Who's Intolerant?

Reed College engages in soul-searching over students’ shouting during lecture by director of Boys Don't Cry, arguing that the acclaimed film should have featured transgender actors.

December 12, 2016
 

The 1999 film Boys Don't Cry has been praised by many for its portrayal of the hostility and violence faced by transgender people -- a topic that has received much more attention in recent years than it had at the time. Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender man whose real-life story inspired the film.

But Kimberly Peirce, the director and co-author of the film, has plenty of critics among transgender people and their advocates. They note that she does not define herself exclusively as transgender (she's a lesbian who has also called herself "gender fluid"). Many say that the film's lead roles should have been played by transgender people (they weren't). And some object to the graphic and violent rape scene in the film (although others say that scene, while painful, drives home the dangers facing those who are transgender).

Other transgender advocates say that Boys Don't Cry was years ahead of its time and was a courageous work to produce.

Peirce's visit to Reed College last month for a screening of the film and a lecture has been the subject of intense debate there, and has set off national discussion in the last few days as social media picked up on what happened.

Some facts are in dispute, but these are among those that are not. Many of the posters advertising Peirce's appearance on campus were torn down in advance of her arrival on campus. Posters were put up in the lecture hall where she spoke saying things such as "Fuck Your Transphobia" and “Fuck this cis white bitch." Other students carried signs with similar messages. When Peirce appeared, some shouted those slogans or just "bitch" at her.

Some students say Peirce made rude remarks about the protest. Others say she clearly felt threatened and struggled to get started with her talk. A Reed spokesman said the protesting students did not attend the screening but came into the room at the start of what would have been Peirce's question and discussion period. He said that for about 10-15 minutes, students talked over Peirce, preventing her from talking. But after that things "settled down" and she was able to speak, he said.

Whatever one thinks of the film and its portrayal of violence against a trans man, the reception Peirce received has become what Reed students and faculty members, and others, are talking about. Reed students are politically active, generally supportive of transgender rights and quick to protest -- so the activism was not surprising or controversial. But the form of activism has caused controversy.

Nigel Nicholson, dean of faculty at Reed, published a harsh critique of the protests in The Quest, the student newspaper, writing that he was "deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct."

Nicholson wrote that "the actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the question-and-answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker. It felt like a courtroom, not a college."

Further, he wrote that the way Peirce was treated would have an impact far beyond that one lecture.

"What happened that night will undoubtedly reduce intellectual traffic and exchange on this campus for the future unless we can swiftly repair the community’s confidence that our guests will be treated well. Outside speakers may or may not learn about what happened, but people within the community will rightly think twice about inviting speakers, given what this speaker was subjected to. People will surely particularly avoid speakers who engage with identity politics and other topics and questions that are especially politically charged," Nicholson wrote. "Is that the Reed we want to see? Is this the kind of intellectual community we want to be?"

J. Jack Halberstam, a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and gender studies at the University of Southern California, is an advocate for transgender, gay and lesbian rights. But Halberstam wrote critically of the protest at Reed in a blog post that said in part, "At a time of political terror, at a moment when fascists are in highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment."

In comments on that blog, some have accused Halberstam and others of distorting and missing the point of the protest.

One commenter who identifies himself as a "transmasculine Reed student" who was part of the protest wrote, "We wanted to question Kimberly’s sense of entitlement to take creative license with a trans person’s life and identity, most importantly the trans/butch ambiguity she introduces, the addition of Brandon and Lana’s sex scene (which never actually happened, and which occurs in the film on the same day as Brandon’s rape, belittling his trauma), and her choice to depict violence and abjection in trans lives rather than hope or success (especially damning given that there were no contemporary positive representations of transness). We wondered whether Kimberly’s depiction of Brandon’s gender ambiguity and her casting of a straight, cis woman upholds the notion that transness is an illusion or performance which can be violently stripped from us."

Another wrote that Reed has a responsibility, in screening and discussing the film, to draw attention to its flaws and the evolution of the way transgender people are portrayed.

"So what’s the problem with pointing that out? No one would play Birth of Nation (the original) and claim that its race politics shouldn’t be criticized," wrote this commenter. "The fact is: this movie was presented without that kind of critical context -- this group of students believes that the filmmaker is not aware of that critical context -- and so they protested the film to draw light to that context (and obviously it worked since you’re reporting on the event, which is typically part of the goal of protests: to draw attention to something)."

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