What is gender? What attracts us to another person? Is it something subliminal and chemical tied to biological sex, or is it the mere perception of our lovers’ gender? Is sexual attraction and orientation innate, or is it learned? Why do men and women become complete idiots when in the clutches of love and lust?
The true-life tragedy of the person who called himself Brandon Teena — and was actually a young woman named Teena Brandon — raises all of these impossible-to-answer questions. And how they relate to her specific story we’ll probably never know, because she was murdered in 1993 by two men whom she made homicidally angry with her gender bending.
Girls will be boys
Boys Don’t Cry, director/screenwriter Kimberly Peirce’s somewhat fictionalized exploration of the last year of Brandon Teena’s life, poses those tough questions, at least obliquely, but then, frustratingly, skims right over them. We can’t expect quick and easy answers to age-old dilemmas, but I would have hoped for deeper scrutiny of them.
It’s the lack of focus on the motives of many of the characters in Boys Don’t Cry that leaves you with the feeling that if this weren’t a true story, it would feel so preposterous as to be entirely unbelievable. Teena/Brandon (Hilary Swank) is fairly fathomable, as characters go. As a girl who felt as if she was a boy — which is distinct from being a lesbian — in intolerant middle America, she found a measure of acceptance, or at least a way to hide, in disguising herself as a boy. But how to explain her propensity for petty crime? She had a juvenile record including convictions for car theft and check forgery — was this some expression of her inner turmoil, or was she naturally a less than upright citizen? Does the distinction even matter? Peirce (and her cowriter Andy Bienen) don’t seem to have an opinion.
As Boys Don’t Cry opens, Teena flees her native Lincoln, Nebraska, when her secret is discovered, for the small town of Falls City, where no one knows her and she is free to live full time as Brandon. The people s/he falls in with here are less explicable. Brandon becomes captivated by Lana (Chloë Sevigny) and even makes naïve plans to marry her. Lana, if it can be believed, is even more impossibly innocent than that, imagining she can make living at karaoke. Hardest to swallow, though, is how long she remains convinced that Brandon is actually a boy, when even Peirce and Bienen seem to think she should be getting a clue — early on, for example, Lana sees, down Brandon’s shirt, Teena’s breasts bound up in an Ace bandage. But Lana’s self-delusion continues unabated, and her capacity for fooling herself so very well goes uncommented on by the filmmakers. Yes, this woman actually exists and behaved this way, but why make a film that’s as much about her as it is about Brandon/Teena if you’ve got nothing to offer by way of explanation for her behavior?
Is that I just can’t comprehend the wasted lives of people living in poor, desolate places with no hope of escape? Was Brandon a fantasy for Lana, a dream, fulfilled in the unlikeliest of ways, of a kind and sensitive man not typically found Falls City, Nebraska? This is the kind of place where a stranger in a convenience store asks Lana to join him for a beer, and when she refuses he calls her a “skanky whore.” This is the kind of place where violent ex-cons like John (Peter Sarsgaard) — Lana’s boyfriend — and his friend Tom (Brendan Sexton III) are considered nice guys and good catches. How wonderful a “man” like Brandon must have seemed by contrast: considerate, attentive, and calm. Was that enough to sustain the illusion for Lana? Peirce and Bienen don’t give us any hints about their own suspicions.
What an affront to masculinity macho jerks like John and Tom must have found Brandon to be — even before they discovered he was a she. Why would two swaggering idiots like them hang out with an effete, pretty boy like Brandon? It’s easy to see their attraction for Brandon — they were how Teena imagined herself as a boy. But what prompted their friendship with Brandon? We don’t have a clue.
Flawed as it is, Boys Don’t Cry is still a fascinating — and deeply disturbing — film. And it’s a must-see if for no reason other than Hilary Swank’s virtuoso performance. Actors have played the opposite gender before, but rarely so compellingly. Swank inhabits Brandon so confidently and so well that it’s easy to forget that it’s a woman under those flannel shirts — and she makes it easy to get past the improbability of a young woman passing for a young man. From the masculine way she walks to her disgust at having to deal with the reality of being female — she treats her period as not just an annoying but a revolting inconvenience — Swank’s Brandon is what saves Boys Don’t Cry from being a mere oddity, and elevates it to a near great film. Swank’s performance also, however, makes the film’s shortcomings all the more exasperating.
Blame the victim
The documentary The Brandon Teena Story shows the true story to be even more disconcerting than the fictive version. The appalling narrowmindedness, intolerance, and medieval attitudes about gender roles depicted in Boys Don’t Cry are nothing compared with how things really are in Nebraska.
“A Great Place to Live,” says the welcome sign at the edge of Falls City, but it’s a poor, desperate place with a high crime rate, according to a local cop — domestic violence is a particular problem. Jobs are scarce, and women are considered lucky if they aren’t pregnant and on welfare. What made this desolate, dying town a refuge for Teena Brandon? Her experiments with her own identity back in the trailer parks of Lincoln were disastrous — she was usually taunted with “freak,” “lesbo,” “dyke,” say her Lincoln friends, when the truth about “Brandon” was discovered. When too many people learned about her deception, she lit out for the empty farm country of Falls City.
Through interviews with family and genuine friends and readings of Teena’s diaries and letters, filmmakers Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir paint a portrait of a confused young woman so desperate for love and affection that she would steal gifts to give the objects of her desire (Brandon even used one girlfriend’s credit card to buy an engagement ring for her). Teena’s mother warned that “people are cruel,” and her sister urged Teena to get help — not in an attempt to be “cured” but to find a way to accept herself. But Teena — whom we see in many photographs, smiling and seemingly happy living as Brandon — would not be dissuaded from “living one big lie.”
Lana appears here, and does come across as the “brainwashed” and self-deluded young woman her ex-boyfriend John Lotter says she is. Lotter and Tom Nissen — interviewed in prison, where the former is on death row and the latter is serving a life sentence for Teena’s murder — are even worse excuses for human beings than they are depicted in Boys Don’t Cry. Lotter, wearing a crucifix, laughs as he refers to the “consensual sex” he had with Teena, when he and Nissen raped her in a fit of rage a few days before they killed her — and anyway, he “couldn’t keep it up” that night because he was drunk and was thinking of his fiancée. One wonders what his fiancée thinks of this excuse, but if she’s anything like Tom’s girlfriend, she’s probably still planning the wedding: Tom’s girlfriend is concerned that Tom not be seen as a “faggot” or as a “pervert” — for having sex with a “man,” that is, not for raping someone. Being seen as a rapist is apparently not a problem.
The cops who investigated Teena’s rape are shockingly insensitive, and it’s heartbreaking to listen to the tape of what can only be called the interrogation Teena was subjected to when she reported the attack. Sheriff Laux is “amazed” that Nissen and Lotter, in an earlier attack in which they ripped her pants off to ascertain her gender, didn’t fondle her or “stick their fingers up” her. Laux in effect puts Teena on trial during the questioning, suggesting she was complicit in her own rape by helping Lotter get an erection, wondering why she “kisses girls,” and refusing to even acknowledge a crime occurred by using the word “poke” instead of “rape.” Teena, on the recording, is obviously shaken and frightened, and there was plenty of medical evidence establishing rape, but Laux refused to arrest Lotter and Nissen. That refusal directly resulted in her murder.
But what’s probably the most disturbing thing about The Brandon Teena Story is its picture of the state of war that exists between the sexes for too many people. Lana’s mom says Tom Nissen seemed like a “nice guy,” despite the fact that he was married and also seeing her sister on the side — and the frightening thing is, on the relative scale of the men we meet here, she might be right. This is an astonishing indictment of men who treat women like their property and women whose affections are so easily bought with nothing more than a kind word and a cheap gift. Brandon was “every woman’s dream,” say the girls who dated him. He “knew exactly how women want to be treated” — and that, it seems, is merely to be “clean and considerate.” Teena succeeded so wonderfully as Brandon because so many men are uncivilized morons, and because so many women have such low expectations for themselves and rock-bottom levels of self-esteem.
The Brandon Teena Story is depressingly bleak. That it’s a true story is deplorable.