Last week Jean-Marc Vallée’s newest film – Dallas Buyers Club – was released into cinemas and picture houses. In the film, Jared Leto portrays the character of transwoman Rayon, a role for which he received 12 different awards for Best Supporting Actor, including a Golden Globe. The concept of a cisgender man playing a transgender woman caused a stir of controversy that some people can’t understand. However, whilst the character of a transwoman in a mainstream Hollywood production is wonderful, Jared’s casting is, in fact, potentially damaging to transwomen.
There will be a lot of people watching Dallas Buyers Club who have never knowingly met a transgender individual. Therefore, their concept of a transwoman will be shaped by the portrayal of Rayon, which, due to Leto’s high-profile reputation, can never be separated from the man portraying her.
Have you ever explained a film’s plot by referring to the actor rather than the character they are depicting? For example: “Remember, that film where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fall in love?” It happens all the time: characters and their actors are interchanged fluidly. Bearing this in mind, consider the film premiers, interviews and press junkets in which we are subjected to a male actor, talking about his character – a woman — he pretended to be, by virtue of acting. The implicit message behind a male’s portrayal of a woman is that collectively, transwomen are men pretending to be women, and not women in their own right.
Recently, the UK soap opera Coronation Street saw the transwoman character Hayley Cropper played by cis-woman Julie Hesmondhalgh. This is slightly more forgivable because the actress identifies as a woman, as does her character. In other words, it is a woman playing a woman. However, Hesmondhalgh’s performance, like Leto’s is problematic. Here’s why:
- It keeps transgender people out of work in a time when the transgender unemployment rate is double that of the national (U.S) average
- It prevents transgender actors and actresses, with real life experiences, from fulfilling a role they identify with
- Without the employment of transgender people in film and media, the transgender identity is reduced to characters, a function within the narrative. When transgender people are only fictional characters, the concept of transgender is portrayed as a storyline, rather than an individual. (For relevant examples of more trans dehumanising, we need only look towards Leto’s award acceptance speech where he reductively referred to Rayon as a “beautiful creature.” Ouch.)
Julie Hesmondhalgh has since said that if her role was being cast today (she started playing Hayley in the 1990s), she’d hope that the television company would cast a transwoman to play the part. Julie, who has done some brilliant work campaigning towards trans rights, acknowledged the part her privilege played in gaining her the role, as well as the need for transgender actors and actresses within the film and television industry.
Unfortunately, Leto wasn’t as gracious. After being heckled at the recent Santa Barbara film festival for trans-misogyny, he responded with:
“Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian? They can’t play a straight part?”
For which he was applauded (oh, the fickle public).
Leto, infuriatingly, declared his own heteronormative male right to a role over the need of transgender representation within the film industry. Speaking out about your own entitlement in the face of a group of people who have been misrepresented and oppressed for decades, not only makes you look like a dick but edges dangerously on screaming “reverse sexism/heterophobia” –- both laughable concepts.
The result of Leto’s ill-constructed answer is that The Daily Mail (a UK, right-wing tabloid) hailed Leto as the “defend[er of] the rights of straight people” to play queer parts. The last time I checked, I didn’t realise straight people needed their rights defended. Further, the issue wasn’t about gay people or straight people playing gay or straight parts; it was about the implied message of what it means to be a transwoman. Leto made the common mistake of confusing gender identity with sexual orientation. There is no analogy between the heckler’s point and withholding a straight role from a lesbian actress because both straight women and lesbian women identify as women. Gay and lesbian individuals have not been fighting for years to be acknowledged as their chosen gender identity — transmen and transwomen have.
Whether he likes it or not, and whether it was his intention or not, Leto has taken up a public media space that could have been filled by an influential transgender actress. That was the heckler’s point. Rather than addressing this issue, he wrongly conflated it with homophobia.
I’m not saying that Leto played the part poorly; his acting was fantastic and, like Leto, I long for a utopian world where people of all genders and sexualities are fairly represented within the media. I, too, long for a world where because a person is “a man” (or transman, or transwoman, or woman) s/he can play any part s/he desires. However, that’s not the current state of affairs. Currently, the media exists within a patriarchal, White, cisgender, male-dominated power structure replete with a severe underrepresentation of disabled people, transgender people, and people of colour, in amongst other minorities. This needs addressing before we go dishing out valuable minority-representing roles to those within the privileged majority.
As feminists, who fight for our own gender equality and fair representation within the media, we must stand by our transgender sisters and fight for theirs also.