Boys Don't Cry and the Gaze

Posted by Tim Posada On 10:05 PM
The head of the cultural studies department Dr. Eve Oishi (my Transnational Media Theory instructor for a class at Pitzer) guest spoke in my Visual Research Methods class last Wednesday. We discussed several readings from The Visual Culture Reader on sexuality. I fount our first class discussion on Judith Halberstam’s “The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don't Cry” to be the most intriguing. Halberstam’s essay discusses the transgender gaze of the film, as opposed to the male gaze, which dominates the majority of Hollywood films and reminds the viewers of the often-male point of view of most popular films. For an easy example of this, just check both Transformers films and try to tell me that the camera doesn’t exploit Megan Fox’s body much like an adolescent male would (targeted demographic for the film).

Halberstam discusses that the first part of Boys Don’t Cry but transforms into a lesbian gaze at the pivotal moment in the film. Dr. Oishi played for us the clip in question and we engaged it. The clip of interest occurs after Lana (ChloĆ« Sevigny) learns that the man she had been dating, Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), was not a biological man but a biological woman. Lana approaches Brandon in the secluded barn he lives in, not with anger but willing to accept him. However, the language used in this interaction changes the dynamic from a man and a woman to two women. With Brandon’s head in her lap, Lana says to him, “You’re very pretty,” something she wouldn’t have said prior to the reveal. The interaction here changes the way the two act and then turns the story from transgender to lesbian.

We also discussed the cinematic conventions used by the film that provide problems for interpretation. By earlier showing sex scenes and then, in this scene, fading to the aftermath, attempting to show the difference between showing sex on screen and implying making love, the film places itself within the tradition of other Hollywood films. In the end, Boys Don’t Cry sacrifices transgender politics for gay/lesbian ones. I must admit here, I have only viewed the scenes from class and haven’t scene the film, but I don’t imagine this is a far stretch. Gay and lesbian politics have won out in other cinematic examples as well, especially in the form of stories solely about white people, turning gay and lesbian issues into white issues of sexuality. Boys Don’t Cry then aligns with other Hollywood films because it simplifies something like sexuality, just as other films, like Crash or Pursuit of Happyness, simplify such things as race for the sake of a the story.

We ended this part of class talking about how most scholar, when analyzing films, tend to favor criticism based on how the film ends. I’ve noticed this feminist criticism of Thelma and Louise for ending with their deaths. The same criticism could be used here, as it ultimately ends with the death of Brandon Teena, leaving only assumedly heterosexual couples to find love without threat of death. Dr. Oishi discussed the Brandon’s home, an isolated little shack with nothing visible inside, just a bright view of the sky above when the door is open. The shack serves as a metaphor for Brandon; he won’t find hope in his life on earth, only in the sky. We discussed if just looking at the end should ignore the journey along the way of most films and I find myself torn.

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