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
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.
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."
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?"
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 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."
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."
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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