Mirror, Mirror: Appearance and Reality in BOYS DON’T CRY
23 June 2013
The first time the audience sees Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) is through a mirror, a rearview mirror to be specific. Brandon is driving, and the audience, as backseat passengers, looks at his eyes in the car’s rearview mirror. The second time the audience sees Brandon is also through a mirror, a larger one placed in front of a chair where a haircut occurs…cut to Brandon’s cousin cutting Bandon’s hair. Like the first glimpse the audience gets at Brandon, the audiences looks, indirectly, at Brandon’s reflected image without him looking back; in these first two shots, the audiences merely observes the image Brandon Teena reflects for the world.
This, of course, is significant to a central theme in Boys Don’t Cry, and that theme is appearance versus reality. More pointedly, in Boys Don’t Cry the characters’ appearances attempt to trump reality, and Brandon, as well as other characters in the film, attempt to hide reality behind an image, or create a reality based off their selected appearance.
Boys Don’t Cry tells the real-life story of Brandon Teena, born Teena Brandon, a biological woman more at home living as a man. Jumping from bar to bar, and girl to girl, in the heart of Texas, Brandon gets involved with dangerous group of people in the small town of Falls City. Ex-convict John (Peter Sarsgaard) is the unspoken leader of this group, and what makes him dangerous is the narrow outlook he has on people and life. Moreover, John is prone to violence and opposed to authority, solidifying his dangerous label. John’s partner in crime, Tom (Brendan Sexton III), follows John and, like John, feels the need to flaunt his idea of masculinity and consistently sets out to prove his manhood, which typically degrades or endangers those around him. There are also females in this group, Lana (Chloe Sevigny) and Candace (Alicia Goranson), whose relationships with John and Tom are ambiguous. Brandon conceals his biological gender from everyone, including Lana, who he begins a romantic relationship with. At first John seems to accept Brandon and Lana’s relationship, but he quickly takes issue with. Meanwhile, Candace begins to suspect Bandon’s secret when she finds a letter for Teena in Brandon’s garbage pail. Suddenly, the façade Brandon built begins to crumble. Although Lana stands by Brandon, not everyone else in this group accepts the truth about his sexuality as freely, and John and Tom unleash their fatal wrath on Brandon Teena.
As mentioned, Boys Don’t Cry uses mirrors to introduce the audience to its protagonist, and how director Kimberly Peirce continues to use mirrors is significant to how the film handles characters’ conflicts between appearance and reality. The aforementioned inclusions of mirrors around Brandon suggest how important appearance is to his character; however, as the film continues, mirrors become a less frequent fixture around him, suggesting mirrors are a double-edged sword for Brandon; they reflect the image of himself he identifies with, but mirrors are also objects designed for seeing, and there are secrets in Brandon’s life he is desperate to keep unseen.
In fact, the next time a mirror is presumably present in Boys Don’t Cry is after Brandon’s first “initiation” with John and his crew. John and his friends take Brandon out one night for some car games, including hitting Brandon, who is standing on foot, with a car. This testament of manliness seems to excite Brandon the way it does John and Tom (hoo-rah), but is also forces Brandon to have to “clean himself up” after the festivities. In a long shot, positioned in a door frame, Brandon stands in front of a bathroom vanity, partially clothed, trying to reassemble his image for his new friends. Even though the audience can safely assume Brandon is looking at himself in the bathroom’s mirror, the audience cannot see the mirror; a partial wall blocks it from the shot. This suggests the image reflected back at Brandon is not one he is comfortable with; he looks sloppy and probably feels very weak and emasculated from John’s first torturous game. Because Brandon feels the mirror’s reflection is revealing the wrong image, or an appearance he does not choose to present himself as, the audience is blocked from seeing his reflection. Because the audience has some omniscient presence in the film, viewers are still seeing Brandon in bathroom, but the audience in no longer allowed the privilege to see him through the mirror, or to see the he Brandon puts out for the world.
Another character who also struggles with appearance and reality, and one who connects to this same theory about mirrors, is Lana. From the first time the audience enters her room, one large mirror is clearly seen in front of Lana’s bed, and twice in the film she stands in front of it and inspects her body. Her appearance and reality conflict is similar to Brandon’s; Lana is concerned with her weight and looks, which suggests her conflict, like Brandon’s, is all about her projected image. However, unlike Brandon’s conflict, Lana does not conceal a secret in her appearance, so the danger surrounding the conflict is to a lesser degree.
When Brandon’s lies catch up with him and characters begin to question his identity mirrors start to appear more frequently in the film. First, when Candace rummages through Brandon’s trash and discovers his true name is Teena Brandon, she is sitting in front of a full-length mirror; Candace is kneeling on the floor with her back to the mirror. This image is haunting because the mirror’s presence suggests something is being seen (Bandon’s female identity), but Candace’s back to the image suggests she does not want to see this image. Candace has been content with Brandon’s projected appearance, and this new information shatters that appearance, and so Candace symbolically tries to unsee it by turning her back to the mirror.
After Candace’s discovery, when mirrors are a more visible in the film, the audience sees Brandon dress through the mirror’s reflection. Earlier in the film, the audience was blocked from viewing Brandon half-dressed, but in this scene Brandon stands, breasts taped, in front of the mirror. This vulnerability suggests a changing tide in the film. Brandon is losing the ability to produce the image and appearance he wants to project. Like the people around Brandon, the audience is seeing reality, and not the falsified appearance. However, because he is concealing secret, Brandon’s inability to maintain his appearance over reality is a dangerous position for him to be in while running with John and his friends.
By the time Brandon’s secret is out, more mirrors appear. A second mirror appears in Lana’s room, on her vanity, and a mirror appears in Lana’s living room, which is used frequently by the director to capture characters’ indirect reflections through. Put another way, on occasion, in the second half of the film, the director films characters’ reflection in the mirror, as opposed to filming them directly. This use of Lana’s living room mirror is important to this theme of appearance versus reality in Boys Don’t Cry. An echo from the film’s first use of mirror with Brandon, particularly when he was getting his hair cut, the reflected images of these characters represent the image they chose to project out into the world; the appearance they want to be viewed as. John is shot through Lana’s living room mirror, and his appearance is that of macho man; his image is that of the tough guy. Just like with Brandon, that is the John he puts out, and that is the John he behaves like. However, unlike Brandon, John maintains appearance over reality.
Not only are reflections a double-edged sword for Brandon because they display his image, but also have the power to out his actual identity, but mirrors are a double-edged sword for everyone because mirrors show off the image each character chooses to project, but the mirror’s reflection also locks characters into a persona that matches the image they have chosen to project. John wears the appearance of a tough guy, and that is what the mirror reflects, always. However, he has a very narrow scope of the world, much like how constricted his appearance is in the small living room mirror; he wants to be a seen a certain way, and he will only sees the world a certain way. Initiating the fatal altercation with Brandon is inevitable for John because his character’s appearance is everything, and it becomes his reality.
Mirrors are a frequent symbol in cinema, and Boys Don’t Cry is no exception. And, while Peirce’s film does not rely on mirrors to communicate this theme, it does use mirrors as support for this theme.