Boys Don't Cry August 16, 2019
Brendan Sexton III
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
randon Teena, a transgender man, was shot to death at the age of 21 by John Lotter and Tom Nissen in Falls City, Nebraska in 1993. Also killed in the scuffle were Lisa Lambert, a young mother, and Phillip DeVine, a disabled black man who was in a relationship with Lambert’s sister, Leslie. The people killed, and the people who killed them, had previously hung out socially in the predominantly white, conservative
town. (A week earlier, Lotter and Nissen had raped and beaten Teena — something to which police responded inadequately.)
The ensuing media coverage was rabid. But a handful of articles became touchstones for a few reasons. Many of them acted as meditations on how the environment in which one grows up might lead to violent, hateful catharses such as this one. Many of them also, especially, served as testaments to how transgender people were treated at the time (and, now, what has and hasn't changed culturally in the last 25 years).
Many of them additionally embodied how clumsily much of the media reacted to and reported on the event. The biggest stories concerning the incident — a long-form piece by Donna Minkowitz published in The Village Voice, an elongated study of the aftermath by John Gregory Dunne in The New Yorker — were key in that they thoroughly and mostly solicitously brought what had happened to the fore. But they were also rife with egregious errors of characterization and markedly bad editorial judgment.
DeVine’s role in the episode was vastly underwritten, typically resembling something of a footnote. (Today, the lack of attention he was given is seen as an indelible example of how mistreated people of color are by the media even in stories meant to be edifying.) Teena was frequently mischaracterized as a butch lesbian. Rather than accurately be referred to as a trans man, he was constantly dead-named, referred to by female pronouns, and typified as someone who was merely confused about his gender identity. (Or, at worst, someone who wanted to simply wanted to experiment with his sex life.)
Last June, Minkowitz published a corrective to her original article in The Village Voice. Having felt guilty for being behind “the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written" for years, Minkowitz rightfully reproached herself for her tacit anti-trans framing, her underdeveloped understanding of the nuances of trans identity, her eclipsing of DeVine, how she subconsciously projected her experiences onto Teena (Minkowitz is a lesbian), the way she interpreted childhood sexual abuse as being responsible for Teena’s dysphoria, among other things.
“Where I went wrong was to deny transness as a real possibility for who Brandon would have become — and, in fact, the possibility he mentioned most often in the later years of his life, and the way in which he most consistently told his intimates he wanted to be seen,” Minkowitz wrote.
he harms of Minkowitz’s article, “Love Hurts,” which was published in 1994, gained further prominence, of course, with Boys Don’t Cry, a 1999 biographical drama co-written and directed by the American filmmaker Kimberly Peirce. Like Minkowitz’s article, it is a push-pull of forward-looking importance and distracting misjudgment, though more of the latter.
The feature is good in the sense that it values and sympathetically portrays a trans man’s experience (no less in the scope of a commercial movie) and undoubtedly, in part due to its commercial success and ubiquitous commercial acclaim, helped lead to the increased normalization of LGBTQIA+ stories in the movies.
But it’s more conspicuously also bristled with distortion and damaging excision. DeVine is completely erased from the film. Like in Minkowitz’s article, how Teena views himself and presents himself to others is looked at skeptically — as if he is somehow artificial, or, if he were to just work things out, perhaps wouldn’t be as “confused.” There is an unnecessary fixation on his body.
Falls City, which was also virulently racist (black people explicitly weren’t served at its fast-food restaurants), is portrayed as right-wing-leaning, but just how dangerous it was for Teena to be there isn’t as overt as it could be. Lana Tisdel, who was Teena’s lover, is, as portrayed by an exceptional Chloë Sevigny, placed at the crime scene when she wasn’t and is shown to have continued a relationship with Teena after she found out that he was transgender when she didn’t.
The casting of the cisgender actress Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry, feels antithetical to what the film is trying to accomplish. If making a movie trying to give life to a transgender man whose existence was cut violently short, should one cast an actor who has the ability to take an identity on and off as if it were a costume, and then reap the benefits for being “brave” enough to portray a transgender person?
Peirce purportedly scoured the globe to find someone to play Teena. From the beginning, she wanted an unknown actor to play the part. If the object to begin with was to illuminate an actor with whom the public was unfamiliar, why couldn’t she have cast a transgender person? Swank, whom I suppose is good in the movie but whose performance I couldn’t fully enjoy because of the feeling of further erasure, didn't need to be cast.
Hollywood continues to offend. So often, cis actors are cast as trans people — Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2005), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent (2015-present) — and with the trend comes a simultaneous effect of minimization and spectacle. If a filmmaker has vested interest in telling a trans story, why not cast a transgender person rather than give the role to someone who not only is taking the role away from a trans actor but is also en route to enjoying the award benefits of being “courageous.”
Like Minkowitz’s article, Peirce’s film wants to highlight a story that might otherwise not reach international audiences. It's been crafted with apparently good intentions. But good intentions does not an accurate, genuinely compassionate movie make. Boys Don’t Cry effectively functions as a drama. But it’s so ethically smudged and tactless that it serves, more so now than ever, as a reminder that there comes a point when adapting someone’s life story in full, or partially, where small changes become outright perversions. Teena deserved, as still deserves, a more sincere depiction of his short life. C