used it to buy the ring. Boys Don’t Cry, in contrast, equates Teena’s murder with the death of Tisdel’s hopes of a new life in a less brutishly backward environment. But would the real Teena have actually rescued Tisdel from poverty? He was certainly not above profiting from her financially, as his habitual forging of checks stolen from his girlfriends shows. Because the position from which I analyze cultural artifacts is that of a sex radical rather than a neo-puritan, I do not consider Teena an immoral person because he apparently seduced all the girls he could. Nor do I heavily condemn Teena for non-violently taking what he could from these gullible people.

[24] I point out these differences between the documentary and the fictional film not in order to blame the victim for his murder. Obviously a series of terrible crimes were committed against Brandon Teena and nothing he did could in any way be seen as justifying the behavior of John Lotter and Tom Nissen. Moreover, I do not intend to suggest that Lotter or Nissen should be excused from blame because each was raised in and inhabited a culture of violence in which he was taught that masculinity must be won through oppressing other males, as well as females. What I mean to argue is that the goal of combating vicious enforcement of gender norms is not furthered through the dissemination of misinformation. Like Sheila Wolf, in her photo-journalistic piece on the film for the self-described “Counterculture Chronicle,”Propaganda, I applaud gender-benders and find it “good news” that there are so many of them disturbing the binarity of rural America (25-26). However, I cannot share Wolf’s enthusiastic assessment of John Lotter’s condemnation to execution by lethal injection as “justice” (25). In the context of our current legal treatment of young men that word is meaningless. Nor can I share the almost universal enthusiasm among critics for the film Boys Don’t Cry.

[25] The film tells us that it is wrong to rape and murder transsexuals. True, but not very helpful in that the vast majority of people who are unclear about this are probably not going to be persuaded by the film. Very unhelpfully, the film also maintains the traditional gender binarity between men and women by creating a separate category “boy,” or more accurately “boy,” which is filled only by a biological female who refuses to act as either a woman (a group the film defines as hopelessly immature ultra-feminine beings) or a lesbian. Within this film, as within most of American culture, one is a boy if one lacks the power and authority of patriarchal manhood. But within the film there are no boys other than Brandon Teena. The biological males, Lotter, Nissen, and also Teena’s gay cousin Lonny, as well as the other men with whom he comes in contact, wear the mantel of adult masculinity. They dictate throughout the film what it means to be a man, and in several cases they attempt to oversee Teena’s performances of masculinity. The film de-emphasizes, or simply obliterates from its story, ways in which people in circumstances like theirs and the real people on whom the characters are based might have been forced into the position of boys in relation to more powerful males. Because we do not see the traumatic attacks on Lotter’s and Nissen’s own identities, including their gender identities, and the stripping away of any possibility of adult power they underwent, we cannot read them within the film as boys. Yet Lotter was only one year older than Teena and Nissen was the same age. The film’s insistence that they struck out at Teena in a gesture of gender policing rather than as part of a perpetuation of the cycle of abuse within masculinity, in which they themselves were trapped, forecloses any useful examination of how and why masculinity in our times is so vexed.

[26] The film erases the brutalization that characterizes biological boys’ experience of gender identity in our culture, because it erases the boys themselves. Also erased are the strategies disruptive of gender binarity that some rebellious boys, such as many fans of The Cure, have developed in order to cope with their subordinate roles within contemporary social structures that offer little hope of later manly power. At the millennium, as educational and employment opportunities dwindled for the lower classes, boys have increasingly seen their situation as fixed, since accession to patriarchal power in America has always been largely economically dependent. Brandon Teena coped with this scary situation by drawing on his strengths, which happened to be a pretty face, an unthreatening manner, and a talent for manipulation. The other boys in his world did the same, but with more tragic results, since the only advantages they had were brute strength, a knife, and a gun. If Boys Don’t Cry had acknowledged these simple facts its feminism would have been a help rather than a hindrance to the project of bringing down patriarchy.


Works Cited

  • Anderson, Melissa. Review: The Brandon Teena Story and Boys Don’t Cry. Cineaste 25.2. 2000: 54-56.
  • Boys Don’t Cry. Dir: Kimberly Peirce. 20th Century Fox: 1999.
  • Brandon Teena Story, The. Dirs: Susan Muska, Gréta Olafsdóttir. Zeitgeist Films: 1998.
  • Cash, Johnny. “Boy Named Sue.” At San Quentin (Live). Song, 1969.
  • Cooper, Dennis. Period. New York: Grove, 2000.
  • Cure, The. “Boys Don’t Cry.” Boys Don’t Cry. Electra/Asylum, 1980.
  • ——. “Shiver and Shake.” Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Electra/Asylum, 1987.
  • Finckenauer, James. Scared Straight! and the Panacea Phenomenon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982.
  • Halberstam, Judith. “The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don’t Cry.”Screen 42:3. (Autumn 2001): 294-298.
  • Henderson, Lisa. “The Class Character of Boys Don’t Cry.” Screen42.3 (Autumn 2001): 299-303.
  • Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire Livre XX: Encore. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975.
  • Petrosino, Anthony, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino, James O. Finckenauer. “Well-Meaning Programs Can Have Harmful Effects! Lessons from Experiments of Programs Such as Scared Straight.”Crime and Delinquency46.3 (July 2000): 354-379.
  • Swan, Rachel. Review: Boys Don’t Cry. Film Quarterly 54.3. 2001: 47-52.
  • Walker, Tim. “School’s Out.” Teaching Tolerance 21. (Spring 2002): 25-29.
  • Wolf, Sheila. “Girls Will Be Boys: From Heretic to Heroine.”Propaganda 26 (Winter/Spring 2001): 24-27.