Year: 1999
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Writers: Kimberly Peirce, Andy Bienen
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III

Boys Don’t Cry opens in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Brandon dressing as a young man for the first time. The androgynous-looking Hilary Swank is brilliantly cast in the lead role; not only is she made up to resemble an awkward young man but there are no emotionally braver actors in the business. Brandon skates with a starry-eyed girl called Nicole as a mirror ball showers them with fractured light. Later, Brandon kisses Nicole goodnight then turns away in elation. The audience doesn’t know it but this is pretty much the high point of the real Teena Brandon’s life. We’re not even five minutes into the film.

However, a subsequent episode doesn’t go so well. Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen’s concise screenplay cuts to some irate men chasing Brandon through the rain, shouting, “You fucking dyke, you freak.” What exactly Brandon has done is uncertain but the perils of unorthodox sexuality in the American Mid-west are eminently clear. Why does Brandon’s behaviour incite such hysteria and violence? The question is rarely asked, yet asked it must be and Sexcatraz will endeavour to provide some answers. Brandon nips home just ahead of the pursuing pack. The door shudders under their blows. “You are not a boy,” squeals Brandon’s petrified housemate. “Why don’t you just admit that you’re a dyke?” Brandon can’t. Boys Don’t Cry offers few clues as to what impels Brandon to present as a man. However, both out of respect for Brandon’s choice and to make this narrative vaguely readable, Brandon will henceforth be referred to as ‘him’.

Down and out, Brandon hits a country bar and meets Candace[1] (Alicia Goranson), another troubled waif. Brandon goes for cigarettes; a fat trucker takes over his barstool and fancies a bit of Candace. The weedy Brandon stands up to the trucker and gets a hiding. He also earns major kudos—not just in Candace’s eyes but, more importantly, in those of her friend John Lotter (a devilish Peter Sarsgaard), who facilitates Brandon’s escape by starting a brawl. “I would’ve had those guys if you hadn’t stopped me,” Brandon brags.

The charismatic but volatile Lotter takes a shine to Brandon; his acceptance draws Brandon into a social circle that includes Tom Nissen and, fatefully, Lotter’s childhood friend Lana Tisdel. They hang out at a bar where Candace works. And here Lana, the femme fatale of Boys Don’t Cry, makes her entrance.

Boys Don't Cry

As portrayed by Chloë Sevigny—who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role—Lana comes across as a doe-eyed wastrel in a black T-shirt, equal parts angel and dope fiend. Brandon is mesmerised. Lana, Candace and another friend perform a karaoke version of Restless Heart’s haunting #1 country single, ‘The Bluest Eyes in Texas’. The camera slowly zooms in on Lana, erasing Candace and the other girl to succinctly convey Brandon’s emotional tunnel vision.

Lana becomes the epicentre of Brandon’s life. He settles into Candace’s Falls City house, stashing a dildo under the mattress like a dog marking its territory. Brandon’s breasts disappear under tightly wound bandages as he perfects his male persona. It’s another sign that Brandon’s sexuality violates the locally accepted mores; the tension builds as the audience waits for the moment when Brandon’s duplicity gets exposed.

The film burbles along in low gear until Brandon gets a speeding ticket, a scene that also reveals Lotter’s violent streak. Lotter’s previously latent capacity for violence, neatly inserted by the writers in this slightly off-the-ball incident, is vital to understanding his later actions. The speeding ticket reminds Brandon of his impending court summons. He steals a blank cheque from Candace, the doormat of Boys Don’t Cry, but Lana appears before he can elope. An awkward, probing conversation turns into a lingering kiss. It’s a pivotal moment for both of them—in the film at least. Brandon returns to Lincoln but the fear of being jailed and unable to see Lana makes him jump ship.

Brandon returns to Falls City and finds Lana at the local cannery. She goes AWOL from her night shift; they sit in the dark and gaze across at the lights of the plant twinkling in the distance. It’s a fine location for a first sexual encounter; for all the film’s dourness, Kimberly Peirce turns the Nebraskan industrial skyline into a backdrop of stark beauty. In a fictionalised campfire moment beneath the big Mid-western night, Brandon undresses Lana. She reciprocates by reaching for his manhood but he stops her. Brandon slides down and pleasures Lana; she lies back with big bright eyes at the wonder of it all.

Boys Don't Cry

Then comes the moment that cannot be avoided. But Brandon has a trick: he surreptitiously employs the dildo[2]. However, his thrusting loosens the bandages flattening his breasts, revealing some cleavage[3]. Lana does a double take but love carries the day, though it’s not clear whether she understood what she glimpsed beneath Brandon’s chequered shirt.

From here on Brandon’s life unravels. The next sequence is a blur of speeding tickets, unheeded summons and bounced cheques. “Wow, this Teena chick seems pretty messed up,” Brandon admits while maintaining an unhealthy distance from reality. He winds up in a women’s jail, where Lana finds him. Brandon’s first excuse is that it’s the system, not him, that’s messed up. Lana doesn’t buy this so Brandon tries another gambit, much closer to the truth: s/he’s a hermaphrodite with both male and female parts. Lana signals her feelings for Brandon by bailing him to the tune of The Cure’s jaunty title song.

But Lotter is a different matter. The name ‘Teena Brandon’ on a court summons raises his suspicions; he searches Brandon’s belongings and finds the stashed dildo (low mileage, one careful lady owner) and a pamphlet on gender identity crisis. “Get this sick shit away from me,” he blurts as the awful truth smacks him in the face. Peter Sarsgaard superbly portrays the torrent of emotions that bombarded the real John Lotter in that fateful instant: shock, denial, betrayal, violation, humiliation, ridicule, a sense of nausea, a profound urge to paper over the cracks and return to normality—or to strike at the cause of this deeply distressing emotional whirlwind.

There is a collective name for this barrage of bewildering and unpleasant feelings that all arise from a profoundly awkward, sex-related experience: sexual shame

There is a collective name for this barrage of bewildering and unpleasant feelings that all arise from a profoundly awkward, sex-related experience: sexual shame. In the process of picking the locks of Sexcatraz, of dispersing the fog that clouds sexual dysfunction, there will be a number of such terms. It’s important to understand these discrete components that comprise the bricks and mortar of Sexcatraz, so here’s a definition:

Definition: Sexual shame

Shame: “a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong or foolish behaviour.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Sexual shame is a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong or foolish sexually related behaviour.

The revelation that Brandon Teena, a weedy, androgynous-looking youngster who had proven his manhood in a barroom brawl and won Lotter’s friendship was actually Teena Brandon, an emotionally disturbed young transgender woman, violated an internal sexual boundary that Lotter was unable to tolerate, causing him to experience his normally dormant shame. This is the “sexual line that must not be crossed” noted by archaeologist Timothy Taylor; it has existed since prehistory and exists within every one of us today. The concept of sexual boundaries is vital to understanding the way sexual shame is triggered and how these feelings of shame consciously or unconsciously translate into action or reaction in the physical world.

Definition: Sexual boundary

Boundary: “a line marking the limits of an area.” (Oxford English Dictionary) The demarcating line between acceptable (i.e. emotionally comfortable) and unacceptable (i.e. emotionally uncomfortable) sexual behaviour and feelings.

The crossing of a sexual boundary that triggers feelings of sexual shame—the shock, nausea, sense of humiliation and violation experienced by John Lotter¬ when he discovered the dildo—gives rise to a third definition: sexual transgression.

Definition: Sexual transgression

Transgress: “go beyond the limits set by (a moral principle, standard, law, etc.)” (Oxford English Dictionary) A sexual transgression is an act of a sexual nature that goes beyond the limits of an individual’s sexual boundaries and consequently triggers feelings of sexual shame.

Lotter is not alone in feeling violated, as Lana’s mother makes clear: “I invite you into my home and you expose my daughter to your sickness.” Transgender sexuality is risky enough in cosmopolitan urban centres; in the conservative Mid-west it’s a death wish. From every angle (except the fictional Lana) the message for Brandon is the same: your sex is sick. Brandon’s gender identity crisis has been reframed in terms of not physical or even mental illness, but moral degeneracy. Here we glimpse the invisible but all-pervasive attitudes leading to Brandon’s death: his environment is toxic with sexual negativity. Any expression of sexuality that violates another individual’s boundary causes a negative reaction, the strength of which is determined by the level of sexual shame internalised by that individual. This reaction may take the form of either a retreat from, or—as in this case—an aggressive act directed at the transgressor. Lotter and Nissen hone in on Brandon, who flits from lie to lie trying to dodge the issue of exactly what’s inside his Levis. Swank is brilliant as the emotionally floundering Brandon; so is Brendan Sexton III as the viperous Tom Nissen: “There’s a real easy way to solve this problem.”

Boys Don't Cry

Lotter and Nissen drag Brandon into the bathroom and strip him. Having ascertained Brandon’s physical characteristics, they force Lana to look. It’s a brutal sequence to watch; filming it must have been incredibly draining. Boys Don’t Cry abandons its linear narrative as Brandon’s world spirals into oblivion. Scenes in a police station are intercut with flashbacks into the aftermath of the bathroom inquisition. Headlights slash through the darkness and reflect off rusted metalwork as Lotter and Nissen drive Brandon to a derelict processing plant. In the darkness the locale is vaguely beautiful, unlike what transpires there.

Brandon’s rape serves multiple psychological purposes, all of them stemming from sexual shame. When he discovered Brandon wasn’t anatomically male, Lotter would have suddenly and retroactively experienced all of their interactions as a profound sexual transgression. His shame-induced feelings, shared by Tom Nissen, would have included a deep affront to his sense of manhood; the discovery that a transgender woman had completely duped him made him feel like a laughing stock. The rape serves not only to punish Brandon but also to cleanse Lotter and Nissen of their impugned manhood and to forcibly restore what they perceive as morally correct sexual orientation[4]. They are also signalling that any repeat behaviour is unacceptable; by telling Brandon to keep quiet about the rape they imply the punishment is merited. In other words, Lotter and Nissen unconsciously position themselves as the innocent, aggrieved party and the upholders of moral decency, while Brandon—who has been beaten, stripped and raped—is seen not as a victim but a victimiser.

Brandon flees to Lana’s house, an ambulance arrives and the police get involved. The sheriff grills Brandon as if he’s entirely at fault. “I have a sexual identity crisis,” Brandon stammers. There’s no compassion; the sexual landscape of Falls City is entirely hostile to such issues[5]. Lotter and Nissen are just as much inmates of Sexcatraz as Brandon. They learn of the rape complaint. In their shame and humiliation Lotter and Nissen cannot let the matter lie. The irresistible force of their sexual intolerance collides with the immovable object of Brandon’s need to present as a man. Brandon gets caught at Candace’s house; in the film Lotter shoots Brandon while Nissen kills the long-suffering Candace[6]. Lana’s mother leads her distraught daughter away; Candace’s toddler circles its mother’s mangled body.

Boys Don't Cry

A sunset the colour of dried blood seeps over Falls City; the credits roll as Nina Persson sings a gorgeous cover of ‘The Bluest Eyes in Texas’. Down endings don’t get much grimmer; I can still recall, after seeing the film on first release, reeling out of the cinema like a punch-drunk boxer.

Boys Don’t Cry employs a documentary style with an attendant refusal to judge. The characters are presented without the moral signposts common to glossy Hollywood productions. (In Escape from Alcatraz, the criminal background of Clint Eastwood’s Frank Morris is glossed over in order to make him seem ‘good’ in comparison with the haughty and vindictive warden, who is ‘bad’; this allows the audience to empathise with Morris’ more noble traits and support his battle against the spiteful warden.) Instead of polarising its characters into good (Brandon; Lana) and bad (Lotter; Nissen), Boys Don’t Cry positions them on a spectrum of sexual tolerance from high (the fictional Lana; the real one sued the producers for misrepresentation and settled out of court) to low (Lotter and Nissen, in fiction and real life). The result is an unconscious and uncomfortable reminder that we all have our limits and that, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, we too might respond in the same irreversible manner as John Lotter and Tom Nissen.

The events surrounding Brandon’s death show in simple, mechanical terms how a sexually related action by one person may cross another’s boundary. This violation activates the latter’s shame and gives rise to a sense of transgression that in turn triggers a negative reaction. This can be expressed as a simple emotional formula:

Boundary + violation = reaction

That this formula is still at work in Britain today can be seen from Facebook groups that sprang up in the wake of the 2009 Plymouth child abuse case, when a nursery worker was imprisoned for photographing and molesting children in her care. A typical example was ‘Vanessa George needs a DEATH sentence’[7]; the capitalisation—and its attendant hunger for capital punishment—was the group owner’s. But is this formula consistent and repeatable? In Boys Don’t Cry the sexual shame of Mid-western misfits Lotter and Nissen is latent; it’s not immediately apparent that they would react with terminal violence to such a transgression. In the next film, the antagonist’s level of shame is so high that his sexual boundaries are almost constantly violated. This makes the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction particularly prominent.

Next: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover


[1] Candace’s character is based on the real-life Lisa Lambert, who was murdered along with Brandon. A third person killed in the shooting, Phillip DeVine, was omitted from the film.

[2] This scene has a real-life parallel in the 2015 case of Gayle Newland, who presented herself online as a man, befriended a woman and convinced her to have blindfolded sex, during which Newland employed a prosthetic penis.

[3] The oddness of this sentence—the concatenation of the masculine ‘his’ with the feminine ‘breasts’ and ‘cleavage’—is another subtle testament to our society’s rigid views on gender delineation.

[4] This is called ‘corrective rape’. The term originated in South Africa where the practice is widely used against lesbians.

[5] Brandon’s mother won a court case against the real-life sheriff for failing to prevent her daughter’s death. During the case, the judge reprimanded Sheriff Charles Laux for his attitude after he referred to Brandon as ‘it’.

[6] Lotter and Nissen made contradicting claims about who shot whom. Nissen received a life sentence while Lotter was sentenced to death. Lotter’s appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of America was declined in 2012 and he remains on Death Row.

[7] The group has since been deleted from Facebook.

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