Boys Don't Cry

Boys Don’t Cry, released in 1999, tells the story of the life and death of Brandon Teena, a 21 year old transgender man living in Richardson County, Nebraska. Soon after discovering Brandon’s biological sex, John Lotter and Tom Nissen raped him. A week later, after learning that Brandon reported the incident to the police, the two men murdered him. In the years that followed, Brandon’s 1993 murder became one of the most notorious anti-trans hate crimes in the United States, and his story was further popularized through Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance as Brandon in the Academy Award winning Boys Don’t Cry. Here, we examine the metronormative ideas evident throughout film.

Portrayal of the Rural Midwest

These clips show that the film portrays small-town Nebraska as dark and backward. In the film’s opening scene, we see flat farmland, a thin wire fence, and a broken-down shed. When Brandon first arrives in Falls City, Nebraska, he calls his cousin and comments that he is in the middle of nowhere. In this conversation, Brandon and his cousin talk about theft, court dates, and jail time. Through this combination, the rural Midwest is presented as a blend of decrepit and delinquent. The characters further this portrayal, something especially evident in the bumper-skiing scene. The young adults are drinking, using drugs, and getting thrown off of old pickup trucks—a deliberate representation of reckless and lowlife behavior. The third scene here shows that Brandon’s cousin, Lonny, is concerned about Brandon’s fate as an LGBTQ person in rural Nebraska. Lonny says to Brandon, “They hang faggots down there, don’t you know that?” It is precisely because of moments like these that Queer Studies scholar Jack Halberstam suggests that Brandon’s death “symbolizes an urban fantasy of homophobic violence as essentially Midwestern” (2005, 25).

"White Trash" Characters

What people think of as “white trash” is about more than just class. “White trash” refers, according to Jack Halberstam, to “a set of stereotypes and myths related to the social behaviors, intelligence, prejudices, and gender roles of poor whites” (2005, 28). Many of the characters in Boys Don’t Cry are meant to be read as “white trash,” including John Lotter and Tom Nissen, Brandon’s murderers. The viewer comes to understand Lotter’s and Nissen’s hate and discomfort toward Brandon as a product of their “white trash” beliefs and behaviors. This set of clips ends with a scene in which the friends find out about Brandon’s biological sex and react with disgust. “You can’t trust them,” John says, referring to LGBTQ people. Lana’s mother also chastises Brandon for “exposing Lana to [his] sickness.”

Escape to the Metropolis and Failure to Flee

Throughout the film, Brandon and Lana talk about leaving small-town Falls City for Memphis, Tennessee. This plotline perpetuates the idea that Brandon’s death was a consequence of his failure to flee to the city. As Lotter and Nissen are driving to kill Brandon, Lotter flashes Lana his gun and ominously asks, “You still planning on going to Memphis?” In the following scene, just before Brandon is murdered, Lana cries out to Brandon, “Why didn’t you leave?” These two moments, along with Brandon’s previously expressed desires to go to Graceland, and Lana’s hatred for Falls City, suggest that Brandon’s fate could have been avoided had he been able to escape to the metropolis. Ultimately though, Brandon didn’t want to leave Falls City. He wanted to open up a trailer park with Lana and stay in his small Midwestern town.

Through its depiction of rural Nebraska, construction of “trashy” main characters, and suggestion that Brandon’s fate resulted from his failure to flee, Boys Don’t Cry relies on old metronormative tropes to tell a simple story about rural homophobic and transphobic violence. Consequently, the film misses opportunities for inspiring conversations about the prevalence of anti-trans bigotry and violence that exist far beyond the rural Midwest.