The movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is based on the real-life story of a Falls City, Nebraska transgender man named Brandon Teena. His story in the film shows failures in gender performance. Unfortunately for Brandon, he failed to show the difference between sex and gender and how they are binary. Because of his failed gender performance, Brandon was forced to return to a heterosexual reality. One of the things which ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ depicts is Judith Butler’s “gender performativity”. She defines this as “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender, identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions , that are said to be its results” (Butler, Gender Trouble, pg. 44). As we see in Brandon’s story, although he was born a woman biologically, he had the same behaviors and expressions of a man.
At the start of the movie, we see Brandon begins preparing for his performance of masculinity. One of the things he does is beg his cousin to cut his hair as short as possible. He desperately desires to conform to the social construct of a male. He talks like a male, dresses like a male and goes as far stuffing socks in his pants so he can show he too has the male bulge. His cousin does not hesitate to warn him however to be very careful with how far he takes his male performance. She cautions that if he is not careful with his gender role and performance as a male, he will become a “deformity”. Brandon does other things to show he is male and masculine, such as taping and flattening his breasts. So in a sense in the movie we see him exposed a performer trying to be a male although technically he is not. If we compare this to other male characters who are portrayed, they do not have to put on this same performance to show their gender role as males.
Brandon’s body does not fit into social norms and as Butler states in her works “the gendered body does not simply embody social norms but is produced by discourses that provide meaning”,(Butler, 1990, pg. 21). What Brandon is performing is what some would consider a fantasy and a misguided conception of being heterosexual. Butler says there is not a natural way we perform this, but is defined by what we construct in the way we act. In the way he acts as shown in the movie, Brandon attempts to construct the identity of a male in which he believes society is capable of accepting. At first he seems to interact well with both other males and females.
In the beginning, it appears that Brandon has no trouble playing the part of the male and gives the impression he is able to interact and identify with other males like John. He gets accepted into their circle after becoming involved in a bar fight and coming out as a winner. Brandon also takes part in other activities which society considers to be “male”. One of the things Brandon does is takes part in something called bumper ski. Bumper ski is where someone ties you to the back of a vehicle and drags you and is not something you would see a woman taking part in. When Brandon is questioned about it, he defends himself by stating this is just something that men take part in. He wants his performance as a male to be as real as possible.
“Realness is not exactly performance, not exactly an imitation; it is the way that people appropriate the real,”(Butler, 1993, pg. 129). In Brandon’s case, there is a failure of performance because he does not understand what he is doing is reality. “We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start”, (Butler, CITATION). What the movie shows is that Brandon although is playing the role of the male, is failing to meet the gender performative as there are certain male things in which he is unable to do. In the scene in the bathroom, Tom is confused by Brandon because of his lack of a particular body part and this is where one of the failures of gender performance is highlighted. However, despite this, his girlfriend Lana, accepts Brandon as he is. Of course, she is not without her doubts as the film illustrates as at times, she appears to look confused when in intimate scenes with Brandon. He also tries to be the caring man and show that he can fulfill her emotional needs. What makes him even more believable is in his role as the man this “performance illustrates the constant effort to construct and imitate gender ideals”, (Butler, 1990, 338). This shows the complications of gender fluidity. Throughout the movie, Lana gives hints that she might be aware of Brandon’s true identity. However , she declares rather emphatically, that she does not care what he is, it does not matter to her. It is because of this there is disintegration of the gender binary.
Once Brandon’s true identity is revealed , this makes his friends who had originally accepted him for who he was angry. At this point in the movie, the masculinity he had known was suddenly gone. From here there is a depiction of the fear shown as transphobia and fear of homosexuals. Because Brandon was biologically a woman who identified as a man, John and Tom felt he must be punished. John and Tom perform their gender as they are violent in their actions towards Brandon. Butler says in her works “It’s my view that gender is culturally formed, but it’s also a domain of agency or freedom and that it is most important to resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentation”, (CITATION). What happened here is since Brandon was not a conformist to the gender he was born with, Tom and John felt they had the right to show violence to let him know his actions of performing the role of a man were not acceptable to them.
To show Brandon, he is in the wrong and not the masculine person John and Tom thought he was, they decide to teach him a lesson by raping him and brutally beating him. By raping him, this shows the termination in his performance of the role of the man. John and Tom also do this because they feel what Brandon has done is insult their gender roles as masculine males. After they rape and beat him, they also tell him he had better not go to the authorities with what they did to him or else they will kill him. This here is another example of the performativity of gender in which Butler discusses in her writings. However, Brandon being biologically a female is upset about what happens and decides to go to the authorities.
When the person we think is Brandon goes to the sheriff, Sheriff Laux puts Brandon through an interview that is both insulting an almost crosses the line of being a secondary rape. The sheriff is trying to get Brandon to admit that he is in fact a female and not a male. This is an example of how gender binary can have legal consequences. What the sheriff’s questioning and the rape and beating from John and Tom show is how Butler explains that “masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed, but socially constructed” (CITATION), and their failure to accept the social construct of who Brandon had become.
In the end, John and Tom murder Brandon and two others because ultimately, they are unable to accept that gender is a social construct and not just body parts you are born with. The movie also shows how unwilling society is to accept that not everyone who is born one sex biologically might be another gender socially. Not every woman born with female reproductive parts feels she fits into society in the gender role of a female and no one should force her to feel this is the way it is. The same can be said for those born biologically male but are more comfortable performing the role of the female. Gender is more than one thing and those who do not fit a societal norm deserve to be protected in some way so that what happened to Brandon does not happen again. As Butler explains regarding symbolic violence, “It forces bodies into oppressive categories (binary system), that constrain desires and individual practice (heterosexuality) into possibilities already given”, (Butler, ?). As depicted in “Boys Don’t Cry”, doing gender is not as simple as one size fits all.