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A True Identity

+ Boys Don’t Cry review


Kimberly Peirce looks right at you when she talks. And it’s hard to look away from her, with her striking eyes and cool blue streaks in her near-black hair. She likes to talk, too. Really talk. She laughs easily, thinks hard, and wants to ask questions as much as answer them. She’s talking a lot these days, promoting her first feature, Boys Don’t Cry. Based on the short life and violent death of Brandon Teena, the Nebraska girl who, in 1993, was murdered for passing as a boy, the movie exposes the instability of identity and the ways we all perform every day.


Peirce says she imagines the movie will attract “a range of viewers, the mainstream as well as the audience who’s going to innately get it, because it’s what their lives are about, questions of identity. I mean, if the story was mainstream, he wouldn’t have been killed.” She’s hopeful that the subject matter — once made sensational and lurid by press coverage — is by now part of a culture that’s “shifting,” becoming more open to the idea that gender and sexuality are more fluid than fixed.


Peirce became interested in the story while she was a graduate student at Columbia University. At the time, she was working on another project, for which she interviewed butch lesbians and transgenders, which, she says, prepared her to understand that there are “no absolute truths” concerning gender and sexual identities. When she learned about Brandon Teena, Peirce was drawn to his courage and generosity. “I attended the murder trial,” she recalls, “got the transcripts of the trial, took my own notes, interviewed people, went back two years later and interviewed kids at the Qwik Stop, just to figure out what the class was like, what they did all day.”


Peirce’s visit to the Qwik Stop took place in the same small town where Brandon Teena met and fell in love with Lana. I asked Peirce how it was meeting Lana, who still lives in that same small town.



KP:

The wonderful thing about meeting Lana was the imaginative ability that this girl had, given the circumstances… I said, ‘When did you know that Brandon was a girl?’ And she said, ‘Well, I knew the day I met him.’ And then progressively it kept changing: she knew in the jail cell, no, she knew when they stripped her. What was so beautiful was that she wasn’t willing or able to locate Brandon as a girl or a boy at any given point, I think then and I think now. There is no absolute truth. It was simply, ‘I love Brandon.’ The complication was society saying, oh, this other person is gendered female, that’s bad or that’s good. That makes you a lesbian, it makes him one. In both of their attempts to fit in, they appropriated language that didn’t really fit what was going on.



CF:

The film suggests that passing both threatens and confirms those societal codes.



KP:

That’s true. The sheer act of passing itself is erotic, regardless of the end result or where you come from. Androgynous people are so erotic because they flicker, they’re in motion. The crossing of boundaries feels good at the societal level, like you can have chaos at night, but order and ritual must be restored by day. Brandon was like a party. They rape her to reassert the order. These are the mechanics of hatred.



CF:

How would you describe Brandon’s sense of his identity?



KP:

Brandon saw himself under terms very different from what you or I would understand. He specifically said, ‘I’m not a lesbian, I’m not going to New York or Los Angeles. I’m going to be a straight man here.’ Where he passed, it was probably easier to pass as a man, because people didn’t expect that a girl would pass. And yet the stakes for failure were tremendous, which was a function of class and education.



CF:

Did reaching a wide audience with his story inform your choices while you were making the film?



KP:

No, what I had in mind was being true to Brandon. I was terrified that a) I wouldn’t get the story right, and b) I had to get the right casting. I needed an unknown, I needed someone who could pass day to day. I knew dykes coming to the film would probably love Brandon either way because of the act that he performed. I knew the gender passing would somehow be more important to a straight audience. You have to suspend disbelief, because really, you meet her as Teena first, so the audience is on her side. And Teena, as the trailer park girl, could transform herself into the ideal boy because she could study the boys. She was an invention of her own imagination, yet she was satisfying a cultural need. She slipped sometimes, she got needy and afraid, and really, I think, wanted to come clean. I think she was drawn to disclosure.



CF:

How did you understand that period between the rape and the murder, where Brandon’s killers could think that she’d assume a girl’s role and be quiet, for them? Did you talk to them?



KP:

No. I had seen Arthur Duong’s License to Kill, studied [serial killers] Ted Bundy and Gary Gilmore, but I was in grad school and working, and was running out of money. And then I decided that diving in to Lana and that beautiful story was going to be the heart of it. I felt like I had enough of a handle on the boys’ story, and wanted to focus on Lana.



CF:

I’m wondering how they could think the rape would be enough to insure her silence and fix her identity and theirs.



KP:

Well, they saw Brandon as a more effective boy than they were. That’s bad enough, but the boy is a girl, so that’s a double blow to their masculinity. They don’t have jobs, they’re not effective men, and this person is taking away what little they do have. I think the rape was so deeply unconscious. It was punishment, like ‘You don’t betray us.’ But it was also the way to make the boy into a girl, and it’s satisfying their own desires. And it’s punishing that thing that exposes their desire as homoerotic… I spent a lot of time thinking about how to portray Brandon’s rape, so that it was subjective, didn’t brutalize the audience or dishonor Brandon, but also was an evolution of the story. That’s why it’s intertwined into the sheriff recalling it, and her words, ‘My vagina.’ So it’s all about the rape being a moment of psychological crisis, that unlocks a history and forces her to move on.



CF:

And it’s the moment when she has to say, ‘I have a sexual identity crisis,’ to take it on herself.



KP:

She’s confessing, having a moment of truth in this horrible place, but you’re right, it’s a very female thing to do. Boys take their rage out on girl bodies and girls take it out on their own. She owns up to it, but still manages to move forward. With Teena you almost feel like, she knows it’s fucked up, but I need to cry and go through it on my own. And healing usually happens in public. For Brandon it has to happen with Lana. He had to learn how to love in a true identity.



CF:

And he had to see that identity reflected in her.



KP:

Exactly. And he had to be bare, exposed and visible. Some people have asked me, are they having sex as lesbians and I say, no not at all. Lana is gendered female and so is Brandon, but Brandon is now neither Teena nor Brandon, but some amalgamation of both. The emphasis is really on being seen and being loved. Genitals just don’t make the person.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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