In Kimberly Peirce’s film, Boys Don’t Cry we watch as Brandon Teena continually teeters on a narrow ridge of “self”-awareness and “self”-denial. We watch him dress and perform the “self” of his mind, while actively stripping down the exterior world to its simplest and most innocuous potential, denying the reality of his situation, the dangers of being transgendered in lower class small town middle America. In Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders we follow a coming-of-“self” story that displays the inherent troubles many individuals who are different face, how to become in the world of the senses what one is in the abstract world of consciousness, but through the lens of an upper-class transsexual. Peirce’s film, which is directed by an outsider, someone who is not transgendered or lower class, tells a deeply personal story, while Boylan’s memoir, which is quite personal and one would think speaks to the narrow audience of upper class transsexual individuals, tells a universal story. Both stories are tales of the outsider struggling against their environment, however in comparing the two experiences, one can see the enormous effect money has on experience—Teena being destitute and desperate, unable to fully transform, while Finney being financially secure, has better choices and more control over her transformation.
Peirce’s Brandon Teena runs from one bad reality to another, from living with a cousin in a trailer to hiding in a veritable stranger’s barn. He runs from one brush with the law to another, and we see that his lower class status and the requisite limited options therein, creates his reality and leads to his falsehood’s. He actively and insistently attempts to be his true self, but the setting and circumstances of his situation (without money, or family and friends who can ease the financial burden) his sense of “self” can never fully emerge without the threat of violence lurking. Teena is positioned as an outsider in enough ways to make acceptance unlikely, and there is absolutely no way he can afford surgery. Living in desperation, it’s actually stunning that Teena remained hopeful and kept trying to live as the man he knew he was, not hiding. The financial strain of remaining transgender is clear and quite reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 70’s film Dog Day Afternoon, which was based on the true story of a man who robs a bank to raise money for his lover’s sex change.
With Boys Don’t Cry, the layers of suffocating financial burdens are thick. Pierce is an outsider without direct experience as either transgendered or lower class. Peirce can only re-imagine what peril Teena was faced with, so she focuses on the immediate dangers of Teena’s end days, leaving his history out. While his history is essential to understanding the underprivileged background is the cause of some reckless decisions. Whereas Boylan is telling her own story, and as such delves into all the subtleties of “self” at all phases of life and the mercies offered her through a privileged, financially advantaged position. In She’s Not There, Boylan constructs a universal yearning, the desire to know, to understand one “self” and one’s world. She details becoming, and her fully becoming a woman via surgery is only possible through a higher level of financial freedom. She is transsexual not only because she needs to be, but because she can afford to be.
Many of us view ourselves differently from the way in which the outside world views us, and all of us are subject to the realities of the effect money has on our ability to fully realize who we are and how we want to be seen by the world outside. The transgendered individual has the added degree of difficulty if they would like to fully transform, but have limited access to the necessary funds. Brandon Teena’s cannot avoid the added financial burden that his being transgender costs him (and the sad fact that he can never fully transform). The outcome of his life would have been vastly different, not only in that he most likely would’ve been transsexual, but in the overall broader options that would have kept him out of trouble with the law and potentially surrounded by a more accepting crowd of people—hence keeping him alive. For Boylan, there is a bridge between the external and internal worlds that can be found in a measured level of financial liberation, allowing her to options to fully experience her life as a transsexual.
- Boylan, Jennifer Finney. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2003.
- Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Peirce. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009. DVD.
- Teena, transgender, lower class. Jennifer transsexual, upper class.