The Uncooperative Body: Portrayal and Exploitation of the Transgendered in Film

by Christine Hoff Kraemer


(First, a note on terminology. There is still no agreement in the transgender community about whether “transgender” or “transsexual” is the preferred term. However, in this paper I’ve gone with the definitions I’ve seen most frequently used on the internet and amongst my transgendered friends. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that can be used for all behavior and thinking that crosses gender lines, and is often applied to those who don’t quite fit into the categories of transsexual or transvestite. “Transsexual” refers to an individual who seriously acts on the sense of having a body of the wrong gender, often but not always culminating in sexual reassignment surgery. “Transvestites” are those who cross-dress but do not consider themselves to be members of the opposite gender or desire to be [Internet, “Transgender Language”]. I myself prefer “transgender” as a general term because I believe the use of the word “gender” rather than “sex” plays up the fact that transition between genders is not purely about biological sex and has a strong social component. Finally, the respectful way to refer to a transgendered person who lives full-time as a member of the opposite gender is with the nouns and pronouns of their chosen gender. Thus, a “transsexual/transgendered man” is a female-to-male transsexual for whom it is appropriate to use the pronoun “he.” Pronoun usage for individuals who switch between genders are more fluid. When in doubt, use the pronoun that’s appropriate for the way the individual is presenting in the moment.)


On the surface, Paris Is Burning – a documentary representing poor, black and Hispanic, gay male and transsexual ballwalkers – and Boys Don’t Cry – the story of a young, white female-to-male transsexual named Brandon Teena – are films notable for the way in which they give their marginalized subjects a voice to express their concerns, values, and struggles. Certainly the ball culture of 1980’s Harlem would have remained invisible to the heterosexual white mainstream if not for Paris is Burning, as would the monstrous rape and murder of Brandon Teena. Both of these films have the potential to raise the consciousness of the viewer, as they give the audience opportunities to identify with people whose race, sexuality, and gender are very different from their own. As Jennie Livingston, director of Paris is Burning, remarked, “At first the audiences were really laughing at the people. Then as the film went along, you could hear the audience click and sympathize. By the end you could sort of tell that they felt this was about life and about them” (quoted in Miles, 169). Critic Erin Runions argues regarding Boys Don’t Cry that the film deliberately opens up multiple sites of potential identification for the audience: the transsexual Brandon, whom women adore as “the best boyfriend they ever had,” is both a woman playing a man’s role and an idealized heterosexual man; Lana is a heterosexual woman whose desire transcends gender; John is a heterosexual man who identifies with and mentors Brandon, then violently repudiates that identification lest he recognize himself in Brandon’s female body (133). As they demonstrate the fluidity of gender and sexual desire, these films open up opportunities for audience members to question and explore the potential malleability of gender in their own lives.

            At the same time as these films give their marginalized subjects a voice, however, they simultaneously (and perhaps unconsciously) reinforce mainstream notions of gender. Critic Margaret Miles argues that Paris Is Burning fails to interrogate white heterosexuality in any way, making it an easy and comfortable film for white audiences to watch. The interviewees are portrayed as “worshipping at the throne of whiteness,” as bell hooks scathingly put it (Runions, 100), with minimal attention to their abject poverty, the prevalence of AIDS (a disease that has killed a number of the interviewees since the documentary was made), or to the oppression and marginalization that motivates their imitation. Further, the film’s very effectiveness in allowing white audiences to identify with the ballwalkers cloaks exactly how different the two groups are. Miles writes,

[T]he format of interviewing the men and filming the balls – show and tell – gives the impression that one has insight into, or understands, ballwalkers. The film implies that the differences of class, race, and sexual orientation are trivial and need not be taken seriously since they are easily overcome by simply listening to others’ self-revelations and feeling a facile and temporary empathy with the characters. (174)


For Miles, Paris Is Burning puts the viewer in the pleasurable but morally objectionable seat of the voyeur. To a degree, we become complicit in the film’s exploitation of its subjects, including its failure to share the film’s unexpected $4 million profits with the impoverished interviewees (Miles, 175). Some reviewers have also suggested that the film helped to hasten the end of ball culture, as did Madonna and other white stars’ co-optation of the ball’s unique form of dance, voguing. In “Paris Has Burned,” Jesse Green writes, “Once mainstream America began to copy a subculture that was copying it, the subculture itself was no longer of interest to a wider audience, and whatever new opportunities existed for the principles dried up” (quoted in Miles, 175).

            Erin Runions’ critique of Boys Don’t Cry is more subtle, but similar in that it accuses the film of pursuing an agenda that is not the subject’s own. Her critique hinges on a comment made by director Kimberly Pierce (herself a lesbian) in Gay and Lesbian Worldwide Review. Pierce remarks, “I really fell in love with this kid Teena Brandon, who one day put a sock in her pants and a cowboy hat on her head and reinvented herself into her fantasy of a boy and then went out and passed . . .; and then after it all came crashing down, and Brandon found a deeper truer self” (quoted in Runions, 175). From her use of pronouns and the order she chooses to give Brandon’s name, it appears that Pierce sees Brandon’s “deeper truer self” as a female lesbian self. Runions observes that the film follows suit with this judgment, focusing repeatedly on Brandon’s female body. The shower scene is a typical one for film, lingering on Brandon’s hairless legs and curves; when John and Tom forcibly remove Brandon’s pants, the camera responds with an unusually long zoom-in shot on his female genitalia. The rape scene horrifically emphasizes Brandon’s feminine penetrability, and is followed with a shot of his unbound breasts as he speaks to the nurse. Finally, even Lana engages Brandon sexually as a woman, telling him, “You’re so pretty,” and, as she initiates lovemaking, “I don’t know if I’m gonna know how to do it.” Although Brandon insists in the film’s opening that he is not a dyke, Runions writes, “the film apparently thinks it knows better” (118). To read the film as a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian attempting to play a man’s role advances a positive view of alternative sexual orientation that is hardly mainstream. However, the film fails to take Brandon’s understanding of himself as a man confined in a woman’s body seriously. In this way, the film opens up space to explore alternative sexual orientations while essentializing gender. Gender, the film implies, is ultimately about the body, not about social roles; those who defy the demands the body makes on identity will inevitably have their “true” selves revealed.

            Though there is ample evidence for the claim that Boys Don’t Cry essentializes gender, the film also contains elements that undercut this view. Even if Pierce understood the film as representing a lesbian, I believe it is still possible to read the film as successfully representing a transsexual man. Key to this reading is John and Tom’s treatment of Brandon after his transsexualism is revealed. It’s true that John and Tom refer to Brandon as “Teena” and “dyke” and rape him. Even in the midst of the rape, however, there is ambiguity in their treatment of Brandon. The two seem to understand the rape and beating as much as a punishment meted out for misdeeds among men as a violent affirmation of Brandon’s womanhood and difference. After the assault, they help Brandon up and back into the car, asking him solicitously, “You okay?” so that Brandon can give the appropriately manly affirmation. As they drive Brandon back to their house to get cleaned up, they continue to address him with comradely affection, calling him “little buddy” even as they threaten to kill him if he reports the assault. When John and Tom finally come after Brandon with a gun, their threats against dykes are oddly juxtaposed with the fact that they continue to call Brandon “he.” Brandon’s masculine status is affirmed by the fact that even his rapists continue to at least partially identify him as male.

            Although Runions seems to view the explicitness with which Brandon’s female body is portrayed as the major factor undermining the audience’s ability to take his transsexualism seriously, I would argue that confronting the issue of the body head-on is fairly necessary in portraying a transsexual. It’s certainly true that the increasing emphasis on Brandon’s female body as the film approaches its climax, combined with the changing nature of his romance with Lana, sends the message that Brandon is a woman and a lesbian. Yet to ignore or downplay the dissonance between the uncooperating female body which Brandon feels so uncomfortable in and the chivalrous, heterosexual masculine role he plays so successfully, is to ignore an issue central to transsexual experience. Brandon’s body must be altered, and those alterations hidden, in order for him to express his inner sense of identity – his breasts must be bound, his pants stuffed, his hair cut short. As he successfully passes amongst his new friends, menstruation becomes a minor crisis that must be concealed in order for his budding relationships to endure. Consistently, the body’s rebellion threatens to undermine the new life as a man that Brandon has so painstakingly made for himself. The film could hardly have been faithful to Brandon’s experience without exploring the impact of his noncooperative body on his experience, key as it is in the events that lead to his death.

            Further, the obsession with the body and particularly the genitals that we see on the part of the other characters accurately reflects that same obsession on the part of society. For many in the transgender community, the essential step in transitioning from one gender to the other is not surgery, but rather the ability to live full-time as a member of their chosen gender and remain largely undetected among strangers. Their marginalization by society, discrimination in the workplace, and (often) rejection by former friends and loved ones centers on what is to many people THE determinant of gender: the body. Even when this marker is invisible, as it usually is for those who pass, the revelation that a person is transgendered is often enough to cause the loss of a job or a social snub. In situations where straight men sexually proposition transgendered women, the reality of the uncooperating body may become a source of physical danger. Although straight women may need to be concerned about issues of date rape and sexual assault, for transgendered women, a date rape carries the added risk of attempted murder, as the example of Venus Xtravaganza demonstrates. Violence against transgendered individuals is a serious concern in the GLBT community, as indicated by this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes at least sixteen deaths in the US and Canada alone (“Remembering,” internet). (This is today, incidentally!)

Even those who are accepting towards the choice of transgendered individuals to transition often exhibit a curious fixation about the status of their acquaintances’ genitalia. A common complaint among my transgender friends is that, when first telling a new friend about their transgendered status, the first question they’re asked is inevitably what they have “down there.” Despite the reality that much of what we think of as gender is socially constructed – the success that many transgendered individuals have in passing as members of their chosen gender demonstrates this powerfully – our society’s fixation on the genitals as determining “real” gender is striking. Further, the lapse in basic social etiquette that the revelation of transgenderness seems to provoke in people (When is the last time you’ve casually asked a new acquaintance about her genitals?) is related to the assault that John and Tom inflict on Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry. Gender transgression in others, it seems, is seen as justifying violations in social norms, whether this manifests itself in an innocent but fairly inappropriate question about the body or an all-out assault on an individual who refuses to fit comfortably into standard gender categories.

            Runions remarks that Boys Don’t Cry can be read as a narrative of transgression and punishment, one in which an unconventional sexuality is punished by death, thus restoring heterosexual norms. The same might also be said of Paris Is Burning, which contains a postscript mourning the violent murder of Venus Xtravaganza, the teenaged transsexual who longed to be a “spoiled white rich girl.” Ultimately, however, Runions views both films as potentially liberating for their audiences, and I tend to agree. She sees them as invitations to practice “genderfuck,” defined as “the mixing of masculine and feminine gender codes in ways that subvert the present bipolar gender system” (94). Quoting Venus, Runions writes, “I want to fuck with gender. I want to inspire willful alienation from the oppressive ideologies of gender, race, and class. ‘I want this, this is what I want, and I’m going to go for it’” (114).

In the interest of the liberation from gender norms that Runions envisions, I would counter her claim that these films contain narratives of punishment with an alternate reading of them as films of sacrifice and martyrdom. Brandon Teena, the ballwalkers, and others like them are on the front lines of a gender revolution, and when their lives and the injustice of their deaths are represented, they make space for those of us closer to the mainstream to flout gender norms with greatly reduced risk. The fact that as a heterosexual woman, I can shave my head and others will find it “cute” is due to the courage of others who have dared to resist gender norms in far more revolutionary ways, despite the threat of violence and social rejection. I would agree with Runions that the practice of genderfuck is far more than a fashion statement – it undermines all oppressive ideologies of gender that may, for instance, help to keep women out of leadership positions in business and politics, and discourage men from becoming nurses or staying home to take care of their families. Despite their flaws, Paris Is Burning and Boys Don’t Cry represent rare challenges to heteronormativity in our culture, and may open the market for future films that will deal with their subjects more honestly.


Works Consulted

Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.


Ottoson, Denise. “Transgender Language and Definitions.” Society for Human Sexuality. <> 17 Nov 2003.


“Remembering Our Dead.” Gender Education and Advocacy – <> 17 Nov 2003.


Runions, Erin. How Hysterical: Identification and Resistance in the Bible and Film. New York: Palgrave, 2003.



Copyright (c) 2003 by Christine Hoff Kraemer