I recently made the return trip from London to San Francisco. It’s a schlep I do a fair amount and I always fly Virgin Atlantic. Yes, they promote a grating nostalgia with their weird 50s ads, where women are hot, always be-skirted attendants on the arm of the suave man-captain. But you know, they also have one of the best safety records around and I’m a nervous flyer. So I hit the limits of my feminism at about 30,000 feet above sea level, I guess. Virgin are also, usually, the best when it comes to inflight entertainment. After nervously reading through the safety instructions I get through take-off by obsessively reading the entire contents of "Vera", their inflight listings guide.
Well, this trip "Vera" was certainly a distraction. But not in a good way. As I scanned through the films I noticed "Dallas Buyers Club". I’ve seen it before and wouldn’t really watch it twice, but before I moved on I noticed something odd in the film’s description. It starts off fine – it’s "rich and compelling, the direction "bold and absorbing" – and Matthew McConaughey is praised for "giving what is by far the best performance of his career". It then goes on:
Um, sorry? For one, Leto’s character had a name – Rayon – and she was a trans woman, not a cross-dressing man. Right here, right in this mistake, we see exemplified so many of the problems of carelessness around trans narratives.
During Oscar season Leto pissed off a number of people by eliding the differences between being a man who cross dresses and being a transgender woman. Jared Leto might have had to "cross dress" in order to play Rayon, but Rayon, the character he was portraying, was not a guy who, for whatever reasons of self-expression, dressed in conventionally "feminine" clothes but still self-described and self-understood as a man. Let me say it again: Rayon was a trans woman.
This mistake from Virgin gives a new perspective on the now old objections to Leto’s casting. The point is that some media and some audiences confuse Jared Leto’s act of transforming himself into a male actor playing a trans woman with the lived reality of what it means to be a trans woman. To be sure, the Rayon character is not the spokeswoman for all trans-identities, as this excellent op-ed from Parker Marie Molloy pointed out. But by referring to Rayon as a "cross dresser" Virgin, and all of those media outlets who have made a similar error, reveal just how far we have to go in the conversation about gender identity.
We don’t have to stay silent about this. Tell Virgin Atlantic this is not okay on Twitter, let them understand the mistake that has been made, and, if you’re flying with them, engage in a little DIY activism of your own (just make sure to send us pictures – we’ll publish any that come in!)