Week 10 Response

In Michelle Aaron’s piece on the Boys Don’t Cry debate surrounding passing/failing as a trans person puts the movie into a new perspective that works with — rather than against — gender essentialism and binaries. Part of this derives from its mainstream appeal, she argues, which situates the performativity/disguise of gender as a sort of inside joke only the audience truly understands. When characters in films about passing/cross-dressing slip up and potentially alert other characters of their quote unquote “true” identities, it only works to reinforce the idea that one’s essentialism and natural gender will always prevail. More than that, it turns sexuality and gender identity into this form of knowledge that has become understood as some aspect of “real” knowledge about oneself that even oneself may not understand. Turning sexuality into an undeniable truth about one’s personality and behavior is damning, and only works to turn the knowledge about one’s sexuality/gender into a dichotomy as rigid as gender: are you a man or a woman? gay or straight? a “real” man or a “real” woman? The answers to these questions are supposed to answer questions about one’s innate self that they themselves might not even accept or understand. A common thread in straight-made films about queerness or coming out often use jokes about parents “knowing” their child was gay because of a particular set of behaviors (ie. “you preferred barbies as a child, so we knew you were gay “) or a past-tense form of knowledge that explains past behaviors (ie. “you never did try out for the football team…” etc.). Boys Don’t Cry deviates a little from this norm, but still ultimately reinforces the idea that one’s innate/true/natural identity will eventually be revealed, and with violent consequences. If anything, the revelation is played less as a comedy and more as a horror, as the essentialist elements of Brandon’s identity (breasts, periods) work against his self-identity as Brandon/a man, rather than in a fluid congruence with his gender identity. The desire — and ultimate failure — to completely “pass” as a cis man is what makes Boys Don’t Cry such a controversial queer film, as it explores less about Brandon’s inner feelings and more about the mystery-style “gotcha” moment that reveals who he “really” is to his friends, attackers, and the audience at large.

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