Representation of the Transgender Experience in Literature and Film

The manner in which queer issues are interpreted and portrayed in literature and film depends on various factors, including the gender roles which are dominant in society and the attitudes of the respective society towards queer expressions of sexuality. Examining both text and film, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s I Am My Own Woman and Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” one will notice that gender roles and societal attitudes towards queerness particularly affect the transgender experience.

Transgender, a term which “describes not only an identity but a relation between people, within a community or within intimate bonds” (Halberstam, “Telling Tales,” p. 63), refers to individuals who reject their culturally prescribed gender and choose to dress like and/or demonstrate behaviors usually demonstrated by the opposite gender. Both I Am My Own Woman and “Boys Don’t Cry” feature protagonists who, for purposes of specificity in this paper, I feel I must label beyond the all-inclusive term queer as transgendered individuals.

Charlotte, in her autobiography I Am My Own Woman, prefers to wear girl’s clothes throughout her life and thinks of herself as “a girl in a boy’s body . . . that does not mean, however, [she is] self-conscious about [her] male sexual organs” (p. 46). Her sexual preference is for males and though she certainly faces homophobia in Nazi Germany, she is lucky enough to have been considered a child then and therefore is not punished for her cross-dressing. Charlotte, who never wishes to embody the traits considered part of the masculine gender role, is beaten up “for wearing hair clips” (p. 25) as a child because her classmates, “those who aspired to be manly and strong, despised [her] for having golden-blonde curls.” But not all members of society had a problem with Charlotte dressing as a woman; in fact, her aunt Luise encourages her to do so, telling her: “you look really pretty!” (p. 44) when coming across Charlotte dressing in her old clothes. Her aunt, who chooses to dress as a man, is the one who provides her with the label “transvestite” to describe both of their behaviors. Charlotte also finds friends who are queer – whether gay, lesbian, or transgendered individuals – that probably help her to feel comfortable in her body and in who she is.

In this case, gender roles imposed by the majority of society are clearly what makes Charlotte think that she has the soul of a woman. Because she likes to collect antique furniture and wear skirts and dresses, all behaviors that are considered stereotypically “feminine,” she thinks of herself as a woman and not as a man. But if gender roles did not exist within society, perhaps Charlotte would think of herself simply as a man who likes antique furniture and skirts and would not feel the need to classify herself as a transvestite. After all, she has no problem with her body, and does not wish to surgically become a woman.

Brandon Teena, however, I suspect would have surgically become a man if he had had the money or means to obtain the operation. In “Boys Don’t Cry” the viewer is presented with a slightly fictionalized account of Brandon Teena’s short life in Falls City, Nebraska where he passes as a man for awhile, dating a local girl, before it is discovered that he has female genitalia and is subsequently murdered for being a “dyke.” Because Brandon wraps his breasts so that they don’t show and uses a prosthetic penis during sexual activity, it is fairly clear that he wishes he had the body of a man. He also shows distaste for his own body when he gets his period. The prominence of gender roles becomes clear when Brandon participates in something called “bumper skiing” and continuously gets hurt while doing so. Later when Lana, the girl he ends up dating, asks him why he took part in it, he replies “I thought that’s what guys did around here.”

Brandon constantly feels the need to prove his “masculinity” through out the film, as he demonstrates his first night in Falls City by starting a bar fight with a man just for sitting next to the girl he had been talking to. He shows no fear though the man in question is three times his size. Apparently Brandon’s idea of male gender is pretty stereotypical as well, although one does get the sense from this film that he had to act this way to be accepted by the men in Falls City. When he is in the car with the group of friends he has made, he ends up racing another car, and when a police car arrives on the scene, Brandon is encouraged not to pull over by one of the men and follows his instructions. In time, the police do catch them and this arrest eventually leads to the discovery that Brandon Teena is actually Teena Brandon, a woman. Ironically, Brandon’s ultimate demise in the film stems from trying to prove his toughness, his masculinity.

But society’s attitudes towards the expression of queerness were what truly proved to be the demise of Brandon. When Brandon briefly returns to his hometown to appear in court (and then leaves the courthouse for fear of imprisonment), the friend he stays with warns him about Falls City: “they hang faggots down there.” The mentality of the people in Falls City that is presented in the film is for the most part very ignorant and hate-filled to the point that it makes the viewer’s skin crawl. There is a complete lack of acceptance or attempts to understand Brandon, except on the part of Lana and even that might be only because she already loved him. We understand why Brandon felt the need to keep his sex a secret, because clearly no one would have been willing to accept him from the start as a man with woman’s genitals.

Although clearly ignorance and hatred prevails in Falls City in this film – for even when Brandon goes to the police after being raped by two of the men who were supposed to be his friends, they berate him about his sex, “if you knew you was a girl, what were you hanging out with all them guys for?” – one wonders if the film makes it too easy for people to think horrible things like this could only happen in a small town.

It is unclear to me how much of the film is fact and how much is fiction, but I take some issue with the representation of Brandon Teena as a criminal, because that stains his character and makes it seem as though there is an underlying theme of “you can’t trust a queer.” In the film, Brandon forges a check that belongs to Candice, the single mother who lets him stay at her house when she has known him for only a night. Though we never see what Brandon bought with the check and the whole incident is almost slipped in, this seems like a horrible way to repay her hospitality. We also see a whole slew of mug shots of Brandon and know that he was charged with Grand Theft Auto in Lincoln, but we don’t know the circumstances surrounding the theft or any of these other arrests. Granted, it may not have been essential to the main plot to know all the details, but regardless, it leaves the viewer questioning the sincerity of Brandon’s character.

It is clear that the gender roles which dominate any given society and the response of that society to queerness in general are essential factors in dictating the transgender experience, in real life and as portrayed in literature and film. Because the reader is presented with Charlotte’s life story from her point of view, there is less room for the reader to wonder if the details of her life are being misrepresented or retold in a calculating manner. Therefore, the queerness of I Am My Own Woman feels very genuine, where as there is some room for doubt in “Boys Don’t Cry,” since the viewer will never get the chance to see Brandon’s life story from his perspective. Instead we are left to wonder how Charlotte von Mahlsdorf managed to survive Nazi Germany and still lives today, while Brandon Teena was murdered in Nebraska only nine years ago.

Boys Don’t Cry. Dir. Kimberly Peirce. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1999. Halberstam, Judith. “Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography.” Biography Studies, Vol. 15, 2000, p. 62-81. von Mahlsdorf, Charlotte. I Am My Own Woman. Clesi Press Inc.: Pennsylvania, 1995.

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