When I first saw Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game I was only 13 years old, far too young to fully appreciate the film or understand most of its plot. I was a queer kid just about to embark on puberty, and had heard about the movie’s queer themes—and about the scene in which a character is revealed to be trans. At the time, I was so starved for queer representation in film or television that I took whatever representation I could get, no matter how messed up, ugly, reductive, or clichéd it was. My local Blockbuster had an “indie” section, and I’d often surreptitiously bury movies like Gregg Araki’s The Living End or Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances in the pile of more innocuous fare like John Hughes’ oeuvre, hoping to escape what I imagined to be the clerk’s contempt—though looking back now, I’m sure it was all in my head.
I was drawn to The Crying Game because I wanted to see that scene. More than just wanting to see it, I was desperate to see that scene. I was filled with curiosity, fascination, and a deep desire to see any kind of queer sexuality on screen—and for my pre-pubescent self, seeing a penis in a mainstream film proved too irresistible. But as an adult, I now understand that that scene is an ugly one, and I’m ashamed at just how excited I was to see it.
The Crying Game tells the story of IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea), who has taken up with the gorgeous Dil (Jaye Davidson). Dil was the girlfriend of Jody (Forest Whitaker), a slain British soldier with whom Fergus struck up a sad and doomed friendship while Jody was being held hostage by Fergus and his colleagues. Before he dies, Jody makes Fergus promise to watch over Dil if something happens to him. Later, after an initial flirtation and courtship, the guilt-stricken Fergus falls for the intriguing Dil. It’s during their first night of lovemaking that that scene takes place, and Fergus discovers that Dil is trans. His reaction is swift and violent: He strikes Dil and rushes to the toilet to throw up in revulsion and disgust.
To a certain extent, The Crying Game is a pretty progressive take on a queer relationship given that it was released in 1992, years before our culture’s growing understanding and acknowledgment of the trans community. Despite his initial disgust, Fergus comes to understand he loves Dil, and goes to great lengths to demonstrate his love (even framing himself for a murder she committed, so that she could avoid prison). But even though Jordan’s film is a thoughtful, ruminative piece about the love between Dil and Fergus, that scene overshadows everything. Despite being a small indie film, The Crying Game got a lot of attention because of that scene; even mainstream audiences who hadn’t seen the actual movie knew about its infamous plot twist. The film—and especially that scene—gained so much cultural capital that it was much-parodied at the time; in one particularly noxious example, Tom Shadyac’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the titular character (Jim Carrey) discovers he’s made out with a transgender woman and forces himself to vomit. He lays prone in a shower, weeping in disgust, after setting his clothes on fire. The parodies, sketches, and jokes ensured that The Crying Game secured a place in the national conversation, but that conversation was rife with ignorance and misunderstanding. Furthermore, the film achieved a strange feat: it lodged itself in the collective consciousness even though most people didn’t see it.
Like many at the time, my initial viewing of the film was hampered by ignorance and misunderstanding. But I’ve watched The Crying Game many times since I was 13, understanding more and more as I got older. It’s ostensibly a political thriller—one in which a decent man (Fergus) is driven, by political conviction and extremism, to perform appalling acts. We understand Fergus is decent because, unlike his fellow IRA foot soldiers (the ruthless Jude, portrayed by a truly chilling Miranda Richardson, and Adrian Dunbar’s Maguire), Fergus is loathe to carry out the violence. He finds kinship with his hostage Jody, despite their opposing nationalities and loyalties. When tasked with killing her, Fergus cannot bring himself to do it—even Jody knows this—and doesn’t stop his friend from trying to escape. But despite my newfound understanding, every time I’d watch the film that scene would still make me wince. I hate that the revelation of a trans woman’s physicality is presented as a mind fuck.
The relationship between Dil and Fergus is fraught because each character harbors a deep, profound secret. For Fergus, it’s his role in Jody’s death, and for Dil it’s her biological sex. And yet, as I write this, I find myself cringing in much the same way I did when I first watched that scene because I’ve created a false parallel between the two characters. There is no parallel. What Fergus did was terrible, and Dil did nothing wrong. Yet, because “passing” is often depicted as duplicitous and deceitful, Dil is presented as someone cloaked in mystery. Because Dil wasn’t upfront about her biological sex, her act is framed as a lie, and so Fergus’ reaction—becoming violently ill, and just plain violent—is somehow justified. It’s the same form of trans panic used to excuse violence against hundreds of trans women.
Even though Jordan does an admirable job in complicating the aforementioned narrative of trans panic and transphobia by writing a genuine love story between the two characters, his film still exhibits blind spots and prejudices when it comes to trans people and trans issues—prejudices that were commonplace back in the early 1990s. There appears to be some cynicism behind Jordan’s noble intentions. He wanted to write a beautiful love story between a man and a woman, but he had to know that that scene would be the standout moment for the film, and the hook that would draw audiences in.
Perhaps that’s why Boy George was tapped to sing the film’s titular theme song. Film theme songs—especially since the 1970s—are fantastic marketing tools that work to sell the film as well the soundtrack (think Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”). For The Crying Game, Jordan hired the British pop star to croon the sad, torchy ballad we hear Dil singing in her first scene in the film. Boy George was a ubiquitous presence on the radio and television throughout the 1980s, known for his sometimes-androgynous, but more-often-than-not flamboyant, drag persona. A genderqueer pop star singing a song sung by a genderqueer character in the film is a sneaky clue. It’s also a calculated marketing move, packaging the movie in a genderqueer way. Boy George acted as a stand-in for Dil, both on the film’s soundtrack and on the radio, and the song became a top 20 hit. So even having never seen the film, most audiences would still have some idea that The Crying Game was queer.
All of this would be fine—and I’d be the first one to chuckle, because Boy George was unabashedly queer, so it’s a clever way to telegraph the queerness of the film—if only the film’s pivotal scene wasn’t treated like a “hook” to draw curious audiences in. The problem is, Jordan’s film contextualizes the queer reveal in a way that perpetuates some problematic ideas, namely that:
Trans folks are obligated to share their status
Trans identities are inherently deviant/alternative and can be used to shock and titillate
When a cis male reacts violently to learning his partner is trans, he’s justified because somehow he’s been “had”
In framing Dil’s trans identity as a shocking revelation, Jordan tips the film into Jerry Springer/Jenny Jones territory, refashioned as a classy, stylish thriller. The revelation that a character is trans is presented as a mind fuck, but it shouldn’t be. And what I learned from my repeated views of The Crying Game is just how destructive that plot twist is. The big reveal of Dil’s penis reduces her story to an Oh My God moment—and even if Neil Jordan didn’t intend to exploit, he is banking on his audience to view a cis straight man’s relationship with a trans woman as taboo and unconventional.
So much of The Crying Game’s legacy is based on its representation of queer bodies, along with its exploration of race, nationality, violence, and war. But despite its excellence, and its somewhat improbable box office success, discussion of the film has largely been dominated by that scene. It’s interesting—and telling—that a complex and twisting film like The Crying Game has been reduced to a single scene, a fleeting one in which audiences can barely see a woman’s penis. The reductive mainstream response to the film betrayed a largely ignorant audience that was willfully dismissive and prejudiced against a marginalized and oft-misrepresented population. The breathless titillation and shock—as well as the puerile giggling that accompanied that shock—ultimately twisted The Crying Game’s place in the film canon.
Though Jordan was working to craft a beautiful and complicated film, he’s still somewhat complicit in its reception. He framed the reveal in such a way as to draw gasps from his audience, and by doing so, was able to turn his small, independent movie into a major cultural artifact of the 1990s (so much so that when it was parodied in films like Ace Ventura or Naked Gun 33 ⅓, audiences immediately “got” the joke). Once again, queer and trans bodies were used as a marker of abnormality, subversion, and the uncanny. And that scene transformed The Crying Game from a thoughtful film into one that is (still) often easily reduced to a single moment.