Boys Don’t Cry: Analysis

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Baudrillardian and Levinasian Echoes in Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry

by – A Harisankar, Vol.II, Issue.XXIII, December 2016

Introduction to the Author:

A Harisankar is a student of MA in English Literature St Thomas College, Palai. He is interested in writing fiction and non-fiction articles as well. 22 and a tech enthusiast, he has cleared the NET exam.


The Academy award winning movie Boys Don’t Cry is based on the real life story of Teena Ranae Brandon, an American trans man who was raped and murdered in Humboldt, Nabraska on December 31, 1993. Directed by Kimberly Peirce, the movie released in the year 1999, focuses predominantly on Brandon’s love affair with Lana Tisdel, a girl he met in Falls city and his pseudo life as a man there. This project is an attempt to look at the movie through the Baudrillardian concept of “Simulacra” and the Levinasian notion of “The face of the other”.

Looking through the Baudrillardian Lens

Desiring to live the life of a man, Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank) moves to Falls city, Nebraska and befriends ex-convicts Tom Nissan (Brendan Sexton III), John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and their friends Candace (Alicia Gorandson) and Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny). Brandon stuffs a towel down his pants to mimic the appearance of male genitals and later uses grafted skin to mimic the appearence of the loose skin of male penis. He also reads a booklet named The Uninvited Dilemma which was on cross dressers and transsexuals. Brandon’s disguise succeeds and Tom and John and invites him to be a part of their gang .Brandon’s successful disguise can be read as an example of the second order simulacra of Baudrillard. Whereas first order simulacra consists of signs that “dissimulate something”, second order simulacra consists of “signs that dissimulate that there is nothing”. In the words of Baudrillard

The transition from signs that dissimulate something to signs that dissimulate that there is nothing marks a decisive turning point. The first reflects a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates the era of simulacra and of simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance.

Brandon, who was born a girl thus successfully disguises as a boy thereby hiding or dissimulating an absence (the phallus). However, the world of Falls city is a world of third order simulacra where Tom and John has created their own version of masculinity consisting of booze, drug addiction, bar fights, self torture and bumper skiing. The following scene from the movie depicts Brandon’s failed attempt at emulating the adventurous lifestyle of Tom and John.


John: Allright, Brandon, that means you. Come on.

– Yeah, stud. Let’s go, cowboy. – Come on, you can do it.

Come on. Come on.

[John] This here’s Brandon.

A mean prizefighter from Lincoln, so be careful what you say to him.

Very tough.

Don’t let’em scare you. You can do it.

[ Whooping ] [ Groans ]

John: He is a freak. – [ Laughing ]

– Come on! – [ Laughing ]

You can do better than that!

– One more time. One more time. – Lana: John, come on. Stop it,John.

– Oh, okay, okay. – Stop it!

– [Candace Laughing] – Ow!

– [John] Take it easy. – [Brandon]No, I’m fine.

– Yeah, you’re fine. – I’m fine!

– Bring that truck back around! – You’re a crazy fucker. What are we gonna do with you?

Brandon: Man, it’s nothing. , John:Yeah, it’s nothing.

Another theme that looms large in the movie is the crisis of masculinity. Brandon who disguises as a man manages to win the love of Lana Tisdel, whereas John who is a real man is considered by Lana to be a nuisance and a stalker. This very scenario later proves to be the undoing of Brandon. Later in the movie , police arrests Brandon on charges that arose prior to his relocation. Brandon was placed in a woman’s prison and Lana understands the trans man identity of Brandon. Even after the reality of Brandon was revealed, Lana still chose to believe in the simulacra of Brandon as a man. For Lana, the second order simulacra of Brandon were more alluring and she willfully ignored the reality in favour of the simulacra (the hyperreal). The following conversation took place between Brandon and Lana in prison.


Brandon: I’m a hermaphrodite. Lana: A what? Brandon: Come here. [ Clears Throat ] It’s a person who has both… girl and boy parts. Brandon’s real name is Teena Brandon. See, Brandon’s not quite a he. Brandon’s more like a she. Lana: Shut up. That’s your business. I don’t care if you’re half monkey or half ape, I’m gettin’ you out of here. However, for Tom and John the realization that Brandon who has ingratiated himself into their gang pretending to be a man, whereas he really being a trans man was a challenge to their hegemonical masculinity. The simulacra of masculinity that they projected and it’s expected advantages like being attractive to women like Lana, fell apart with the realization that Brandon who was loved by Lana was a trans man. At the end of the movie Tom and John rapes and kills Brandon to protect their simulacrum of masculinity and heterosexuality. Levinasian Echoes According to French-Jewish thinker Levinas (1905-1995) , ethics begins with a consideration for the other person , or as he mentions in his first major work , Totality and Infinity(1961) with his or her “face”.According to Roger Burggraeve

What Levinas really means by the “face of the other” is not his physical

countenance or appearance, but precisely the noteworthy fact that the other

—not only in fact, but in principle—does not coincide with his appearance,

image, photograph, representation, or evocation. “The other is invisible” (TI

6). According to Levinas, we therefore cannot properly speak of a “phenome-

nology” of the face since phenomenology describes what appears. The face is

nonetheless what in the countenance of the other escapes our gaze when

turned toward us.

Therefore, according to Levinas, the “other” is much more than a collection of his/her material and physical attributes. Similar to the Buberian notion of “thou”, Levinasian “other” cannot be reduced to a specific point in the enormous network of space and time. In this movie the way in which Tom and John viewed Brandon was essentially different from the way Lana viewed and loved Brandon. John first met Brandon while the latter was engaged in a bar fight for a girl named Candace. Despite his small fingers, John perceived in Brandon a possible new ally.


For Tom and John, Brandon was exactly what his external appearance (the disguise) suggested to be.They considered him to be a comparatively timid young man who can be initiated into the macho life of the duo. What they saw in Brandon was not a person, but only an image.In the words of Roger Burggraeve


The appearance of the face as countenance as it were, invites the “I” or “ego” to reduce the other to that countenance. This “invitation to reduction” depends not only on the vulnerability of the face but also on the way of the being of the I to whom the face appears. Borrowing an expression from Spinoza, Levinas describes the I as conatus essendi– as effort and tension of existing. As an individual being, the I is persistent in its concern with its own existence and tries obstinately to maintain itself. The “natural” or spontaneous being of the “I” is self interest : it’s esse is interesse .This position implies that the I also approaches the other person from an “interested” position , which is to say that it tries to integrate the other into its project of existing as a function, means or meaning.


Levinas speaks about the responsibility, the “I” has towards the “other”. This responsibility consists of a commitment not to violate or destroy the “other”, which is to say not to reduce the “other” to his/her physicality but to recognize and respect his/her “otherness”. According to Levinas the evil consists of “reduction of the other to the same”. For Tom and John, Brandon was just a “little man”, in comparison to whom they looked much more masculine and courageous. Thus for both of them, Brandon was just an object they toyed with in order to boost their self-esteem. It is exactly this image that they have constructed for Brandon that falls apart with the realization that Brandon was a trans-man. They were not able to come to terms with the fact that there was more to Brandon than they realized. Further shocking to their notions of conventional masculinity was the realization that Lana whom John loved, fell in love with Brandon who was not even a man. With the destruction of the image they have created for Brandon, collapsed their own sense of “I” or “Ego”. To retain their sense of self, meaning the “I” the only option that was left to them was to kill Brandon, thus destroying the “other”. In the words of Roger Burggraeve


Murder manifests itself not so much as a fact taking place once and for all, but as a passion driven by a well determined intentionality-namely to destroy the other totally. The “denial” occurring in the “consumption” and “use” of others still remain partial. In the “grasp” that I exert on them, I do indeed contest their independence but I still preserve their existence in reality so that they are and continue to be “for me”. Killing is radical: One does not dominate (appropriate, use and consume), but clears him out of the way or destroys him; the other is driven even from existing. Murder then renounces absolutely all “comprehension” of the other, for no one wishes to include the other in the “same”, that is, in one’s own project of existing, but, on the contrary to exclude him, because he is “too much” in the way of one’s struggle for identity.


There is also a kind of racism involved in the failure of Tom and John to respect the “otherness” of Brandon. According to Levinas, racist sentiments are not just about denigrating some races as “inferior”, but it consists of the failure of an “I” to understand the uniqueness of “other”. A racist relationship wants to recognize and value only the “same” or one’s “own”. One is usually inclined to accept and consider positively only that which agrees with or is “similar” to ourselves. One finds the ‘other’ embarrassing, threatening and frightening.


However, Lana’s relationship with Brandon presents a different picture. Similar to Tom and John, Lana initially mistook Brandon to be a man. However, Lana loved Brandon, not for his physicality but for his unique character, or to put it more precisely, for his “otherness”. According to Lana, Brandon was the first nice man in her life. According to Roger Ebert who reviewed the movie.


Brandon is not the smartest person on Earth, especially at judging which kinds of risks to take, but he is one of the nicest, and soon he has fallen in love with a Falls City girl named Lana (Chloe Sevigny). For Lana, Brandon is arguably the first nice boy she has ever dated. We meet two of the other local studs, John(Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton 3rd), neither gifted with intelligence, both violent products of brutal backgrounds. They have the same attitude toward women that the gun nut has about prying his dying fingers off the revolver.


Along with Tom and John , Lana also realizes that Brandon is in reality a trans-man .In fact it is Brandon himself who reveals to Lana the truth of his identity .However Lana’s reaction to this revelation is markedly different from that of Tom and John , as the following conversation between the two while Brandon is in prison illustrates .

Brandon :I’m a hermaphrodite. Lana: A what? Brandon: Come here. [ Clears Throat ] It’s a person who has both… girl and boy parts. Brandon’s real name is Teena Brandon. See, Brandon’s not quite a he. Brandon’s more like a she. Lana: Shut up. That’s your business. I don’t care if you’re half monkey or half ape, I’m gettin’ you out of here.


The “otherness” of Brandon instead of repulsing Lana further endeared him to her. The movie ends with the rape and murder of Brandon by Tom and John. Tom and John cannot be reduced to two neurotic individuals who committed a brutal rape and murder. They in fact symbolize the hostile attitude of an entire society towards transgenders and homosexuals and through them to all marginalized sections of society signifying the “other”. The film Boys Don’t Cry effectively captures the banality of a world where “otherness” is seen as a threat.


Select Reading:

Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Peirce. Perf. Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999. BlueRay.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulation.” (1995): n. pag. Web.

Burggraeve, Roger. “Violence and the Vulnerable Face of the Other: The Vision of Emmanuel Levinas on Moral Evil and Our Responsibility.” Journal of Social Philosophy 30.1 (1999): 29-45. Web.

Ebert, Roger. “Boys Don’t Cry Movie Review & Film Summary (1999) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., 1999. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.


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