Boys Don’t Cry and Female Masculinity: Reclaiming a Life & Dismantling the Politics of Normative Heterosexuality by Brenda Cooper

Right away, Cooper articulates that her essay analyzes Boys Don’t Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Peirce, as an investigation of heteronormativity through a narrative that privileges female masculinity “in four ways:

  1. by dismantling the myth of “America’s heartland;”
  2. problematizing heteromasculinity;
  3. by centering female masculinity; and
  4. by blurring the boundaries of female masculinity

…exposing sexual heteroideology and prejudice while normalizing gender fluidity.”

Cooper says that director, Kimberly Peirce, wanted to not re-tell the “sensationalized” murder story of transsexual, Brandon Teena, but to “reclaim” why a girl would want to identity as a boy in the first place.  Cooper believes that masculinity had been recurrently researched, but never researched without the notion of men, therefore fostering society’s unchallenging male dominance and “bearer of gender stability and sexual deviance.”

Heteronormativity is culturally reinforced by the media, which depicts characters who transgress from heterosexuality, strictly male or female, as “comic, weak, or as evil,” linking these types of deviant characters with “criminality.”   Queer theorist, Judith Roof, explains “narrative heteroideology, the ways narrative and sexuality work together to create and perpetuate a heterosexual ideology in culture and media” regardless of the support of gays and lesbians from straight people.  Roof explains, it is an inherent and cyclical social issue.  Boys Don’t Cry (1999), “perhaps the only film addressing the issue of female masculinity by a self-described queer filmmaker to reach mainstream audiences and to receive critical acclaim and prestigious awards,” by highlighting female masculinity in disparity with how society and media typically depict it, within the confines of heteronormativity.

Brandon Teena was murdered in the “heartland” of America: Falls City, where family values carry “potent connotations of the heterosexual ideal.”  News coverage illustrated Teena as a threat to traditional family values, to the women, to innocent women—but most aggressively portraying him as a threat to America as a whole.  Peirce captures Falls City, not as a town rich with hard working, simple, religious folk, but rather as a dismal place with dysfunctional families, dead-end jobs, and abundant alcohol and drug use to pass the time hoping one day to escape.  In Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the characters that surround Brandon Teena are alcoholic, depressed, violent, and promiscuous, allowing Brandon to be seen against this imperfect subversive backdrop, showing his normalcy, but most effectively, his altruism and good nature.  By portraying male characters that are drunk, unemployed, violent, self-mutilators to control their temper, their heteromasculinity appears discomforting and rather threatening, problematizing the heteromasculine construct.   When Tom and John violently rape Brandon, then murder Brandon and Candace, in a rabid attempt to reclaim their masculine privilege, Cooper asserts that Peirce suggests “to spectators that Brandon is not the one who is ‘sick’: ‘[It] is male heterosexuality— culturally assumed to be a firmly entrenched, inalienable identity—that shows the greatest signs of sickness and is in dire need of reconfiguration,” making heterosexuality rather than transgressive sexuality, seem strange and in need of analysis.

When Lana favors Brandon over John and Tom, it is clear that though Brandon is working hard to adopt masculine codes of conduct from the men, he is also connecting with his inner masculinity.  Biologically female, Brandon imparts his innate sensitivity and qualities that women dream of in men; with his female masculinity, he becomes the perfect boyfriend.

The scenes in which Brandon is admiring his sexual identity as a man in the mirror, performing his sexual identity, we are invited to join in celebration.  The film’s thematic inclination is in support of self-identity over anatomical biology, so when Brandon’s transgressive sexuality is questioned, we feel just as confused as Brandon, and do not relate to the confounded expression of the people questioning him.  “By framing Brandon’s gender performance as an example of legitimate female expressions of masculinity, the narratives of Boys Don’t Cry throw into question the privileged sexual definitions of what constitutes ‘normal’ masculinity and sexuality.  In so doing, the film ‘queers the center’ of normative heterosexuality by ‘centering the queer’ in the narrative,” causing us to view everyone as transsexual, and transsexual not as subversive but as yet another shade of grey.  When Lana calls Brandon a girl at the end of the movie, it is a narrative strategy to remind us that gender issues, though able to be reconfigured, are indeed unresolved, despite the film.



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