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Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry

What Boys Don’t Cry taught us about trans representation

In the 20 years since the Hilary Swank-starring film about Brandon Teena’s murder, there have been remarkably few depictions of trans men on screen

“So you’re a boy… now what?” So goes a line spoken about five minutes into Boys Don’t Cry. It’s a clever one, almost a thesis for the rest of the film, which goes on to turn the question over and pick it apart. As many trans writers I love (Juno Roche, Thomas Page McBee, Paul Preciado) document well, a trans identity can require constant reiteration. You don’t just arrive at “boy” or “girl” or “man” or “woman”, it’s a process. Of course, all gender performance requires this upkeep. The question of “so you’re a boy… now what?” could apply to a cis man, and the answer would be “now keep acting like one for the rest of your life!” (The film’s title is a nod to this, to the impossible standards of masculinity.) But for trans people, the stakes are generally much higher, as the tragic ending of Boys Don’t Cry reminds us. 

Made 20 years ago this week, Boys Don’t Cry was, at the time, a rare example of a trans life depicted on screen. This was long before Tangerine, A Fantastic Woman, Pose, when there was basically only The Crying Game (now considered questionable), Pedro Almodóvar’s trans characters (niche), and the implication that the serial killers in Silence Of The Lambs and Dressed To Kill were transgender (transphobic). Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) was one of very few examples of transmasculine depictions in cinema, and that character was played by Tilda Swinton. 

Telling the story of the real life murder of Brandon Teena, a trans man murdered in Nebraska in 1993, Boys Don’t Cry was an indie film made on a shoestring budget. Its director Kimberly Peirce was barely out of film school, and Hilary Swank, who played Teena, was relatively unknown. She was paid $3,000 for being in the film. When it came out, it debuted in 25 cinemas, before going nationwide, making it all the way to the Oscars, where Swank won an award for Best Actress… for playing a man. But we’ll come back to that.

As a piece of independent cinema, Boys Don’t Cry is incredible. It captures the malaise of small town life, it is beautifully shot, the soundtrack – The Isley Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Cars – transposes you right into the lives of the characters, stuck in a disaffected part of rural America. It’s hopelessly nostalgic; the roller disco, the scene where we first meet a drunk Chloë Sevigny as Lana with caustic yellow hair, singing the country song “The Bluest Eyes in Texas” on karaoke, the scene where Brandon chases Lana around the garden taking polaroids. And, in parts, wonderfully hopeful: “You don’t seem like you’re from here,” says a girl Brandon meets to him. “Where do I seem like I’m from?” he replies. “Some place beautiful,” she smiles coyly.  

In many ways a coming of age story, Boys Don’t Cry perfectly portrays the exhilaration of falling in with the wrong crowd and falling in love for what feels like the first time. But as a film about the experience of a trans man – real, not fictional, too – the film’s legacy is much more complicated.  

“Boys Don’t Cry perfectly captures the exhilaration of falling in with the wrong crowd and falling in love for what feels like the first time”

Much of the controversy around Boys Don’t Cry happened long after its release. At the time of release, because trans stories were so scarce, the film was mostly considered to be a landmark in trans representation. As Riki Wilchins, co-founder of early trans rights organisation Transexual Menace, recently told NPR of the time the film was made: “Trans people were like unicorns (...) When trans people were killed the only way we would find out about it was there would be four paragraphs in the back of the local paper, you know, ‘Man Found Wearing Articles Of Women’s Clothing Murdered In Alley,’ and that meant that a transgender woman had been violently murdered, but you had to kind of read backwards.”  

Brandon Teena was one of these people – a headline reporting on his death at the time read: “Cross-Dresser Killed Two Weeks After Town Learned Her True Identity”. Yet, Teena’s case did end up making national headlines, particuarly after LGBTQ+ rights activists used it to campaign for US hate crime laws, as they did after the murder of a gay man called Matthew Shepard in 1998. Peirce had read about Teena’s case in The Village Voice newspaper, and went along to a vigil for him. A graduate film student at Columbia University at the time, she claimed that she “fell instantly in love" with him and so, she decided to make a film about his life, spending the next four years researching it. Trans actors reportedly auditioned for the role of Teena, but in the end, the part went to Swank, who (as far as we know) is straight and cisgender. 

“There are great trans actors out there – representation won’t improve until we hire them” 

In 2016, at a film screening of Boys Don’t Cry at Reed College in Oregon, Peirce showed up to talk about the film and was met by protesters, and signs which carried the slogans: “Fuck Your Transphobia,” “You Don’t Fucking Get It,” and “Fuck This Cis White Bitch.” While I don’t think abusive and misogynistic language is the right way to start a dialogue with someone you want to educate around how they could have done something better, I do understand the criticisms that have been lobbied against Boys Don’t Cry, albeit with the power of hindsight.  

To start with, the protesters, and other viewers, have found it offensive that a cis actor was chosen to play a trans role. As with The Danish Girl, which cast Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first trans people to undergo gender confirmation surgery, and Rug & Tug, a film in which Scarlett Johansson was going to play a trans man, until she dropped out, Boys Don’t Cry did not opt for a trans actor. This is indeed problematic for three main reasons; it reinforces the false idea that trans men are actually women, and vice versa. It is also frustrating to see someone with relative privilege try on a more marginalised identity, then be able to take it off again when they’re done. Plus there are great trans actors out there – representation won’t improve until we hire them. Overall: casing a cis person implies that trans people do not exist. 

Another major criticism lobbied against the film is that Peirce chose to focus on Teena, and remove from the story the two other people who were killed at the same time: Philip Devine, an African-American man, and Lisa Lambert, a woman. In focussing on Teena, and depicting the extreme violence of his murder, critics say that Peirce sensationalised the story, and profited off violence perpetrated against trans people. On top of this, protestors have accused Peirce of telling a story that is not hers to tell as a cis white lesbian (critics seem to have chosen to leave Peirce’s own genderqueerness out of the conversation). 

After facing all of these criticisms, Boys Don’t Cry has become a lightning rod in the debate of whether we can be critical of a less politically correct time, or apply the standards of today to the past. We’ve seen a similar thing happen with Paris Is Burning, whose lesbian filmmaker Jennie Livingston has been criticised for profiting from communities of queer people of colour. We cannot deny that Livingstone and Peirce would have profited off these films, if not financially, in career profile. But like Livingston, Peirce is queer herself, followed the story for years, researched it thoroughly, and claims to have felt very deeply for her subject matter. I worry that, if we take away LGBTQ+ people’s rights to feel deep solidarity for one another, then where are we left? 19 trans women have been killed in America this year already; we should want LGBTQ+ people to care about that, to spread the news of that, to think it important to tell these stories. 

On top of this, the trans writer and academic Jack Halberstam asks why we are not holding straight or male filmmakers to the same standards that we are holding Kimberly Peirce. “Why should a transgender actor only play a transgender role – shouldn’t we be asking cis-gendered male directors to cast transgender men and women as romantic leads, protagonists, super heroes?” he writes, in a blogpost, before ultimately asking whether Peirce is really the problem. “At a time of political terror, at a moment when Fascists are in highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully,” he urges. 

As a piece of cinema alone, Boys Don’t Cry couldn’t have been better – it is a beautiful and deeply touching film. As a piece of representation, however, it’s lacking. But our understanding that these two things are inherently linked has evolved over the last 20 years, with films like Moonlight, for instance, both a cause and effect of this change. We are moving past the tendency to cast cis actors in trans roles, as shows like Transparent face the consequences, and as shows like Pose instead invite trans and genderqueer writers and directors to a seat at the table (Janet Mock, Silas Howard, and actually, Jennie Livingston, have worked on it). Yet, for all of these advancements in representation, in the 20 years since Boys Don’t Cry, there have been remarkably few depictions of trans men on screen, and there is still a scarcity of trans masculine and butch characters. Sure, we can spend our time criticising things that happened 20 years ago, or we can focus on what we want the future to look like.