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Boys Don't Cry 
An Interview with Kimberly Peirce

by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 22 October 1999

Kimberly Peirce looks right at you when she talks. And it's hard to look away from her, with her striking eyes and cool blue streak in her near-black hair. She likes to talk, too. Really talk. She laughs easily, thinks hard, and wants to ask questions as much as answer them. She's talking a lot these days, promoting her first feature, Boys Don't Cry. Based on the short life and violent death of Brandon Teena, the Nebaska teenager who passed as a boy and was murdered by her erstwhile friends in 1993, the movie deals with the instability of identity, integrity, and loyalty, the risk of desire, and the ways we all perform every day.

Peirce imagines the movie will attract "a range of viewers, the mainstream as well as the audience who's going to innately get it, because it's what their lives are about, questions of identity. I mean, if the story was mainstream, he wouldn't have been killed." She's hopeful that the subject matter -- once made sensational and lurid by press coverage -- is by now part of a culture that's "shifting," becoming more open to the idea that gender and sexuality are more fluid than fixed.

Peirce became interested in the story while she was a graduate student at Columbia University. At the time, she was working on another project, for which she interviewed butch lesbians and transgenders, which, she says, prepared her to understand that there are "no absolute truths" concerning gender and sexual identities. When she learned about Brandon Teena, Peirce was drawn to his courage and generosity. "I attended the murder trial," she recalls, "got the transcripts of the trial, took my own notes, interviewed people, went back two years later and interviewed kids at the Qwik Stop, just to figure out what the class was like, what they did all day."

What struck her was the fact that people's "stories kept changing." When she met Lana, Brandon's girlfriend, Peirce says, "the wonderful thing was the imaginative ability that this girl had, given the circumstances. I said, 'When did you know that Brandon was a girl?' And she said, 'Well, I knew the day I met him.' And then, she knew in the jail cell, no, she knew when they stripped her. What was so beautiful was that she wasn't willing or able to locate Brandon as a girl or a boy at any given point. There is no absolute truth. It was simply, 'I love Brandon.' The complication was society saying, oh, this other person is gendered female, that's bad or that's good. That makes you a lesbian, it makes him one. In both of their attempts to fit in, they appropriated language that didn't really fit what was going on. She said, 'He didn't need to get a sex change operation. He was always a man to me.' Well, what does that mean? If he was always a man, why was everybody stripping and raping him, trying to force him back into being a girl?"

For Peirce, the story came together slowly. She recalls, "With all the transcripts and interviews, I started to see a chronology, what I considered a river of truth. It wasn't that everything was narrow and distilled, but wide." It was important for Peirce to "get inside Brandon." She was troubled by the distance created by the tabloid treatments of the case, which, she feels, is "what encourages hate crimes, to keep a person who should be lovable, as an outsider." Instead, she wanted to "allow the audience to see the person, who seems different, as someone with a human need."

Brandon's need made him pass as a man, an act which simultaneously threatens and reinforces social codes. Peirce notes, "Androgynous people are so erotic because they flicker, they're in motion; if you can't locate something it keeps your interest. The crossing of boundaries feels good at the societal level, like you can have chaos at night, but order and ritual must be restored by day. Brandon was like a party, in that way. When you have ritual and that crazy libidinal period, that's what Brandon was, and then it imploded. They strip her to make her a girl, but then Lana still says he's a boy. So then they rape [Brandon], to reassert the order. And then that's not enough. These are the mechanics of hatred. Lana was unwittingly fueling the destruction of Brandon, as was mom and the police. The boys performed it, but everybody participated."

But for all the hatred and fear, it's Brandon's desire and need that focus the film. Peirce says, "What's so interesting about Brandon is that he was doing it under terms very different from what you or I would understand. He specifically said, 'I'm not a lesbian, I'm not going to New York or Los Angeles. I'm going to be a straight man here.' Where he passed, it was probably easier to pass as a man, because people didn't expect that a girl would pass. And yet the stakes for failure were tremendous, which was a function of class and education."

She adds, "Teena, as the trailer park girl, could transform herself into the ideal boy because she could study the boys. She was an invention of her own imagination, yet she was satisfying a cultural need. She could say, 'I want to go out with girls, how do I do that?' And she had the fluidity to do it, like a boy couldn't. A boy couldn't study a situation and say, I'll be this or that. She slipped sometimes, she got needy and afraid, and really, I think, wanted to come clean. I think she was drawn to disclosure."

At the end of the film, Peirce says, she wanted to show this disclosure as both an ordeal -- in that she must confess that she is a girl, a rape victim -- and a means of self-acceptance. Peirce observes, "She's confessing, having a moment of truth in this horrible place, but it's a very female thing to do. Boys take their rage out on girl bodies and girls take it out on their own. She owns up to it, but still manages to move forward. Some people have asked me, are Brandon and Teena having sex as lesbians and I say, no not at all. Lana is gendered female and so is Brandon, but Brandon is now neither Teena nor Brandon, but some amalgamation of both. The emphasis is really on being seen and being loved. Genitals just don't make the person."

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