Depiction of Gender Norms in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don't Cry

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When thinking about tools of power, one can’t help but to think about film. Films as a tool of power, can influence public opinion and their outlook on life. Films can also expand one's knowledge of history and culture. With such an immense influence on our society, it is especially important that filmmakers do not perpetuate outdated gender norms that can affect the public's perception of self. The question I will attempt to answer in this research paper, is whether contemporary filmmakers have a responsibility to challenge gender norms through their films. I would like to argue that they do. I would also like to look at two films that challenge gender norms, Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry.

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With the continual evolution of gender, filmmakers have a responsibility to reflect that spectrum in their films – challenging any outdated gender norms. They possess the power to change landscape and give children the opportunity to understand such a fundamentally important aspect of life. With proper unproblematic representation of the gender spectrum, children will be able to understand their own gender and have agency in how they choose to perform it. Filmmakers have a platform that can influence socially acceptable behavior for men and women and those who do not fit within the binary. This is another reason why they have a responsibility to challenge outdated gender norms. Being a part of the media, they have significant influence in the construction of gender identity.

The movie Boys Don’t Cry takes place in Lincoln Nebraska where Brandon Teena, a female to male transgender person is trying to be free of gender restrictions in his hometown. In another city in Nebraska, Brandon ends up befriending a few of the locals there after an altercation between a male aggressor and a woman in the bar took place. After his new group of friends discovered he is transgendered, the men among the group violently beat and raped him. Brandon proceeded to file charges which lead to two of the men murdering him the next morning. In the movie, cars seem to be of importance when it comes to gendered performances. The opening scene is of Brandon driving down a road and suddenly being passed by another car and police lights flashing in the distance. Later in the movie you begin to understand why that scene is of importance. It is representative of the expectations of masculinity and the dangerous events that follow later in the movie.

Lumsden (2010) noted that contemporary western society places a huge emphasis on car culture amongst adolescents, conveying power hierarchies established through car related practices. This is evident in the film with scenes where the boys engage in reckless and aggressive behavior using vehicles. The reason this film is important when it comes to critiquing gender norms, as noted by Goodey (1997), is adolescence being one of the important stages when it comes to identity development. Goodey states boys have an emotional illiteracy which can show up as reactive aggression against the self and others in the form of physically aggressive acts. The two male locals were emotionally inarticulate and their need to categorize gender lead to the assault of Brandon.

In Million Dollar Baby, Maggie Fitzgerald, a waitress from Missouri, is looking to be trained by boxing gym owner, Frankie Dunn. Dunn rejects training Maggie because he does not train girls. Dunn felt this way because he thought the boxing world would make him into a joke, saying that training a girl ultimately meant his demise. Later in the film one of Dunn’s fighters' signs with another trainer and Dunn starts noticing Maggie’s dedication and eventually agrees to train her. After a series of knockouts and being undefeated, Maggie finally gets a title match where her opponent lands a cheap shot, leaving her paralyzed. When you consider the time in which the movie takes place, you begin to understand what society was like and the role women were supposed to play. Boxing was considered a sport for men and Maggie was violating gender norms by training to be a boxer.

Not only did Maggie violate gender norms, but she violated Dunn’s cardinal rule, “protect yourself at all times.” Leterri (2011) notes the evidence of her violation of these norms is depicted by her disability and the use of a syringe as the means of her demise indicates the extremes the film goes to stitch Maggie back into the system of normative gender codes. Throughout the movie you begin to realize women do not have much of a presence, making Maggie the focus. The movie did a great job of playing on the viewers feelings. Seeing that no one was backing up the girl in the movie, you sympathized and wanted her to prove people wrong. That is the power of gender in this movie. That is the power filmmakers have.

In both Million Dollar Baby, and Boys Don’t Cry, there are scenes where masculinity and sexuality are called into question. You see it as gendered violence in Boys Don’t Cry with the locals trying to categorize gender and strip Brandon naked to see what his sexual organs were. Upon finding out, the boys then felt as if they had to assert their masculinity and power over Brandon. They sorted Brandon’s reproductive anatomy into the female category and used “corrective rape” to reestablish their position in the group as well as their control over women. Society pressures men into thinking the only way to solve your problems is by being aggressive.

In Million Dollar Baby, there is a scene where Maggie’s femininity is called into question and the masculinity of another character, Shawrelle, is under attack. According to Leterri (2011), this scene codes the films message regarding the dangers of gender ambiguity. Shawrelle challenges another character, Danger, to fight Maggie, to which he declines because he does not fight women. Shawrelle then ridicules Maggie for her “itty bitty titties”, placing her femininity in question. Maggie responds by making a comment about his last match, and Danger mocks Shawrelle kissing the gym floor during that match. These were direct attacks on his gender identity which Danger later had to pay for by being viciously beaten by Shawrelle. This fight was a representation of Shawrelle’s misconstrued sense of masculinity (Leterri, 2011).

With such a large impact on public opinion, and reach within the world, contemporary filmmakers have a job to do when it comes to social responsibility. Filmmakers have a duty to dispel any false beliefs and impart real information and instruction to the masses. Films can function as useful instruments of social change and challenge any outdated attitudes and customs. Therefore, it is important for filmmakers to challenge gender norms in their films, so that they do not perpetuate outdated gender norms that can affect the public's perception of self. When filmmakers create a film, it is important to think about who is not being seen in their films. The lack of or inaccurate representation can be detrimental, contributing to institutions of oppression.

Maggie Fitzgerald and Brandon Teena navigate these oppressive barriers, Maggie with her work ethic, and Brandon choosing to live as the gender he identifies with. These two films have one major commonality, both main characters fail to perform masculinity successfully and end up paying for it in the end. If filmmakers begin to challenge what masculinity looks like and how one is to perform it, the films probably would have had a different ending. There are pressures placed on men regarding the performance of masculinity. Any deviation from that performance is met with violence, causing men to put on a façade in times of crisis.

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