Throughout the movie, there are hints that ex-convict John Lotter, the ringleader of the operation, has an extremely volatile personality, though Peter Sarsgaard has been quoted saying that he intended him to be a charismatic, likable character, even a bit sympathetic. When he gets upset with Brandon for getting pulled over by the police, only because John himself encouraged him to race another car, he kicks everyone out but Lana, Brandon’s eventual girlfriend, for whom John has had feelings for years, and her friend, who need to get to work, and forces everyone else to walk back home. The picture of the lower-income, isolated Midwest and the attitudes it engenders fits perfectly with the article, “Culture, Gender, and Violence: ‘We Are Not Women,’” by James Gilligan. There is no great wealth disparity, but rather, a general poorness and lack of opportunity. John and his friend and eventual accomplice, Tom, have been to prison before, and from what John has mentioned about his personal history, he has had a very rough life and considers Lana and her mother family, as his own mother did not write him in prison and sounds generally neglectful.
One of the most troubling instances of the movie, for me, besides the actual scenes of violence, was when Lana’s mother asked John and Tom if they had raped Brandon, and John’s response was that “if [he] wanted to rape someone, [he] [had] Mallory,” Mallory being the unseen mother of his child. He says this laughingly to deflect from the possibility that he could have raped a self-identified man, as if his gender identity was the truly disgusting part, not the act itself. John’s particular brand of masculinity is predicated on very convoluted ideas of retribution and respectability, wherein his actions were justified because Brandon had been corrupting one of the few people for whom he deeply cared, Lana, but it is also obvious that he had a response to what he deemed culturally abhorrent behavior, as gender roles and the reinforcement of normativity is one of the few ways one can find any stability in such destitute circumstances.
Another interesting dimension to the events of the end of the film is the way in which most of the female characters are complicit in Brandon’s torture, though I don’t believe any of them wanted him dead. Lana’s mother seems to want him at least to be run out of town, if not punished for what appears to her to be some betrayal of not only their social group, but perhaps also their gender, and even their friend Candace, who is generally very kind and mild-mannered and had even allowed Brandon to live with her the entire time he was in Falls City, seems disgusted with the entire ordeal. To quote from Gilligan’s aforementioned text, “gender codes reinforce the socialization of girls and women, socializing them to acquiesce in, support, and cling to the traditional set of social roles, and to enforce conformity in other females as well” (553). Though Brandon does not identify as female, when they discover his biological gender, they begin addressing him as “Teena” and the girls make a contrived effort to police his behaviors, under the guise that he has betrayed them through his lies. However, Lana’s mother’s xenophobic comments about Brandon being an “it” display a much more deeply rooted problem about the perception of gender betrayal and transgression.
Brandon himself represents a particular problem of queering space and the body. Because of how poor he is, he does not see having a sex-change or even doing hormonal therapy as a viable option for his circumstances, but instead, cross-dresses and in the vein of his previous lies, claims to be a hermaphrodite when caught to make his case sound more medically necessary, rather than a very personal, if at the time, half-baked decision. He is also choosing to do this while understanding how others perceive it when they find out his secret, as he has had death threats and run-ins with violent personalities before. He completely understands where he lives, the attitudes others possess, and the risk he runs in staying there to enact his lifestyle choices, yet with very little thought or care, he stays anyway, and moves to an even more isolated area, far away from the possible protection of his family. Even with such sensitive issues, one must acknowledge the aspects that become problematic, as until the move to Falls City, he seemed to regard the spectacle of being caught as humorous, not taking into account the real risk for bodily harm. While embodiment of manhood and masculinity is in no way contingent on possessing a penis, as pointed out numerous times in Jamison Green’s article, “Part of the Package,” and it is incredible that Brandon was able to understand how to embody a young male so effectively and without any sort of mentoring or exposure to queer space, this created a complete lack of attention to the boundaries that gender possesses, and how its policing can imply dire consequences.
In recognizing all of these aforementioned factors in the film, we see that the policing, regulation, and “doing” of gender is a multifaceted issue that is encapsulated in many forms of masculinity, the violent and the transcendent, and the ways in which women also construct maleness as well, becoming complicit in the consequences of its most militant defense. There is so much I couldn’t even begin to touch on, given the word limit, but suffice it to say, I would certainly recommend this film, if not for the performances than for a narrative that is rare in that it delves deeply into gender and still manages to be well-acted.