Jared Leto's Oscar win for his portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club has been greeted with roars of protest from a huge cross section of society. His victory has angered the trans community and raised suspicions that he might have pipped more deserving actors to the post with his 'brave' decision to don a dress. But just why is the character of Rayon - and the choice of Leto to portray her - the centre of such a whirlwind of discontent?
There is no doubt that the decision to wriggle into Rayon's bruised skin would have been difficult for Jared Leto. Not because donning a stripe of blusher and a skirt is an act of exceptional bravery, but because it is a challenging role that is fraught with ugly stereotypes. Stereotypes that are put under the magnifying glass when Rayon is situated alongside Matthew McConaughey's stigma smashing Ron Woodroof.
It is a sad fact of life the even in the year 2014, HIV is still considered a gay man's disease. In the '80s, when the virus first reared its grotesque head, it undeniably hit the gay community hard, but the mainstream media focused on this group so relentlessly that a cloud of confusion and ignorance surrounded the disease.
The metaphor 'Gay Plague' was widely used in the press between 1982-86 and, although there are no statistics available from the American press, stories of heterosexual HIV transmission only began to appear in the British tabloids in March 1985.
With these statistics in mind, Ron Woodroof's character is about as atypical as they come. A brash, hyper-macho, homophobic cowboy is not what comes to mind when most people think of HIV positive people in the '80s and, next to him Rayon looks like a sad collection of tired misconceptions.
In his Time article Steve Friess quite accurately describes Rayon as;
a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute
and argues that
There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap
These problems have caused a huge backlash from the trans community who are deeply unhappy at how Rayon perpetuates negative misconceptions about transgendered individuals.
Whereas I totally agree that the representation of transgendered people on screen is absolutely abysmal and needs to be rectified, I do find this argument a little hard to swallow considering the context of Dallas Buyers Club.
Jared Leto's Rayon is a transgendered individual in a backwater Texas town in 1985. As far as I can make out from the layout of the film, there is one small gay bar surrounded by aggressively homophobic and transphobic men. Even the women who are born female are regarded as disposable sex objects. The idea that Rayon would be a well adjusted, successful and cultured person in this community seems unrealistic to me.
It is sad to see one of the only major representations of a trans individual in mainstream cinema being a tragic victim, but this is a film set almost 30 years ago in a hostile environment where diversity was never destined to thrive.
Leto's Rayon is not openly defeated by prejudice, but she knows it is there. It haunts her. That is what has driven her to drugs to sooth her mind and fuels the implications made during the movie that selling her body is the only option she has to survive.
Personally, I think Leto's performance of a spirited individual who is trying to remain buoyant despite the relentless crush of society is masterful. There is a sadness that emanates from Rayon - even during her happiest moments. Jared Leto has made her both fearless and fragile at the same time. This wilted backwater bouquet is believable, and just as three dimensional as the other characters.
Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect performance and there were some moments where Leto faltered. I found it horrendously uncomfortable when Rayon is repeated misgendered and 'he' does nothing to challenge it. This small slip up made a world of difference to me, and made Rayon seem weak, which is clearly not the case. Leto's character might be broken, confused and a drug addict, but the thought that she would not tell her own friends, or even get angry when she is addressed as the man she clearly doesn't want to be is preposterous.
That being said, there are some absolutely shining moments that illuminate Leto's performance, and Rayon as a character. Her sudden flashing anger as she snatches her money from the undeserving homophobe, Woodroof is intense and believable, as is her calculated strut away from the car. ut the standout scene for me is when she meets her father.
Looking more vulnerable in a suit than a flimsy piece of chiffon must be no mean feat for Leto, but I have never seen anybody looking so small and uncomfortable whilst wrapped in the traditional outfit of male power.
Mara Keisling, the executive director at the National Centre for Transgender Equality summed up Leto's performance perfectly for me when she said;
Leto’s portrayal was of a particular fictional transgender person at a particular time. But we can’t forget that transgender people like Rayon did exist and do exist. To the film's credit, I think it accurately showed what the life of this brave person must have been and how she was treated.
The fact that transgendered Rayon is played by a man is of course, controversial in itself, and I do understand the outrage. Transpeople have likened the performance in 'transface' to the use of blackface on white actors and, when you think about it, it's hard to deny a similarity.
In an ideal world, it would be absolutely wonderful to see Rayon being depicted by a transwoman who would have a deeper, and more authentic understanding that a straight man would never be able to mimic.
Unfortunately, this world is not ideal yet. I am sure there are some talented trans actors out there somewhere, but none of them are high profile enough to be realistically cast alongside Matthew McConaughey.
I really do hope that Steve Friess is correct when he says that;
Not long from now — it surely won’t take decades, given the brisk pace of progress on matters of identity and sexuality these days — Leto’s award-winning performance as the sassy, tragic-yet-silly Rayon will belong in the dishonorable pantheon along with McDaniel’s Mammy
I hope what Friess says comes to be, not because Leto's performance lacked quality, but because film should always strive to be progressive.
Was Dallas Buyers Club perfect? Absolutely not. Did Jared Leto deserve to win an Oscar? Absolutely.