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TitleThe History Of Sex In American Film
CategoryArts - Film
File Size1.0 MB
Total Pages231
Document Text Contents
Page 1

The History of Sex
in American Film

Jody W. Pennington


Page 115

promoters and its detractors alike); at most it represents the sexuality of
clueless, urban teens like Telly.15 If Kids reflects anything, it is more
nearly Clark’s obsessive interest in adolescent sexuality, which resur-
faced even more explicitly in Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2002).

A film that deals with teen sexual development and the deadly con-
sequences of violent homophobia is Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which made
a big impression at the film festivals in Venice, Toronto, and New York.
The Academy’s willingness to promote a film about the tragic fate of a
gender-bending teenager was light years from the moral universe of
Will Hays or Joseph Breen. Hillary Swank won an Oscar for Best
Actress for her transgender portrayal of Teena Brandon, a young girl
who changes her name to Brandon Teena and begins dressing and
acting like a boy. Boy’s Don’t Cry begins in Nebraska in 1993, with
Teena sitting in a mobile home getting her hair cut by her cousin Lonny
(Matt McGrath). “So,” he tells her, “you’re a boy,” asking, “Now what?”
Lonny wonders what Teena has in mind for the evening, but the ques-
tion resonates much larger. Brandon/Teena has a longer term strategy
of having a sex change operation so she no longer has to disguise her
gender by hiding her breasts or stuffing her pants.

The narrative embeds the threat of impending doom in the initial
sequence. After pretending to be a boy at the local skating rink and
going on a date with a young girl named Nicole (Cheyenne Rushing),
Brandon/Teena is chased back to Lonny’s trailer by a group of infuri-
ated men, one of whom is Nicole’s older brother. (S)he barely escapes
into the trailer. Unable to cope with his cousin’s lifestyle and the risks
that accompany it, Lonny asks Brandon/Teena to move out. Brandon/
Teena hooks up with Candace (Alicia Goranson) and her crowd, led by
roughnecks John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton).

Brandon/Teena moves to rural Falls City, Nebraska, and gains the
guys’ acceptance. Believed by those who know her to be a boy, she
eventually enters into a romance with the chronically despondent Lana
(Chlo€e Sevigny). The clock is ticking, though, because there is obvi-
ously not room in the moral universe of an ex-con like John for Brandon/
Teena’s transgression of gender norms. John and the other males are
shown in situations that emphasize their rough and tumble masculinity.
John has a violent temper, and Tom, who once burned his family’s
house down, now slices himself with a knife to keep his inner demons
at bay. “Welcome,” says Kate (Alison Folland) to Brandon at one point,
“to the psycho ward.”

Teena is arrested, and while she is in jail Candace discovers her
secret. Candace tells Lana, who promptly visits Teena in the women’s
section of the jail. Teena tells her that she is a “hermaphrodite,” but
assures her that it “sounds a lot more complicated than it is.” Lana says
she does not care if Teena is “half monkey or half ape” and gets Teena

102 The History of Sex in American Film

Page 116

out of jail. She makes love to Teena in the front seat of a car that night.
The sex is on-screen, with nudity and Brandon sucking briefly on
Lana’s breast. The scene was shortened to get CARA to change its initial
NC-17 rating to an R.

When John discovers Brandon’s gender identity, he barges into
Lana’s house and tells her mother that Brandon has “got her brain-
washed. That’s what they do.” He finds a pamphlet in Lana’s bedroom
entitled “Cross-Dressers and Transsexuals: The Uninvited Dilemma”
and reads out loud “Sexual identity crisis.” From a section shown on-
screen called “Genital Reconstruction,” he reads, “The grafted skin will
mimic the loose skin of the natural male penis” before exploding, “Get
this sick shit away from me!” Lana’s mother’s (Jeanetta Arnette) reacts
as violently emotionally as John and Tom do physically. John and Tom
find Teena and drive to a deserted area and rape her. The rape scene is
graphic, and the purely abusive, vindictive nature of their crime is
made clear. In the end, John and Tom go on a senseless, murderous
rampage, killing not only Teena but also Candace. In their ignorance,
they have assumed that Candace is lesbian, and she, too, needs to die.
Tom tries to kill Lana as well, but John prevents him from doing so.

The film captures the irrationality of homophobic rage and the way
in which hostility to gays, lesbians, and in Teena/Brandon’s case, the
transgendered, morphs quickly into violence. Another film that
depicted the violent consequences of homophobic rage was American
Beauty (1999), which also looked at teen sex through the pedophiliac
eyes of its main character, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey).


British stage director Sam Mendes’s debut for the big screen, like Mike
Nichols’s earlier transition, wears its sexual themes on its sleeve. Like
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mendes’s film, given an R by CARA
because of its sexual content, introduces the viewer quickly to the dys-
functional side of a family’s life that each member at first would prefer
to keep from public view. In a voice-over, Lester introduces himself; his
wife, Caroline (Annette Bening); and their sixteen-year-old daughter,
Jane (Thora Birch). He is dissatisfied with his life. He tells us, in voice-
over, that he will be dead in less than a year, but that he is spiritually
dead already, symbolized by his “jerking off in the shower,” which he
sardonically notes, “will be the high point of my day.” He presents his
wife as a cold perfectionist who has lost the ability to be happy. He tells
us his daughter is “insecure” and “confused” as we see her checking
out a Web site for information on breast implants. Jane wants to change
herself, the trope for all of the major characters. That she looks to

To Have or Not to Have Sex 103

Page 230

About the Author

JODY W. PENNINGTON is Associate Professor in Media and Culture
Studies at the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark,
where he teaches Media and Cultural Studies as well as American Stud-
ies. He has published articles and presented papers on various aspects
of film and popular music, as well as American constitutional law. He
is currently president of the Danish Association of American Studies.

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