Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – On the Inhumanity of Sexual Categorisation
When people talk about gender and sexuality, they usually do so from within the context of a broad social narrative. Arguably the most popular gender narrative of the day is that we (in the West particularly) are in the process of weaning ourselves off of a particularly toxic and reductive understanding of human sexuality. According to this narrative, we have progressed from what was essentially a tri-partite model of human sexuality (straight male, straight female, and Other) to an N-partite model that allows not only for differences in sexual preference but variations in relationship models, different sexual practices and conceptions of gender that rely upon variables other than genital shape and chromosomal configuration. Under the logic of this narrative, a three-box understanding of human sexuality is repressive and so the more boxes we add to our model, the closer we come to a theory that reflects the enormous complexity of human sexual identity. In an ideal world, everyone would fit into their own universally recognised pigeonhole with nobody left puzzling as to how they fit in or who they are. Though giddily utopian, this narrative is not without its critics.
Back in the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault began to examine the different ways in which humanity has conceived of sexuality. He concluded that, far from being a historical reality, the above narrative was a construct of the 1960s and that, much like previous models of human sexuality, it contained the embryo of an intensely problematic political programme. Foucault argued that the urge to determine the ‘truth’ about a particular phenomenon and break it down into distinct categories tends to go hand-in-hand with a desire to control the phenomenon. For example, while most people do have a conception of race, their conception tends to be a lot less exacting that the systems created by governments intent upon dehumanising particular groups of humans. Thus, while most Westerners are now content to use the term ‘mixed race’ to describe people of mixed racial heritage, previous generations have used terms like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ to determine not only which races were mixed but also in what proportions. Though pointless in the West today, these linguistic categories would have proved extraordinarily useful for societies that practiced apartheid, slavery or any other systematic abuse of different racial groups. Indeed, the first step towards the Final Solution was the creation of a legal framework allowing Nazi officials to ‘objectively’ distinguish between Jews and non-Jews on the basis of their parentage.
Though Foucault stops well short of drawing a parallel between how people used systems of racial classification and how people use systems of sexual classification, he does express profound concern over our assumption that more precise systems of top-down classification are somehow a sign of progress. After all, ‘Octaroon’ is a more precise term than ‘Black person’ but nobody in their right mind would consider it progressive to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of their having one Afro-Caribbean grandparent. Systems of top-down classification require measurement and basing someone’s identity upon their ability to satisfy objective scientific criteria is intensely dehumanising… we see this not only in the Victorian and Nazi obsession with skull sizes but also in the grotesquely gynaecological language applied to the Trans* community when the need to fit people into pre-existing categories invariably devolves into discussions of genital shape and chromosomal configuration.
Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry won awards and captured hearts by drawing the world’s attention to the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was betrayed, raped and murdered by a group of friends who believed that Brandon had misrepresented his gender. When the film was first released in 1999, many people described it as the story of a woman who ‘passed herself off’ as a man in an effort to reconcile her desire to sleep with women with the universal homophobia of 1990s Nebraska. Since then, awareness has expanded and so most people now think of the film as a tragic story about how an intolerant culture treats transgender people. However, while both sets of readings say quite a lot about our need to impose clear boundaries on ambiguous phenomena, a better reading of the film is to take it as an attack on the process of classification itself.
Wonderfully, the film opens with Hilary Swank’s character receiving what we assume is his first boy’s haircut. Peirce draws a veil over much of what happened in the character’s life prior to the haircut and so all we really know about his past is that he has tried to sleep with women before and that this has ended just as badly as his tendency to steal and pass bad checques. In effect, ‘Billy’ (as Swank’s character refers to himself) is just the latest in a long line of unsustainable identities intended to capture the character’s essence and needs at a particular time and place.
Having established that Swank’s character is and always has been something of a mercurial entity, Peirce immediately places the character’s nature under tension by seeking to place a label on it. Referring to the character as ‘Teena’, the character’s cousin asks why she won’t just admit that she’s a Lesbian and while this request is presented as familial concern, it is actually a statement of society’s need for categorisation: If only Swank’s character would accept her ‘real self’ and come out as a Lesbian then there would be bars for her to go to and support groups for her to join. Indeed, by accepting the labels ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Butch’, Swank’s character would gain access to a suite of identity tropes that would not only (supposedly) allow her to feel a good deal more comfortable, they would also tell society at large how to treat her. By refusing to identify as a Lesbian, Swank’s character is also refusing to accept that what she does might incite homophobic reprisals… sure they lynch gay people in parts of Nebraska but why should that concern the character? He’s not gay!
When the ‘Billy’ identity dissolves and the character is chased from town by a homophobic mob, the character happens to make friends with a pair of young guys from an even more regressive part of Nebraska. Lured in by the male bonding and hooked by his immediate desire for the character of Lana (Chloe Sevigny), Brandon – as he is now calling himself – jumps in the car and decides to make a new life for himself in a new town with a new group of friends. Initially, this experiment works beautifully as Brandon not only wins over the entire group, he also seduces Lana placing him on a collision course with the group’s troubled alpha male John (Peter Saarsgard). Drunk on possibilities and deeply in love, Brandon and Lana formulate a plan to leave Nebraska and seek fame and fortune on the basis of Lana’s questionable skills as a karaoke singer.
Frequently overlooked in discussions of the film, Kimberley Peirce’s direction is a thing of dream-like perfection. Shot largely at night along rural roads lit only by car headlights and neon signs, Boys Don’t Cry is full of odd camera angles, swooping skies, half-lit rooms and odd close-ups like a drunk and tired mind kept awake solely by adrenaline and the desire to keep this perfect night going forever. Indeed, one of the film’s recurring visual motifs is the savagery of having to wrench oneself from a dream and start the day afresh. This sense of life being a collection of doomed moments held together solely by the power of will not only links back towards Brandon’s past as someone who burned through disposable identities, but also towards the films’ tragic and thoroughly disturbing final act.
When Brandon receives a summons for a crime committed some months previously, he makes the mistaking of attempting to pass a bad cheque. Once the cheque is found, Brandon is hauled into the police station where his fake ID and past criminality land him in a woman’s cell. Visited by a confused Lana, Brandon claims to be intersexual and awaiting a sex change and so Lana bails him out and takes him home only for the couple to discover that the rest of the group has become aware of the complexities of Brandon’s identity.
When the group confront Brandon, they speak of the lies that he has told them and this talk of lies and the need to expose the ‘truth’ about Brandon’s sexuality creates an environment in which the elusive Brandon must submit to sexual classification. Desperate to evade the net as it closes in on him, Brandon appeals to Lana as an individual and seems to win her over but the ability to construct a sexual identity in a bottom-up manner is ignored in favour of more ‘rigorous’ methods of classification. The content of Brandon’s pants may only be of relevance to himself and Lana but society as a whole has taken an interest and society must not be denied and so group alpha male John and his male sidekick Tom take it upon themselves to expose the ‘truth’ about Brandon by stripping him naked and inspecting his genitals. Undeniably distressing, this scene is really only the first part of a much larger and far more distressing series of dovetailing vignettes.
From the bathroom at Lana’s house, Peirce transports us to a police station where a visibly scarred and terrified Brandon is being questioned by local authorities. Initially quite friendly, the sheriffs soon begin asking very precise questions about what it was that John and Tom did to Brandon and Brandon’s evasiveness seems to reflect the fact that, while John and Ton stripped him naked, they neither beat nor molested him. However, as the sheriff continues to probe, it soon becomes clear that something did happen and that Brandon might not actually be answering questions about the events at Lana’s house. At first, Peirce conveys the unpleasantness of this scene by skipping back and forth between the questioning and the initial assault by John and Tom. The implication is that, by forcing Brandon to think about the assault, the sheriffs are actually forcing him to relive the experience. From there, Peirce pulls back to reveal a third series of events in which John and Tom kidnap Brandon and drag him to a junkyard. Not content with stripping Brandon naked, John and Tom proceed to brutally rape him in an effort to prove that he is indeed a woman. Unnecessarily graphic and difficult to watch, this scene is made even worse by the questioning from the sheriff that forces Brandon to use very specific terminology to refer to his person. When Brandon breaks down and uses the word ‘vagina’ he is not just reliving the rape, he is also submitting to a system of scientifically rigorous sexual classification: Brandon Teena has a vagina and thus he is a woman. As Tom puts it, no sign of sexual crisis there…
Few cinematic representations of transgender people refrain from discussing genitalia. The canonical example of this process at work is Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) where having one of the characters expose their genitalia to the camera is handled in much the same way as such grand plot-altering reveals as the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father, the ontological status of Tyler Durden and the realisation that Jocasta was actually Oedipus’s mother all along. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle these plot devices provoke a
Change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.
In the case of Luke Skywalker, his hatred of Darth Vader as the man responsible for killing his father is replaced by far more complex feelings of love for a father and hatred for the man who persecutes his friends and cuts off his hand. In the case of Tyler Durden, the realisation that he is a personality that has split off from that of the main protagonist changes the final act of Fight Club from a banal confrontation with terrorists into a more psychological piece about an ineffectual man’s desire to change the world and reclaim traditional masculine values. In the Crying Game, the revelation that Dil has a penis is taken as an invitation to re-examine both the characters and the nature of their relationship. While Jordan mercifully makes it clear that Dil’s genitalia change absolutely nothing when it comes to her relationship with the protagonist, the entire film is structured in such a way as to suggest that revealing Dil’s genitals to the audience somehow settles the matter and reveals a previously hidden truth.
Equally interesting is the far more recent film Tomboy (2011) by the French director Celine Sciamma. Almost identical to Boys Don’t Cry in terms of narrative, Tomboy tells of a pre-pubescent child who moves to a new housing block. Seeing an opportunity to re-invent herself with a new group of friends, the protagonist introduces herself as a young boy and sets about learning how to look, behave and think like a boy. Unlike Boys Don’t Cry, which complicates Brandon’s identity right from the start, Tomboy introduces us to the primary protagonist and allows us to look at the clothes, the haircut and assume that she is a boy. Indeed, it is not until a number of scenes into the film that Sciamma decides to ‘settle the matter’ and reveal the truth about the shape of the character’s genitalia. As much as I love Tomboy and the work of Celine Sciamma as a whole, I cannot help but think that Tomboy would have been a more interesting film had Sciamma resisted the urge to submit Mikael to empirical testing. That way, rather than being about whether or not Mikael could maintain a scientifically verifiable falsehood, Tomboy would have become a film about a child choosing to adopt a gender identity that ran contrary to its parents’ wishes. This idea that sexuality identity might be something you negotiate individually with the people around you is actually hinted at throughout Boys Don’t Cry.
While much of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality is devoted to illustrating the repressive tendencies contained in the race towards greater and more effective systems of sexual classification, he does lay down a few (not particularly lucid) methodological ground rules designed to help:
Immerse the expanding of production of discourses on sex in the field of multiple and mobile power relations
In one of the film’s first scenes, Brandon assures his cousin that while he may not meet all the ‘official’ criteria for masculinity, all the women he has been out with have considered him ‘the best boyfriend they ever had’. This idea that sexual identity might be grounded in mutual agreement rather than official verification is also evident in the way that Lana accepts Brandon as her lover despite being aware that he has female genitalia. Strenuously denied by the real-life Lana, this scene makes it clear that the only thing necessary for Brandon to consider himself Lana’s boyfriend is Lana’s personal consent, meaning that as long as Lana continues to agree that Brandon is her boyfriend, it really does not matter whether Brandon satisfies any objective criteria regarding what constitutes a man, what constitutes a straight person or what constitutes being someone’s boyfriend.
This attempt to replace top-down, objective methods of classification with a more fluid, consensual and bottom-up approach to gender identity is deeply reminiscent of the anarchist account of state behaviour explored in James C. Scott’s books Seeing Like a State (1998) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). Inspired by the history of South East Asia, Scott presents the modern nation state as a predatory valley-dweller that creeps up the sides of hills by inducing otherwise free people to internalise modes of thought which, though necessary for the proper function of a bureaucratic state, make little sense when seen from an explicitly human perspective. The imposition of objective categorisation on naturally occurring human phenomena is part of a broader instinct to bend people to your way of seeing the world and therefore to ‘civilise’ them. The link between making sense of the world and making the world make sense is evident in the words of Theodore M. Porter:
Society must be remade before it can be the object of quantification. Categories of people and things must be defined, measures must be interchangeable; land and commodities must be conceived as represented by an equivalent in money. There is much of what Weber called rationalisation in this, and also a good deal of centralisation.
In order to rationalise human interaction via the imposition of an objective system of classification, the state needed to either eradicate or regulate the thousands of non-systematic classification systems that had emerged naturally as part of normal human interaction. Thus, traditional quantities such as ‘basketfuls’ and ‘handfuls’ were replaced with imperial measures while periods of time such as Malaysia’s ‘rice-cookings’ or Ethiopians ‘chicken-cookings’ were replaced with more standardised talk of minutes, hours and eventually seconds. In order for this process of cultural assimilation to work, early states would shame and demonise those who failed to submit to their cultural framework. According to Scott:
The permanent settlement of populations is, along with taxes, perhaps the oldest of state activity. It has always been accompanied by a civilizational discourse in which those who are settled are presumed to have raised their cultural and moral level. While the rhetoric of high imperialism could speak unself-consciously of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the nomadic heathen, such terms strike the modern ear as outdated and provincial, or as euphemisms for all manner of brutalities. And yet if one substitutes the nouns development, progress, and modernization, it is apparent that the project, under a new flag, is very much alive and well.
This project is also evident in the way that people will seek to shame and demonise those who fail to submit to a rigorous system of sexual classification. Up until regrettably recently, Western culture spoke of non-straight and non-cisgendered sexual identities as pathologies in need of a cure. However, while contemporary discourses surrounding sexual identity may be largely free of the tendency to describe people as ‘sick’, there is still a marked tendency to describe people as ‘confused’ when they fail to fit into pre-existing categories. Thus, bisexual people are vilified for refusing to ‘choose’ between straight and gay identities while transgender status is often seen as being dependent upon a person’s willingness to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
Many of the early reviews of Boys Don’t Cry followed the lead of Brandon’s cousin and chose to look upon the character as a woman passing herself off as a man in order to have sex with women. Even Brandon Teena’s Wikipedia page focuses upon an assumed connection between Brandon’s sexual desires and his choice of sexual identity. Indeed, the fact that people try to apply such labels to the character of Brandon testifies to our complete submission to a largely unnecessary system of sexual categorisation.
Though melodramatic, Foucault’s concern that systems of sexual classification would lead to systems of sexual persecution turned out to be entirely warranted in the case of Brandon Teena. In a sane world, Brandon’s sexuality and gender would be something that he would determine for himself with the help of his immediate friends. By suggesting that there is an ultimate scientific truth to matters of gender and sexuality, society is providing murderous bigots with the tools of their trade.