Jared Leto's performance in Dallas Buyers Club annoyed me from the first moment his character, Rayon, a transgender woman, appeared on screen. She peeked around a curtain in the hospital like a stalking cat, looking to snatch a glimpse of the half-naked man in the bed next to her. Her action sent a message that carried throughout film: This character was weird, and as the movie's protagonist Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) would explicitly tell us, she couldn't be trusted.
But what annoyed me even more was how heavy-handed and stereotypical Leto's performance was—from Rayon's makeup to her behavior. Leto, a cisgender (a person who identifies as the gender they were born with) man, threw on some blush, a hair net and pink nail polish, raised the octave of his voice, put a lilt into his walk and voila! He had become a trans woman. Add in some self-hatred, a drug addiction and an illicit way of making cash, and Hollywood's cliché of a trans person was complete.
Filmmakers and actors like Leto seem to confuse being transgender with being a drag queen. And they can't conceive of them as being part of the mainstream. From Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club to a hooker in Dirty Sexy Money to a convict in Orange Is the New Black, depictions in contemporary film and television marginalize trans people by showing them as existing on the fringes of society.
On Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will likely give Leto a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Rayon. But for me, he'll be lauded for playing a modern-day Al Jolson, a lazy caricature of a minority—this time in a kind of "pinkface." And if the last couple of months are any indication, he'll ignore the disgust the trans community has aimed at his portrayal and fail to acknowledge any of the brave souls who came before Rayon. At times on the awards circuit, it's even seemed as though he's treated Rayon as the butt of a joke. For instance, when he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Leto spent most of his speech cracking wise about his "tiny little Brazilian bubble butt" and reducing his transformation for the role to getting the hair on his body waxed.
I recognize that Rayon is a fictional composite of various trans people. But I don't recognize Rayon in any of the trans people I know. The trans people I know don't feel the need to make passes at every straight man around them. They don't dress like prostitutes. They don't drown their sorrows in drugs. And they don't have other people fight their battles for them.
Christina Kahrl is a baseball editor for ESPN, a deeply respected professional in a high-profile line of work. Chris Mosier is a star triathlete who once kicked women's butts in races and now dominates the men. Janet Mock and Kye Allums have taken on the burden to educate the public about trans issues. Pauline Park is a PhD who is pushing for—and earning—trans equality in New York City. To a person, they are respectable, hard-working and loyal. In other words, their lives aren't any different than the lives of cis people.
Which raises the question: Would a trans actor have handled the role of Rayon and the subsequent press better than Leto? I believe so. Trans actor Calpernia Addams was brought in as a consultant to help him with the role. Which raises another question that many trans people have asked recently: Why wasn't Addams simply given the part? And if not her, why not another trans actor?
That said, Addams doesn't necessarily agree with the trans critics—or me. "Do we need a molecular nano-biologist from Zaire to portray a molecular nano-biologist from Zaire?" she asked me over the phone. "Did I have to be dirt poor as a child to play a character who was dirt poor as a child? I'm all for equality and equal access to roles, but I feel there's this weird political correctness that crosses the line at times, and it can shut down art and potentially positive portrayals of our community."
Leto has argued roughly the same thing. "Because I'm a man, I don't deserve to play that part?" he asked when being heckled at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. "So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian—they can't play a straight part?"
Yet there is a bias in the Hollywood system that favors cis actors for trans roles. Such a "transformation"—from a straight man to trans woman (or vice versa)—is what wins awards. In fact, prestige films like Dallas Buyers Club bank on such accolades as part of their business model. A trans actor giving a raw, honest portrayal of a trans character would be dismissed, or politely received, sans awards, a la the reception for Laverne Cox's turn as a trans inmate in Orange Is the New Black. But a cis actor who undergoes a "transformation" like Leto did—where he famously stayed in character on set—no matter how stereotypical the character depicted? "Oscar-worthy performance," claims the Los Angeles Times. "Terrific," raves the Observer. An "Awards-worthy showcase," says the Toronto Star.
This wouldn't be so problematic if there were a greater balance of portrayals of trans people in popular culture. Some gay men still get upset when they see stereotypically gay performances by straight men. It bothered me 15 years ago, but not as much now because Hollywood has offered so many more gay characters to watch. Eric Stonestreet portrays a gay clown on Modern Family, but Glee features a reformed bully and gay football player. Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno is beyond over-the-top, but the complex life of a closeted male professor in A Single Man is both heartbreaking and exquisite.
For some reason, however, trans characters remain cheap caricatures. Case in point: Almost all trans characters on TV and in the movies are of the same ilk, pulled largely from the underbelly of society. Cox is in the middle of a prison sentence in Orange Is The New Black. Felicity Huffman's character in TransAmerica follows a trail of self-hatred. Even trans actor Candis Cayne's character from Dirty Sexy Money makes a living by having sex for cash.
My hope is that Hollywood will evolve, and Rayon will no longer be the norm. At the very least, it's time to stop taking cues for trans characters from the drag queens of RuPaul's Drag Race. The ex-model's reality series might make for good lip-syncing, but it also makes for offensive filmmaking. The kind of filmmaking that should never be honored with an Oscar.
Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Cox/Focus Features