In the film Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank plays the role of Brandon Teena who is a transgendered man, that is an individual who is assigned a female at birth yet identifies as a male. The film naturally raises the question: what is masculinity? Masculinity is defined as “a set of qualities, characteristics, or roles generally considered typical of, or appropriate to, a man.” Therefore masculinity is a social construct that an individual can display regardless of their biological sex.
When playing gender on screen, actors look towards what they see in everyday life to build authenticity to their performance. This means actors not only stay true to their roles and scripts, but also often incorporate stereotypes such as portraying males as macho and strong.
In order to play Brandon effectively, Swank underwent many physical changes. One of the most obvious transformations include her hair cut. She also reduced her body fat to 7% so her facial structure was more defined. Swank also carried herself in a more masculine way, she hunched over slightly, with her legs farther apart and with her hands in her pocket. Swank also used ‘tools of the craft’ to portray Brandon authentically, including her voice. She lowered her voice for the role, however was careful not to lower it too much, she was mindful to the fact that Brandon is physically a female. Thus her analysis of the role led to this well thought out action. Swank stated she had her father in mind as she carried out actions such as slicking her hair back in the mirror. Therefore one could propose that Swank was able to choose an action after modelling ‘as-if’ examples after her father.
Brandon displays stereotypical male mannerisms. This includes having a tough exterior and risk taking such as speeding in cars, bar fights and dangerous stunts like bumper skiing. Brandon also smokes, drinks, curses and chases after women. Swank holds the cigarettes and beer bottles in a characteristically male way, she uses her index finger and thumb to hold the cigarette and even places the cigarette over her ear.
An actor who also displays many stereotypical male characteristics is Robert De Niro. In many roles, Robert is a confident, alpha male and often takes the role of the caretaker. He’s aggressive, cocky and often a womanizer. De Niro embodies these roles through his demanding physical presence and ruggedness.
Swank’s Brandon Teena may have similarities to Robert De Niro’ roles however there are many differences. Swank was careful to not forget that Brandon was once a female, thus he is not always a stereotypically emotionless male. Brandon is more friendly and well-mannered than the other guys and is even great with kids. Brandon is shown as weaker than the other guys, this is evident as Swank gulps in fear when Tom shows his self inflicted wounds. Contrary to De Niro, who acts very naturally as a male, Swank purposely over acts her male actions, to show that Brandon was trying really hard to convey that she is a male to society to gain acceptance.