The critical representation of gender and queerness in "Boys Don’t Cry"

Looking at the interplay of narration and narrative in Brandon’s ‘exposure’ scene

Seminar Paper, 2011

28 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of contents


1 Theoretical background
1.1 Boys Don’t Cry and queerness: A brief discussion of pertinent terminology from Feminist criticism and Queer theory
1.2 Boys Don’t Cry and genre: An example of New Queer Cinema or a generic hybrid?

2 Analysing Boys Don’t Cry: The representation of gender and queerness
2.1 The representation of queerness with respect to genre
2.2 Gender representation in terms of scopophilia, gaze and phallocentrism
2.3 The interplay of narration and narrative in Brandon’s ‘exposure’ scene




Boys Don’t Cry (2008, written and directed by Kimberley Peirce) is one of the films that manage to touch the viewers deeply. It is based on the tragic (and true) story of young Brandon Teena, who was born female but felt a man, and who was murdered for exactly this ‘sexual identity crisis’.[1] This subject matter[2] is highly unusual in film, therefore it is even more exceptional that it earned its leading actress Hillary Swank (then yet unknown to mainstream audiences) an Oscar and several other awards. The film was a surprise success and gave rise to anti-discrimination campaigns for transgendered people.

With a protagonist who is a female-to-male transgender, the representation of gender and gender relationships looms large in the film. As already mentioned, there is also a political dimension to the film and its syuzhet: The private (Brandon’s life and its fictionalisation in Boys Don’t Cry) is also the political (the increase in awareness of transgender issues and its propelling of a political movement). Therefore, this paper focuses on the way how gender and queerness (especially in respect to Brandon) are treated on the level of narrative as well as on the level of narration, and how this influences the overall effect of the film in- and outside of the cinemas. In the first part of the paper, the texts is devoted to a brief overview of the key terms used, such as ‘gender’, ‘queerness’ and ‘Queer New Cinema’ as a genre of Independent Cinema. The ensuing analysis of the film will draw on some influential schools of thought and critics, among them feminist criticism and queer theory, which are both concerned with the gender issue. This is the theoretical basis for a closer analysis of one crucial scene in particular.

In the ‘exposure’ scene, as I term it, Brandon is literally dis-covered and his female genitalia are made visible. It is one of the most violent and touching scenes in the whole film, but even more so it is the crucial point where Peirce makes the arguably most important statements about gender and queerness. Correspondingly, it is this part that deviates most openly in its narration from mainstream convention. The off-mainstream narrative techniques employed in this scene add a further layer of meaning and understanding to the representation of gender and queerness in the film. The ‘exposure’ scene is the first instance of gender-related violence towards Brandon; it manages to increase viewers’ (emotional) immersion as well as identification with the ‘queer’ protagonist. This is particularly crucial for the overall effect of the film: raising awareness, tolerance and understanding of transgendered people in the viewers, even beyond the duration of the film.

1 Theoretical background

One possible first step in film analysis is the classification of a film into one or more genres, because it provides a framework for its reading and interpretation. In terms of Boys Don’t Cry the core genre is ‘New Queer Cinema’. However, as with most independent films, Boys Don’t Cry exhibits influences from several different genres, which has to be taken into account in an analysis. Therefore, some theoretical background on the question of genre is necessary but also on queerness and gender. As will be shown, both starting points of analysis are useful in a gender-critical reading of the film, and will reinforce each other.

1.1 Boys Don’t Cry and queerness: A brief discussion of pertinent terminology from Feminist criticism and Queer theory

Before arguing in more detail why Boys Don’t Cry is a prime example of New Queer Cinema, a discussion of the term ‘queer’ seems helpful. In their introduction to the Queer screen reader, Stacey and Street consider the difficulties behind the term ‘queer’, which, although a term frequently used in analyses and research, still avoids clear definition. This property, I argue, is actually a quality rather than a failure of the term – it suggests flexibility, ongoing development and consequently also openness and inclusiveness, despite the opposition of ‘queerness’ to heteronormativity. To put it simple, ‘queer’ as a concept encompasses almost everything that deviates from the straight ‘norm’. Often, it is used synonymously with LGBT, which stands for: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.[3] Thus, ‘queer’ is an umbrella term for varieties of sexual preferences as well as of gender. It merges all kinds of ‘divergent’ personal and sexual identities, and celebrates the performativity of sexual and gender identity.[4] ‘Queer’ is everything that is ‘out of the (supposed) norm’ of traditional sexual and gender identities. “Ultimately, the theories, criticism, and film and popular culture texts produced within this definition of ‘queer’ would seek to examine, challenge, and confuse sexual and gender categories” (Doty 1998: 150).

‘Queerness’ as a concept in a variety of forms and realisations lies at the heart of queer theory. Queer theory as an academic (sub-)discipline or field of research builds on assertions brought forth by feminist criticism, such as the performativity, non-fixity and non-bipolarity of sexual identification, the difference between sex and gender (the former being a biological state, the other a performative and social act), and a general interest in laying bare patterns of power relationships and heteronormativity (cf. White 1998: 130, Doty 1998: 148). Queer theory and feminist criticism provide several useful tools of analysis for the gender representation in Boys Don’t Cry, such as the description of ‘gaze’.[5]

With her influential essay on “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”, Laura Mulvey’s feminist critique of gender-specific representation in film is one of the key texts of feminist criticism as well as of queer theory. In it, she “takes as a starting point the way film reflects, reveals, and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (Mulvey 1975: 833). Thirty-five years have passed since Mulvey’s revolutionary analysis, and many things have changed in (especially Independent) cinema, while her theses are still not entirely outdated.

Mulvey’s work is an important theoretical basis for the study of ‘gaze’, i.e. the directedness and relationships of looking in visual media. In Freudian terms, ‘scopophilia’, the pleasure of looking, involves a subject (the looker-on or voyeur) who takes control as he gazes at an object. In its initial and main form, gazing at others is an activity, while the object remains passive (cf. Mulvey 1975: 835). This way of looking is also present in cinema, since “the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation” (Mulvey 1975: 836). In addition, from a child’s first self-recognition in the mirror onwards, every image we look at is also directly linked with our self-image, which adds a narcissistic dimension to scopophilia (cf. Mulvey 1975: 836). “Quite apart from the extraneous similarities between screen and mirror […], the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego” (Mulvey 1975: 836). These two strands of pleasure in looking, then, are related but also create a tension for the spectator between losing and reinforcing his or her ego.

Mulvey further identifies woman as traditionally being the passive objects to be looked at, while the position of the active looker-on is usually male (cf. Mulvey 1975: 837). “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (Mulvey 1975: 838). But however pleasant women in film are to look at, they are also threatening to men – from a Freudian perspective – because of their lack of a penis. “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies” (Mulvey 1975: 833). This absence of a penis is especially important in the case of Brandon, who, one may argue, is eventually murdered for exactly this reason.

1.2 Boys Don’t Cry and genre: An example of New Queer Cinema or a generic hybrid?

Earlier, the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ was mentioned in connexion to Boys Don’t Cry. Having introduced the terms ‘queerness’ and ‘Queer theory’, it is easier now to define ‘New Queer Cinema’. Indeed, this is a necessary background for this paper since the particular representation of queerness and gender can only be understood fully with regard to certain generic conventions. Thus, some more space will be devoted to a discussion of genre and generic influences on Boys Don’t Cry.

Tom Ryall (1998: 327f) traces the usage of genre back to the 1950s, and the 1960s in critical discourse, respectively. Genre is especially important for Hollywood cinema, since it establishes a kind of framework of thematic and productional qualities (in other terms: of syuzhet and mise-en-scene), which serves to describe, direct and live up to viewers’ expectations.[6] The critical reception of Independent Cinema, on the other hand, has often been characterised by a focus on auteurs rather than genre (or even stars), to the extent that sometimes ‘Independent’ itself has been treated as a distinct genre.[7] However, genre is an integral part of Independent Cinema in so far that independent auteurs make deliberate use of certain genre conventions, by exploring and transgressing their limits or by fusing two very distinct genres, such as the (homosexual) love story and the Western in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.

Individual films, Ryall argues, are as much part of a specific genre as they are also manifestations of the society at a given point of time. This is why “[g]enres can be studied both in terms of an internal history of forms, themes, and iconography, and in terms of their relationship to broader cultural and social shifts” (Ryall 1998: 329). Furthermore, genres may fulfil specific socio-cultural functions, such as criticism of values and practices. Independent films more often than mainstream ones tend towards criticising society in its various aspects.


[1] Boys Don’t Cry is a fictional narrative about the true story of Teena Brandon, alias Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 2003. I want to make clear in this context that whenever I refer to Brandon or any other of the characters in the film, I only make a statement about the fictional Brandon on screen, and not about the real one, since there has been some debate on the ‘truthfulness’ of Kimberly Peirce’s depiction of the story.

[2] For an extended theoretical discussion of the phenomenon transsexuality, see for example Judith Shapiro’s essay “Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex”.

[3] “Queer, a derogatory term levelled at the non-hetero-seeming, was reappropriated in the late 1980s, early 1990s, by its victims as a defiant means of empowerment echoing black activists’ use of ‘nigger’ in the 1960s. Relieving the burden of the titular expansion of L-G-B-T- (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), queer’s most basic function is an umbrella term or catch-all for uniting various forms of non-straight sexual identity. But it means much more than this. Queer represents the resistance to, primarily, the normative codes of gender and sexual expression – that masculine men sleep with feminine women – but also to the restrictive potential of gay and lesbian sexuality – that only men sleep with men, and women sleep with women. In this way, queer, as a critical concept, encompasses the non-fixity of gender expression and the non-fixity of both straight and gay sexuality” (Aaron 5).

[4] Sometimes, the term ‘queer’ is also seen more exclusively, i.e. denoting only gay men or sometimes lesbians as well (cf. Doty 1998: 148). “Aside from its uses as a synonym for gay or lesbian or bisexual, certain uses of ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ as new umbrella terms have most strongly suggested how it might work with(in) established lesbian, gay, and bisexual film and popular culture theory and criticism. In these uses, ‘queer’ might be used to describe the intersection or combination of more than one established ‘non-straight’ sexuality or gender position in a spectator, a text, or a personality” (Doty 1998: 149). Furthermore, ‘queer’ may also denote films, audiences and practices “that suggest or establish spaces that are not quite contained within established gender and sexuality categories” (Doty 1998: 150).

[5] Queer theory and feminist criticism overlap in the new field of gender studies, which also includes the study of ‘masculinities’ (N.b. the plural form), as stressed in this paper. All three academic (sub-) disciplines employ psychological and psychoanalytical theories (cf. Codell 2007: 120), which are also relevant for certain aspects of genre theory.

[6] Despite the omnipresence of genre, the term yet lacks clear definition. Ryall quotes Jameson, who sees the generic system as a “constellation of ideal relationships” (1998: 328), which are distinct from the individual works they are meant to describe and classify. The generic system, Jameson says, make up the “environment” for individual films, in which they have to be read and interpreted.

[7] Newman (2009: 17) defines the independent mode in opposition to mainstream culture and cinema “as a cinematic and cultural category that is not determined by the industrial definition”, and adds: "’Indie’ connotes small-scale, personal, artistic, and creative; ‘mainstream’ implies a large-scale commercial media industry that values money more than art” (2009: 16).

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The critical representation of gender and queerness in "Boys Don’t Cry"
Looking at the interplay of narration and narrative in Brandon’s ‘exposure’ scene
University of Graz  (Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
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622 KB
Boys don't cry, queer, transgender, independent, cinema, screen, masculinity, body, identity, gender
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BA BA Adrian Zagler (Author), 2011, The critical representation of gender and queerness in "Boys Don’t Cry", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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