Although I have not seen Boys Don’t Cry, I have long been aware of its cultural importance. I was under the impression that it was a rather backwards expression of transgender identity, but I was surprised to find a very different interpretation of the film in the readings assigned. I was intrigued by Judith Halberstam’s exploration of the film’s ability to simultaneously appeal to a mainstream audience and employ the transgender gaze. In fact, she argues that, “…the seduction of mainstream viewers by this decidedly queer and unconventional narrative must be ascribed to the film’s ability to construct and sustain a transgender gaze” (83). The film’s appeal actually comes from the subversion of the heterosexual, cisgender gaze. She says that, “The success of Boys Don’t Cry in cultivating an audience beyond the queer cinema circuit depends absolutely on its ability to hijack the male and female gazes, and replace them surreptitiously with transgender modes of looking and queer forms of visual pleasure” (83). The most interesting aspect of the film to me is how it upends heterosexual, cisgender narratives and audience expectations. Judith Halberstam says that, “Boys Don’t Cry establishes the legitimacy and the durability of Brandon’s gender not simply by telling the tragic tale of his death by murder but by forcing spectators to adopt, if only provisionally, Brandon’s gaze, a transgender look” (86). A mainstream audience must view the film through Brandon’s experience. I have often thought that many films use transgender characters as a crutch for the story, without actively exploring their experience. Transgender people’s stories are not properly represented in the heterosexual, cisgender Hollywood machine. Dallas Buyers Club, and Jared Leto’s performance in it, has always seemed particularly exploitative to me. In particular, I am bothered by the way the film’s heterosexual, cisgender character “saves” the transgender character. The reason Boys Don’t Cry seems to be radical is that it is more than a queer story with mainstream appeal. It actively explores a transgender person’s experience and adopts a transgender gaze. For that alone, it is an important film.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005.