Dallas Buyers Club was the most emotionally exhausting movie I’ve seen since Hotel Rwanda, and not in a good way.
Now I know comparing a failed transgender story with a movie about racial genocide might seem a tad overkill, but as a person who is both transgender and a film student, allow me a little sensitivity on the subject.
The movie follows “fiercely heterosexual” Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) as he comes to terms with having contracted AIDS. As he copes with and combats his illness, he finds that all effective anti-AIDS medications are blocked by the FDA, which will only provide him with an experimental, potentially harmful, and apparently ineffective new medication. The story follows his battle with the FDA as he sets up shop distributing unapproved meds to other AIDS victims.
A major subplot (and much of the emotional force of the film) surrounds Woodruff’s friendship (of sorts) with the transgender woman Rayon, played by Jared Leto. Rayon meets Woodruff at the local hospital where she is also being treated for AIDS. When Woodruff begins marketing his unapproved treatments, Rayon helps him connect with the gay community. Woodruff and Rayon join forces and eventually form the business that is the namesake of the film. After a long battle with her illness, Rayon eventually succumbs to drug addiction and dies.
Dallas Buyers Club was an extremely difficult movie for me to watch. While there are certainly good things to be said about Jared Leto’s efforts as Rayon, all in all the film left my stomach churning. I left the movie with tears of rage in my eyes.
At least I finished it. When I tried to watch TransAmerica, I stopped halfway through since all my film sensibilities were either insulted or bored to death. (I rarely stop watching movies out of boredom – the last time I did so was for Mean Girls 2). Dallas Buyers Club on the other hand was a genuinely good piece of cinema. Its editing was pristine, its cinematography refreshingly unobtrusive, its acting virtuoso, and its writing – while not very trans-friendly – was at least intelligent and well-crafted.
Let’s be clear: I do not want to personally attack Jared Leto for his performance. As a piece of method acting, Leto’s work was absolutely incredible. He was given a character, and he became that character inside and out. The problem is that the character he was given – supposedly a transwoman – was created by utterly ignorant scriptwriters.
The script was the main problem. As much as Leto tried to make Rayon the heart of the film, the writing made her a mere narrative device. She was written as a 1980s-90s stereotyped caricature of a transsexual in order to fill the need for Woodruff to have a token ‘gay best friend.’
And we come immediately to the script’s first problem: the subtle equivocation of ‘trans’ with ‘gay.’ While it’s never really explicit, Rayon is the film’s spokesperson for the gay and lesbian community. She represents the ‘fag’ world – as McCaughey’s character might call it – not any kind of recognizable transgender world. The implication of the script – or at least of the other characters in the movie – is that Rayon is a gay guy in a dress who wants breast implants.
Leto even makes this false connection when he says in an interview that “the Rayons of the world” are, you know, “the gays and lesbians of the world.” C’mon! LGBT 101: transgender people are a whole different ballgame than gay and lesbian. Gender identity ≠ sexual orientation!
In fact, one of my least favorite moments in the film is when Woodruff catches Rayon looking at a waitress’s cleavage. Rayon remarks that she’d like boobs that big one day, to which Woodruff replies: ““Will you stop staring at her tits, Rayon? You’re starting to look normal.” The implication was that Rayon ought to be a straight cisgender guy to be normal. The scene really rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m generally pretty laid back about that sort of thing.
One gets a sense of the filmmakers’ and contributors’ general attitude toward the project from the lyric video to Airborne Toxic Event’s song Hell & Back, which they wrote for the film. The lyric video features a drag queen ala Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
If this isn’t a shitty trans stereotype, then I don’t know what is.
Although Leto correctly pronouns his character in interviews, throughout the script Rayon is consistently referred to as “he.” One might argue this comes from the ignorance of the characters, but the world that the writers create is one in which Rayon is clearly not any sort of woman. She is a man in drag, and it is this conception of trans people that the audience is asked to accept as reality for the film’s 117 minutes.
Rayon’s place in the story upset me. She is verbally abused and mistreated by Woodruff for nearly the entire film. She dresses like a hooker half the time. And while there are moments in which she seems really genuine and alive, at many other points she comes across as almost creepy:
And then of course she dies tragically, partly due to drug abuse. God forbid a trans character have a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t end with untimely death! Transwomen are the new femme fatales of film noir or promiscuous girls of slasher movies: we always get what we deserve, which is apparently death.
This is a film made by cisgender straight people for cisgender straight people. It really tries to be understanding of the issues it deal with, but it unwittingly devolves into a massive cisgender self-congratulation because “oh look, aren’t we such good allies to the trans people out there?”
Now I understand the historical limitations of the story. The film takes place in the early 90s, when transwomen had little access to the benefits they have now. HRT was less sophisticated, many of the trans people who were out were tied exclusively to the gay community, and there weren’t gender clinics to provide voice lessons and support groups. There were real Rayons out there, and such people are (perhaps accurately – although maybe not) represented by this film.
The problem is how little positive visibility trans people get in the media. If agreeable trans portrayals abounded, Leto’s performance might be a good character sketch of a very particular trans person. Unfortunately, this is really the only portrayal of transwomen in Hollywood, and it plays to bad stereotypes and retrograde understandings of who we are. The Academy Awards and many other institutions hold it up as a great step forward for transgender awareness even though most trans people are at least a little miffed, if not all-out angry. I don’t think this movie’s success is about making the trans story heard; it seems more like the media’s attempt to congratulate itself on being sufficiently politically correct and diverse.
On the other hand, I cried three times during this film, and while two of those instances were from sheer frustration, there was one time where I was genuinely moved to sob. Below is a problematic but touching interview with Jared Leto about playing Rayon, and at t=4:00 the interview shows the scene that jerked my tears. In the scene, Rayon confronts her father about AIDS.
While I have a lot of beef with this film, I want to commend Leto for his commitment to the role. It’s obvious how much he cares about bringing his character’s story to life. While the script and plot certainly limited his ability to do that, as did the constraints of working on such a blatantly cisgender movie and the limits of his own understanding, I applaud the remarkable thoroughness of his method acting.
I.e. I don’t want him to win the Academy Award because I don’t want his character in the spotlight as “an excellent portrayal of a transwoman,” but I also admit he deserves any accolade he receives.
As a regular ol’ movie I’d have given Buyers 4.5 stars, but as a trans narrative I think it’s a anywhere between a 3 and a 1. Not all visibility is good visibility, and while I think Buyers might stir up some ‘pity’ for the trans community, it might set us back many years as far as any intelligent awareness is concerned.