Editors’ Note: We recognize the importance and value of elevating trans women’s voices on this particular topic (as well as all others). Though we’re pleased to have an opportunity to share Jackson Warlock’s thoughts on this subject, we invite trans women writers to reach out to our editors with pitches for or submissions of companion pieces or other commentary.
The Problem with Leto’s Rayon and Cisgender Support of Dallas Buyers Club
By Jackson Warlock
I made the choice not to watch Dallas Buyers Club almost exclusively based on the clip of Jared Leto that was shown after he was announced as a nominee during the Oscars, a cringe-worthy segment featuring Rayon slathering on makeup and lamenting how much she just wants to be pretty. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d expect a cis person to write or act (and I already wrote about this sort of thing last year). There are many things I would rather do with my life than watch an entire movie’s worth of that. And it’s not that there aren’t trans women who behave in this way, but the last thing I want to do is pour appreciation on a cis dude for his cis interpretation of the extremely painful and often quite private moments of a trans person’s life characterizing dysphoria.
“Trans people like this exist, though,” was the gist of Calpernia Addams’s article on the subject, along with the classic concession, “but I’d rather see allies act as trans people than no trans roles at all,” plus some other mostly irritating arguments. My favorite part:
But I also refuse to shoot down powerful people who take steps to bring human trans portrayals to the screen, even if they are played by nontrans females (Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry) or a nontrans male (Lee Pace in Soldier’s Girl, Jared in Dallas Buyers Club).
The thing that irks me about this is that, with the exception of Soldier’s Girl (which I am not commenting on except to say that it is about Calpernia Addams, as I have not seen even clips from it and don’t want to seek them out), I have deep problems with all of these movies.
Transamerica is, at its core, about a shitty gatekeeper therapist who forces a trans woman to jump through hoops she shouldn’t have to in order to get surgery, and who then acts like this is a good and reasonable thing for her to insist. Boys Don’t Cry is a carnival of sexualized portrayals of the victim of a gruesome rape and murder; this film apparently couldn’t get away without showing so much of Hilary Swank’s body that scenes from this movie regularly show up on celebrity porn sites as wank material for straight guys. In fact, there are probably no portrayals of trans people in fictional and narrative-non-fiction-with-creative-license media that I’m really happy with, as a trans person, and practically all of them involve cis actors.
There are certainly trans actors out there who have played trans roles, but they don’t have the same choices in roles as do cis actors and are often limited to playing shitty, tropey characters. Most importantly, they’re the exception rather than the rule.
These writers, directors, and actors have certainly tried to create sensitive, interesting, and heartwarming characters and stories. The problem is that they pretty much have license to pick and choose which trans people they listen to, which is where Calpernia Addams comes in. Addams is the go-to person for actors when they want trans insights, so of course she is fine with these portrayals.
There is no transgender hivemind. When people make statements about “what the trans community thinks” or “what the trans community needs,” it’s not particularly difficult to find people who disagree with those assertions. There are a lot of people who will, for instance, say that the same-sex marriage fight is something wealthy gays and lesbians, not trans people,are fighting for. While many trans people do agree that marriage is the wrong fight, that isn’t the case for all of us: Marriage law absolutely affects trans folk.
Addams’s piece for The Advocate (of course it’s in The Advocate) is, as far as I can tell, a dissenting opinion among loads of trans women and others who are not happy about Leto playing a trans woman and who are not happy about the resulting movie. That’s not, for all of Addams’s flaws, a big deal for me. Addams is at least a trans woman herself, and as I said above, there is no hivemind, and there are undoubtedly other trans women who are either happy about or ambivalent to Leto’s performance.
As a cis person, it is not your solemn duty to make trans people aware that Calpernia Addams has spoken definitively.
If there’s one thing that infuriates me about this situation it’s not that Addams wrote her piece, it’s that it has given endless cis people ammo in their incessant arguments in favor of ignoring the serious problems with Dallas Buyers Club and other films and literature.
Because this is what I’m seeing happen right now: A trans person goes on a rant or posts articles about how insulting Jared Leto’s performance is, how insensitive it was that he didn’t bring up trans women in his award speeches, how shitty it is that trans actresses weren’t even offered the opportunity to play this role, and in response one of their cis friends who likes Jared Leto for whatever reason will post a link to this one essay from The Advocate in response, as if this is the last word on the subject, and the individual in question should never have gotten so upset.
When a trans person is upset about something, it is not a cis person’s job to find a dissenting trans opinion to set other trans people straight. Whether or not someone has enjoyed Dallas Buyers Club or any other media a trans person might find objectionable is not the point. People consume and enjoy problematic media all the time. It’s perfectly possible to do that more responsibly. And a big part of that is allowing oppressed people to have their own feelings about how and why something is problematic without constantly trying to justify that it isn’t.
A version of this essay originally appeared at Reclaiming Warlock. It’s published here with permission from the author.
Jackson Warlock is a queer trans man, Pagan minister, Warlock, birder, and lover of traditional skills and foods. Read more of his writing at Reclaiming Warlock.