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Trans In The Mainstream: ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Trans In The Mainstream: 'Dallas Buyers Club'

Dallas Buyers Club received
a lot of attention last year due in large part to Jared Leto’s portrayal of the
transgender character Rayon. The character and Leto’s depiction of the
character was polarizing. Cisgender straight liberals fawned over the performance
(even awarding Leto with an Academy Award), but with many in the LGBTQ
(emphasis on the T) community sorely disappointed by it. This film is actually
a great example of what not to do if you’re going to create a trans character
for your film and that’s why I’ve included it.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

There is a middle
ground between Transamerica and Dallas Buyers Club but the difference
between the two films is so vast that I think it’s worth comparing them
back-to-back before examining the film I consider to be a halfway point (in
terms of representation) between the two. The most glaringly obvious
difference, and the one every critic seized upon, was the casting of Jared Leto
as a transgender woman. As someone who is fascinated by the business side of
film and what that means for getting films made, I understand the decision. As
a trans person I find the decision disappointing.

I spent a fair amount of time during the awards season arguing
against the idea that Jared Leto should not have been cast in Dallas Buyers Club and that only a trans
woman could have legitimately played that role. The general public does not understand the way in which the film
business works. In order to get a project like Dallas Buyers Club financial backing there would need to be actual
legitimate actors and actresses involved for bankability at the box office, and
at the time there were no trans actresses with a high enough profile. Was
Matthew McConaughey a big enough star to get the film made on his name alone?
McConaughey and Jennifer Garner? Jared Leto hadn’t acted in quite some time so
I actually question the defense I constructed to argue with people about. It is
absurd to suggest that cis people can’t play trans people in the same way it is
to suggest that trans people can’t play cis people. The real question is why
wasn’t a woman (cis or trans) cast in the role since the character was female?
Let’s delve a little deeper into the psyche of the director.

In my opinion, the
biggest issue with Dallas Buyers Club and
the representation of a trans character revolves around the opinions of the
film’s director. An op-ed in The Advocate magazine written by Parker Marie
Molloy cites an interview down with the director and the Canadian Broadcasting
Corp,  “
Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc
Vallee was asked if he had ever considered hiring a transgender actress for the
role of Rayon. ‘Never,’ Vallee said, following that up by asking the
interviewer if there were any trans actors, and concluding his thoughts
on the matter by saying, ‘I’m not aiming for the real thing. I’m aiming for an
experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.’ To be clear, the ‘thing’
referenced by Vallee is a transgender woman.” As if that weren’t bad enough,
Molloy goes on to write, “Throughout that same interview, Vallee refers to the
character of Rayon as either ‘a guy,’ or ‘a transgender guy.’” It is extremely
disappointing and disheartening to read an interview with a director who cannot
even get the pronouns of the character right. No wonder Leto’s representation
was lackluster.

If we put the
portrayal of Rayon into the context of the 1980s, the era in which the film is
set, can we make some allowances for the characterization? Meaning, can we look
back through the lens of time and think that trans rights didn’t exist, that
surgeries weren’t what they are now, that people didn’t really “pass” back
then? Not really. People have been transitioning in both directions, quite
successfully, since the 1950s. There really is no excuse for the
characterization.  Furthermore, it’s
important to note that this character is completely fictional. The writers did
not have to portray a trans woman in this way. By doing so, they simply
reinforced the status quo of prior trans film characters as those who are there
simply to be tragic and to die, be killed, or murder someone. As Steve Friess
writes in Time magazine,

“What did the
writers of “Dallas Buyers Club” and Leto as her portrayer decide to make Rayon?
Why, she’s a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug
addict prostitute, of course. There are no stereotypes about transgender women
that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s an exaggerated, trivialized version
of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core
they are women — behave. And in a very bleak film, she’s the only figure played
consistently for comic relief, like the part when fake-Woodruff points a gun at
Rayon’s crotch and suggests he give her the sex change she’s been wanting.

Matthew Hammett Knott on this very site threw his hat into the ring

about Leto’s portrayal and why a trans person wasn’t cast in
the role and should have been. While I personally feel it’s a very slippery
slope to want only trans people to play trans roles (hearkening back to gay
people not being cast in straight roles, this feels similar and dangerous) Knott makes an extremely valid point, “By casting a well-known
cis actor in a trans role, it makes it all about the performance. Anyone who
has watched ‘Orange is the New Black’ will know that watching a real trans
actor in a trans role has an entirely different, utterly compelling and
humanizing effect.” Knott is referring to the actress Laverne Cox, a
transgender woman who portrays a transgender prisoner. Perhaps under all of
this, that is the issue. By seeing a trans actor/actress portray a trans
character they can take the character to places a cis actor probably can’t or
won’t feel comfortable doing. To be a trans person and see a trans person
portray a trans character it brings an extra legitimacy to the role, it brings
a depth, and it brings pride to know that being trans doesn’t have to exclude
you from anything. 

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

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