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Case Studies

“Boys Don’t Cry” (1999)

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Screenwriter(s): Kimberly Peirce, Andy Bienen
Producer(s): John Hart, Eva Kolodner, Jeff Sharp, Christine Vachon
Starring: Hilarly Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard

Context:

Boys Don’t Cry tells the story of a transgender man, Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), who ends up in the desolate city of Parks Falls, Nebraska after meeting a young woman, Candace (Alicia Goranson), at a bar. Brandon establishes himself amongst Candace’s circle of friends and participates in the mind numbing past times of this bleak community, including drinking, drugs and ‘bumper-skiing’. Brandon’s elation over his acceptance as a man amongst the group begins to falter as elements of his true identity reveal themselves. After he engages in a relationship with Candace’s friend, Lana (Chloe Sevigny), the tribe’s male friends, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), become particularly suspicious of Brandon’s character. The film climaxes as Brandon is brutally raped and murdered by John and Tom after they discover him to be biologically female.

Distribution:

The distribution of Boy’s Don’t Cry is interesting to consider within the broader context of taboos in American independent cinema, due to the ramifications of its initial rating. When Boys Don’t Cry was first submitted to the MPAA for rating, the assigned classification was an NC-17. In an interview for This Film is Not Yet Rated, Peirce recollects her initial amusement by the rating, due to her adoration for other NC-17 films. However, this optimism was quickly overshadowed when she was informed that the film’s studio, Fox Searchlight, wouldn’t distribute it with an NC-17 rating.

Kirby Dick, director of This Film is Not Yet Rated, explains the commercial implications of receiving an NC-17 rating: ‘“An NC-17 severely limits distribution. Some theater chains won’t play a film with that rating, some independent theatres won’t play it, and some newspapers won’t advertise it… the other thing, not often recognized, is that there’s a stigma attached to an NC-17. A lot of your average filmgoing public, the independent and art film public in particular, suddenly write it off”’ (West & West 2006, p. 16). The contention surrounding the rating is particularly interesting in the context of independent cinema, as ‘the raters work for the studios’ trade organization (West & West 2006, p. 15). West and West question the merit of such an organization to give these films an unbiased reading, especially considering the ramifications of soliciting such a harsh rating as an NC-17; ‘when they give R and NC-17 ratings… is this a form of prudish control over competition from independent and foreign films, which have more complex and mature approaches to sexuality?’ (West 2006, p. 15). West and West’s assertion begs the question: are films, such as Boys Don’t Cry, being penalized for their attempt to push the boundaries of content and censorship within American cinema?

Peirce ultimately conceded to the MPAA’s revision and edited the film so it could receive the R rating needed in order to be released by Fox Searchlight.

Marketing:

Similarly to the distribution, the marketing of Boys Don’t Cry is interesting to considering within the broader context of American film rating. Box office analyst Paul Derbarabedian explains, an “NC-17 rating can cost a picture millions of dollars” (This Film is Not Yet Rated).

Once passing the hurdle of distribution, the film in question receives further discrimination when released as a DVD, as American chain stores including Walmart and Blockbuster, which account for 40% of DVD sales, won’t carry films with an NC-17 rating (This Film is Not Yet Rated). Although Peirce ultimately decided to accept the notes of the MPAA in order to receive an R-rating, Kevin Smith argues, “if you choose not to accept the rating, then your ads don’t really run, you can’t run TV spots” (This Film Is Not Yet Rated).

Classification:

Matt Stone, one of the producers of ‘South Park’, echoes the assertion of West and West, stating the raters ‘serve the studios, that’s who pay their bills, that’s who they are” (This Film is Not Yet Rated). In light of this, Stone recollects his polarized experiences producing Orgazmo (1997) and the South Park Movie (1999). Orgazmo was completely independently funded, and once submitted to the MPAA received an NC-17 rating for its generally offensive tone (This Film is Not Yet Rated). When Stone queried the MPAA as to whether he may receive some specific notes on what to edit in order to receive an R rating, they denied, merely stating it was the film’s ‘overall sexual content’ (This Film is Not Yet Rated) which was inappropriate. When Stone made The South Park Movie two years later, which was produced by Paramount, he again received an NC-17 rating but was told exactly what needed to be cut in order for the film to pass for an R rating. This anecdote suggests the MPAA provides major-studio produced pictures preferential treatment. Bigham Ray, co-found of October Films, contends the ‘system is set up to favour the studios’ (This Film is Not Yet Rated).

In the case of Boys Don’t Cry, the film was set to be distributed by Fox Searchlight, a subordinate of Fox Studios. Effectively, Peirce received specific notes regarding what the MPAA took offense to in the film.

The first scene which was problematic was that depicting Brandon wiping his mouth after performing oral sex on Lana. When Peirce queried where the issue lied within this particular scene, she recollects the MPAA retorting, “well, we don’t really know but that’s offensive” (This Film is Not Yet Rated). Peirce notes the incongruous nature of such an issue, noting Brandon is brutally murdered at the end of the film and “that’s fundamentally okay”, however there is an issue with the depiction of human sexuality (This Film is Not Yet Rated). This notion lends to the broader concerns of film censorship in regards to sex versus violence. Dick contends this to be an issue particularly pertinent to independent cinema, as ‘“films that have violence in them somehow seem to slip through with a PG-13; and films.., that are just mature examinations of adult sexuality, get an NC-17”’ (West & West 2006, p. 16). The film ratings system in Europe hold an opposing view to that of the United States, whereby the raters are far more open towards sexual content, but much more restrictive about violent content (This Film is Not Yet Rated). Interestingly, the British Board of Film Classification also gives specific notes, both to film producers and the general public, regarding the reasoning for a respective rating.

Darren Aronofsky, whose film Requiem for a Dream (2000) initially received an NC-17 rating, argues, “it just seems backwards that to show human sexuality in pretty much any form is getting to R territory, while you can shoot as many bodies without any blood and still get PG-13. I mean, what are we training our kids for?” (This Film is Not Yet Rated). The absurdity in this aspect of the American ratings system is highlighted in Jack Valenti’s admission: “I don’t have any child behavioural experts on [the ratings] panel. I just want ordinary people” (This Film is Not Yet Rated).

The second scene in Boys Don’t Cry to which the MPAA took offense, was the anal rape scene. Peirce blatantly refused the suggestion to cut the scene out completely, stating “it’s just inherent to the movie” (This Film is Not Yet Rated). While this sequence in Boys Don’t Cry is confronting, one must consider that this film is based on true events. Effectively, what is being shown onscreen does not differ from the brutality of real life. Pidduck notes, ‘the viewer is asked to experience the rape from the victim’s point of view. The film invites political, emotional and corporeal allegiances linked to known and imagined risk, especially for female and/or queer viewers’ (2001, p.101). Effectively the rape scene in Boys Don’t Cry is of crucial importance not only to the authenticity of the narrative, but also for what it communicates to the public regarding social discrimination.

The third issue which the MPAA took offense to in Boys Don’t Cry, was the fact that Lana’s orgasm during the oral sex scene was too long. Perice retorts  ‘who’s ever been hurt by an orgasm that was too long?’ (This Film is Not Yet Rated). After reviewing the scene, Peirce realized the offence lied within the depiction of Lana’s pleasure, an emotion which was ‘unnerving’ for the ratings board (This Film is Not Yet Rated). Peirce regards this issue to answer to the notion that the film industry is a male construct. Effectively, in an industry which is predominately filled by male directors and screenwriters, films portray the male experience; “so even in sex scenes they’re from the male perspective” (This Film is Not Yet Rated). Furthermore, Peirce contends, “I think female pleasure is unnatural, I think female pleasure is scary, in the narrative setting. I think unfamiliarity is what breeds these NC-17’s” (This Film is Not Yet Rated).

Pidduck argues the confronting nature of Boys Don’t Cry not only to be attributed to its explicit aesthetics, but also its treatment of social taboos. The author notes, ‘watching this film as a feminist and a lesbian, in a queer context, I was torn between the recognition of Brandon as a gender outlaw, and a corporeal affinity with Swank-as-Brandon’s residual ‘female’ body, both in the rape scenes, and in the erotic encounters with Lana’ (2001, p. 102). Pidduck goes on to cite Aaron, whom convincingly argues the film to privilege ‘a ‘queer’ reading that can… separate sex and gender’ (2001, p. 102).

The homophobic issues which Boys Don’t Cry raises, within the context of American cinema, are quite profound. Dick recollects hearing Kori Bernard, the spokesperson for the MPAA, questioned about this issue when This Film is Not Yet Rated premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Dick contends that when specifically asked whether the MPAA holds a bias towards straight rather than gay themed films, ‘she said that the MPAA does not set the standards, it reflects them. I found this kind of an admission of the fact that they were participating in a homophobic structure’ (West & West 2006, p. 17). This notion confirms the argument that by distributing harsh ratings to films containing contentious subject matter, the MPAA is in effect a body advocating censorship. Furthermore, this censoring of taboo subject matter is not only prohibiting the progression of social contentions, but also perpetuating the matter.

Reception:

Boys Don’t Cry ultimately proved both a commercial and critical success, winning numerous awards including the prestigious Best Actress (Drama) at the 1999 Gold Globe Awards and Academy Awards. The film earned $11,540,607 domestically, a drastic gross from its $2 million budget. Such accolades proved that broader audiences responded positively to the film’s challenging content.

  • Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Box Office Mojo, viewed May 27 2011, <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=boysdontcry.htm&gt;
  • Pidduck, J 2001, ‘The Boys Don’t Cry debate: Risk and queer spectatorship’, Screen, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 97-102, viewed 27 April 2011, Communication & Mass Media Complete (EBSCO).
  • Swan, R 2001, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, Film Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, pp. 47-52, viewed 28 April 2011, JSTOR.
  • This Film is Not Yet Rated 2006, film, Independent Film Channel, Los Angeles, 6 May.
  • West, JM & West, D 2006, ‘MPAA Ratings, Black Holes, and My Film: An Interview with Kirby Dick’, Cineaste, Winter, pp. 14-19, viewed 5 May 2011, Expanded Academic ASAP (Gale).


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