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Greetings. I’m writing to you from the midst of a cloud of dust, from the eye of an epistemological storm. I’m writing to you from someplace I usually can’t discern, a place that I’m not entirely convinced exists. I am, that is, filing this report from lesbian America. At least I think I am. It’s chaos out here.
There was a time, oh, not so long ago, when I knew what a lesbian was. There was a time I knew how to pick out the butch girls in the street, could even wrangle a smile out of the toughest ones just by looking them dead in the eye. There was a time when I wasn’t quite so uncertain about the grammar of gender, when I thought, arrogantly, that I knew what queer girl desire was about, what it looked like and what sorts of results it produced: arousal, heartache, joint ownership of a feline, the near-constant threat of physical violence. Now I’m
not so sure. There is, in my loose federation, a growing population of girls who aren’t exactly girls, who used to go by “dyke,” but now prefer “boi,” or “man,” or “trans”: he. And apart from the homophobes for whom “freaky” pretty much covers the waterfront no one’s quite figured out what term to use for the kind of love they make.
Which isn’t to say nobody’s trying to make sense of it. While straight feminists like Susan Faludi are, right this minute, talking about the disruptions that make a mess of straight manhood, lesbian scholars and folksingers and filmmakers (butch and femme and switchy) are trying to find new ways to reclaim their own manliness, to theorize about and inhabit unfeminine bodies. Gender, they want to point out, is nothing but a language we invented so people could speak in full sentences. The two-gender system, they say, needs to give way to something new. That makes sense. It’s just that until those thinkers and artists and bartenders work that new system out, I can’t figure out what pronouns to use when talking about queer desire, much less get a grip on my own identity. Even so, it does me good just to know they’re working on it.
Which brings us to what I want to call the best lesbian movie of the year, the Fox Searchlight/Killer Films feature Boy’s Don’t Cry. But I can’t call it that because, at the moment, I can’t decide what a lesbian flick is or whether this would be one of them in any case. Consider the facts: Neither of the two main characters, the on-screen lovers, call themselves lesbians. Neither of the real-life actresses who play them are lesbians. There’s nothing you could call lesbian culture in the movie, there’s very little overt content about queers at all.
Do you remember the real-life events that inspired this movie? In 1993, national news outlets carried the story of the brutal rape and murder of somebody named Brandon Teena. Teena was a 21-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska who’d been born a girl but was, in the months leading up to his death, passing as a boy. When the thugs he’d been hanging around discovered the secret between his legs, they raped and subsequently murdered him and two other people in a farmhouse in the dead of the night. Boys Don’t Cry is writer-director (and girl-dyke) Kimberly Peirce’s full-length feature debut, a fictionalized story based on the events of Brandon Teena’s life and his affair with his last girlfriend, the woman who witnessed his murder, Lana Tisdel. A lush, color- and
artificial lightsaturated picture, it tells the grisly story of two people who fell in love in the midst of pain and alcohol and rage and boredom and Midwestern poverty.
Luckily for us, Peirce doesn’t belabor the gender conundrums that Brandon’s story raises; instead she weaves them seamlessly into the film’s narrative. She tells a tragic love story, plain and simple, complete with (among other things) a poignant and brave sex scene, a brutally textured rape, and a karaoke-bar interlude that’s destined for cult status. But that’s not to say there isn’t more to it than skillful filmmaking: throughout, Peirce reflects on how Brandon learned to be a man and on the contours of Lana Tisdel’s femininity, a femininity that drew her closer to Brandon even as she began to discover that he was a biological female. Watching Brandon learn what the world expects of him as a man, we have a painfully clear view of the masculine culture his new friends inhabit. In a scene that takes place shortly after Brandon meets Lana and her hangers-on, we are taken to a hot Nebraska nightspot a mud field somewhere. Small groups of men have gathered, as it appears they often do, to watch a sport called bumpersurfing, which looks more like waterskiing off the back of a pick-up truck, the participant’s feet on the bumper, his hands clutching a longish rope. John Lotter, the mildly menacing, but charismatic ex-con who will eventually murder Brandon (but has most recently rescued him from a bar room brawl), challenges him to get up there and surf. Although small-boned and bruised from last night’s fight, Brandon takes the challenge. The rest of the scene progresses in a blurry montage: as the
pickup drags him around, the camera circles the scene, providing us with a panorama of the pain of everyone there the women are disappointed and a bit disgusted; the men seem bored and kind of numb. Brandon is recklessly macho, John brutal, and Lana anguished by what she sees in both of them.
This is how Peirce raises the stakes: slowly. (Hilary Swank, who plays Brandon, helps with her subtle, crafted performance: her face reveals a perfect combination of excitement and fear and pride as the camera follows her around and around on the bumper.) Showing Brandon get dragged and thrown around, Peirce reveals how she thinks he lived and why he died. You can practically hear Brandon’s bones crushing each time he falls off the truck. He died, you realize, partly because he had no idea how to live in his body without destroying it, because he took risks, over and over again, and invited physical harm.
And then there’s the other revelation this scene sets up: He died because the men who killed him had no hope left. None of the guys present not the ugly guy with a giant beer gut and a minimum wage job, or the cute one with a criminal record, or the nondescript one have much to lose, or much to live for. But Peirce spares us the clichéd commentary on the brutality of working-class life by focusing our attentions on Brandon and the artifice of gender. Somehow, Teena can’t see what’s soul-cramping in this kind of
masculinity; instead she runs toward it like it’s the ice cream truck finally showing up on a sticky summer night.
You could, I suppose, criticize Peirce for telling a thoroughly hopeless story, one with no room to imagine resistance or how to be a macho girl-boy without buying into the most brutal elements of normative male heterosexuality. And you could point out that Peirce plays fast and loose with the facts, picking and choosing from them to suit her perspective. But just about every other aspect of the film, technical and creative, is near-perfect, particularly the acting. Swank doesn’t just pass for a boy, she seduces everybody in the film and in the audience with her sweetly disturbing performance.
And then there’s the sex scene. I’d like to call it the best lesbian sex scene since Desert Hearts. But while this is the only R-rated film I think I’ve ever seen (except, perhaps, Go Fish) that actually shows sex involving two women and a dildo, sex that looks like the kind me and my friends really have, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call this lesbian sex. Doesn’t there have to be an actual lesbian present for something lesbian to happen? Then again, what else do you call it?
But a queer girl does want to celebrate a cinematic moment like this, in which Brandon and Lana roll around on a blanket, by a lake, on the outskirts of a Nebraskan industrial district. Lana is bathed in a beautiful shade of industrial-runoff yellow light. She lies back, in close-up: mouth open, eyes closed, alive. Brandon reappears from in between her legs with a mouth full of come. When he kisses the ecstatic Lana in the hazy light, pulls his dildo out of his pants and fucks Lana with it, I scoot over to the edge of my little seat and, my jaw half-dropped, I stop wondering for a blessed minute whether these two are technically having lesbian sex.
“Because Brandon was beautiful, and white, and dead,” Peirce said in a recent interview, “everybody wanted to claim him.” We know too many stories about dead white queers, too few about living black and brown and white ones. And the truth is, Brandon Teena is an imperfect, troubling poster child for the queer nations. It was mostly because he didn’t like the other options that is, because he didn’t want to be called a queer that he identified as a boy. The more they called him freak, the more he wanted to disappear into the ordinary; the more they called him a lesbian, the more fiercely he insisted he was a straight boy. “I’m not a dyke,” he shouts in one of the film’s earliest scenes, as a band of angry, homo-hating men pound his door down. It’s an awful moment all around for Brandon, on the floor, crying; for us in the dark movie theater. Brandon’s life makes it clear that masculinity isn’t as transgressive as some of us dykes have been hoping, and it sure isn’t gonna save anybody. Maybe sometime soon we’ll find a way to tell stories about transgendered people who get to live in the end not in some fantasy of normalcy, but in a way that embraces the contradictions of their lives.