Brandon Teena, Teena Brandon
At the end of a great film, you might sit back for a moment and reflect on what you saw. In the days following, images may pass through your mind, evoking something deep–a memory, a feeling, an insight. But rarely are you reeling from revelations in its aftermath, unable to shake them off.
Most people going to “Boys Don’t Cry” know that it is about some hate crime that happened somewhere to some girl…or to some girl who dresses like a guy, or to someone who was gay or lesbian… or something.
Much of the time while watching this film you’re trying to keep up, trying to figure out “Who’s who? and what’s what? Brandon Teena or Teena Brandon? She or he? Gay or straight? Lesbian or bi?” But at some point, before (or after) you leave the theater, you begin to realize that none of it matters. The moment you allow yourself to step into the world of Brandon Teena, all of those terms, definitions, explanations, whys and wherefores get sucked right out into the stratosphere.
From a purely cinematic perspective, Brandon Teena (played by Hillary Swank) may arguably be one of the greatest heroes in the history of film. For one, he’s different from any preceding him. Brandon was, in his terms, in the throes of a “sexual identity crisis.” He believed himself to be a boy mistakenly born in a girl’s body and dreamed of one day having his body medically corrected. For the average moviegoer (for that matter, the average person), this is new and unfamiliar territory.
The newness and unfamiliarity makes for a “clean slate” experience, which powerfully affects the viewer in a multitude of ways. It reverses the usual sequence of the viewer’s experience of the film and its characters. Given that Brandon doesn’t fit any of the usual categories (i.e. neither heterosexual nor lesbian, gay or bisexual), you’re left in a quandary; that is, you want to categorize him, but can’t so you're, forced to see him as person independent of sexual orientation. The result is that you wind up emotionally involved with Brandon before you figure out who and what he is. You see him in blind pursuit, naïve and impervious to impending doom. You don’t know if he is a man or woman, his sexual orientation or even his name, and yet you care about him. You’re frightened for him and want to protect him. These are natural emotional responses to someone in pain, someone desperate for love and understanding in a world dominated by hatred, ignorance and dysfunction.
At some point, you might make your way past the dicey crossing and even identify with Brandon–go through, inside yourself, what he went through. You might get to see yourself in that horrifying situation and wonder what you’d do, with various scenarios running through your imagination, each one worse than the next. Then a sinking feeling and a clear-as-a-bell realization swirls into your consciousness: the knowledge that you would not have survived. And it’s at this point that you might begin to view Brandon as a hero.
By virtue of the “clean slate,” common blinders are removed, blinders that distort your perception and rob you of the full impact of Brandon’s unfolding story. As long as you’re unclear about how Brandon is to be defined (i.e. “If he’s not gay, lesbian or bi, what is he?”), you’re in a “pre” or “non-stigma” mode. Your experience will not be tainted by preconceived notions about “those kinds” of people, nor by judgments, stereotypes and political positions associated with “those kinds” of people; your objectivity will not be compromised by a pre-existing, deeply engrained homophobic belief system. You won’t make sense of what happened to Brandon in terms of him having caused it or having brought it on himself.
Instead, you’ll be freed up to see the real culprits: hatred, ignorance and dysfunction in all of their glory, all around you, so inescapably close your skin will crawl.
When these blinders are down, you may also see someone in the throes of a sexual identity crisis. Without jumping to conclusions about what a sexual identity crisis is,specifically, it’s apparent that something is seriously wrong,something you have no idea how to fix. You don’t know if it’s emotional, psychological, biological–or all three. You don’t know whether it could be surgically corrected. Presuming the influence of stigma hasn’t sunk in yet, you may begin to appreciate how overwhelmingly difficult such a problem is tocomprehend.
In addition to having a sexual identity problem, it was abundantlyclear that Brandon wasn’t too “together” a person (which comes as no surprise). He had numerous problems, ranging from unresolved family of origin issues to being hell bent on self destruction without, regard for consequences or have theability to comprehend that there will be consequences, and never quite got beyond his delusions about the world. At times, it was hard to watch him operate in the world, i.e., the way he kept getting up only to be knocked back down, and how he so believed in hisdream of one day getting himself medically fixed, carrying pictures of the procedure we knew was never going to happen. He certainly has made more than his fair share of poor choices, i.e., often engaging in acts of deceit for which he would surely be caught.
At first, Brandon’s sexual identity crisis may seem to be a rare occurrence, an anomaly, and therefore hard to relate to emotionally. However, as you learn more about him, how he was in the world, as someone in trouble and in pain, he becomes a more mainstream type of character, hitting closer to home. And it starts to feel as if you’re traveling across the spectrum of denial: “It’s not my problem. What if it were? I’m lucky it’s not. I’m glad it’s someone else’s problem. It could be anyone’s. What if it were someone I knew?” You might get as far as to ask yourself, “What if Brandon were a friend, a sibling, my child?”
The fact that “Boys Don’t Cry” is based on the life of a real person and on events that took place only a few years ago in this country, further tweaks your experience, as if yet another blinder had been removed. You’re no longer able to maintain (emotional) detachment as one in the audience by dismissing the film as “just a movie,” rendering it unreal and/or irrelevant. When art imitates life and there is no distinguishing between the two, you don’t have the option of suspending disbelief for entertainment purposes. More attention goes directly to reality. Your curiosity about the film’s subjects (sexual identity crises, those who are in crisis, how to treat them and how others deal with them) will be naturally piqued as you find yourself hoping that things aren’t as bad in the real world as they are in the film.
If you were curious enough to research the matter, you’d probably stumble upon a new term, a new concept. From sociological and psychological perspectives Brandon was a transgender, (a) broad term used to define a continuum of individuals whose gender identity does not correspond to their biological gender. Term may be used to refer to one’s sociopolitical identity, gender behavior or both. FTM refers to individuals who are biologically female but identify as male.*
However, learning more about this phenomenon provides little, temporary relief as many questions remain unanswered and many new ones are raised. Maybe you were better off not opening this particular Pandora’s box. Is Brandon a boy or a girl? Is he Brandon or Teena? Do you go by biology or by his self-perception? Is transgender a difference, or is it a medical or psychiatric disorder? Regardless of whether or not it is a disorder (as opposed to merely a difference), and regardless of whether a sex change is an option (which it wasn’t for Brandon, though he dreamed that one day it would be), what do we do with such a person? What if the person is a child or teenager?
The lack of clear-cut answers leads to compassion as possibly the only resolution. It may boil down to differences; whether it’s one’s identity, sexual orientation or preference, or some kind of abnormal medical or psychological condition, these may be equated with differences in race, religion, economic class, level of intelligence, cultural background, etc. Equality and respect as fundamental principles apply. Staying on the path of compassion means honoring Brandon (as well as all the other transgenders of the world) by accepting his/their belief(s) about himself/themselves. Thus, while biologically incorrect, Teena Brandon is to be thought of as Brandon, a he, and treated respectfully.
Now that we’re acquainted with the term and phenomenon of transgender, “Pandora’s box has indeed been opened. With continued research, it will come to light that not only is transgender considered to be of the same ilk as gay, lesbian and bi-sexual, it holds the lowest status of the four groups.* Therefore, not only are transgenders viewed by society through a homophobic lens, they are treated with the least amount of respect and acceptance and are the most misunderstood and mistreated. The gay/lesbian/bisexual population is probably the most targeted and hated minority in America today with transgender leading the way. Two star-crossed lovers… In addition to bringing one of the greatest (and most unlikely) heroes to the screen, “Boys Don’t Cry” deserves to be recognized as a love story for the ages. Brandon’s need for love was his driving force; he was bound and determined–and, despite all odds, eventually successful–falling in love with Lana (Chloe Sevigny). They fell in love with each other. Lana, loaded with problems herself, and also alienated by the ignorance and dysfunction pervading her world, was initially drawn to Brandon’s softness, sensitivity and depth, qualities obviously lacking in the people around her. She was numbed by the “white trash” mentality, resigned to factory work, to boredom and intoxication. Brandon made Lana’s hopes and dreams for a better life come alive. They were bonded by a vow to someday leave Nebraska for a better place.
If you were to make way past the dicey crossing and step into the shoes of either of these lovers, you’d be navigating the perils of love firsthand. What do you do when your love is on a collision course with reality? Do you risk getting more deeply involved, or do you run? How far do you go in the name of love?
What makes Brandon and Lana’s story stand out is how far Lana actually got. When her love was tested, as it was time after time, she proved courageous, strong and capable of weathering the kind of storms that leave few survivors. When Brandon was in imminent danger, she was ready to run away with him. When it was established between them that Brandon was biologically a girl, she proceeded to make love with him despite her inexperience (with women) and doubts about her ability to satisfy him. And when Brandon was murdered, she was there, stunned and helpless. At first, Lana appeared to be operating on the assumption that Brandon was a boy, thus experiencing a heterosexual attraction. However, during what has to be one of the most memorable love making scenes to date, Lana notices Brandon’s breasts. Shocked and confused as Lana might have been (as we all might have been), she continues their passionate love-making, consummated and orgasmic. We see that although she’s momentarily conflicted, she makes a decision not to allow Brandon’s sex to stand in the way of her feelings. Committed to what she believes in, following her heart, she’s going to love him regardless of his gender.
However, little did Lana know at the time that this was only the tip of the iceberg. On the tip was Lana and Brandon, just the two of them, apart from the rest of the world. Beneath the surface, was Lana and Brandon in the world they live in, which included two recently paroled “fag hating” redneck, psychos—one of whom was Lana’s mother’s lover and father of her child, and someone who had molested Lana for as long as he had been in the picture. He molested children, beat and raped women and didn’t care an iota about anything he did. He and his friend would, by most people’s standards, be considered the lowest of the low.
For a while it appeared that Lana was getting away with self-deception, but her ability to rely on her denial proves time-limited. Once Brandon’s gender became public knowledge, Lana went through many motions in an apparent effort to maintain her denial or save face (by upholding the norms of her peer group). After hearing about Brandon really being a girl from her friends, she made an obligatory visit to him in jail, to confront him point-blank about what she heard (as if she didn’t know after making love with him!). When he tells her point-blank that he was going through a sexual identity crisis, that it was true, he didn’t have a penis but not to worry because he will one day, Lana again professes her love to him, insisting that whether or not he has one doesn’t matter. When she saw the rage of betrayal and hunger for vengeance in the faces of Brandon’s killers, Lana risked her own life by swearing to them that she saw Brandon’s penis. But at the end, when she was packing her bags, there’s a moment of hesitation, of ambivalence, when her denial was completely stripped away. It may have been the first time Lana considered the prospect of an impossible reality.
What penetrates the viewer’s heart and mind most? Was it that Brandon was a fighter, his flawed humanness or his own personal struggle with his sexual identity crisis? Was it the ill-fated efforts of Brandon and Lana, hero and heroine, to preserve their love for each other? Or was it Brandon’s undeniable resiliency, the fact that he never wavers or surrenders, is true to himself to the end and dies with his integrity, dreams, loyalty and love intact?
Clearly, Brandon’s is a hero’s journey. He could not change who and what he believed himself to be- “a boy in a girl’s body”, and he could not escape the world in which he lived, for it was the only world he knew.
But a few steps further on this hero’s journey comes the ultimate discovery, the ultimate satisfaction. Suddenly you realize that this is your life, the world in which you live, and that you’ve stumbled upon a truth, that there are some things worth fighting and dying for. When it comes to certain principles (how people ought to treat one another, a bottom line sense of right and wrong), there can be no compromising, no turning back. When you realize that, then you can be at peace, even in the face of death. As reserves of courage and strength, of passion and conviction lying dormant at the core of your being come alive, you become the hero who goes on living, as heroes do; inspiring others to fight and die for what they believe in, for what is right and true.