(Warning: Dallas Buyers Club spoilers)
So, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon, a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. A cis man won an award for portraying (poorly) a trans woman in a movie. This almost writes itself like a joke, waiting for a punchline. Sadly, the punchline is all too common, trans narratives being over written by cis voices. In fact, Rayon’s character was originally written as a drag queen. The director and Leto decided to change Rayon to a trans woman….without changing any of the script. Rayon’s character is not based on any real person. She is an entirely fictionalized representation meant to bring pity from the main character, Ron, as well as drive his character development.
This is interesting, because Leto refuses to acknowledge the character he played, the fact he portrayed a woman. When confronted with his transmisogyny he spoke of “the Rayons in the world”. He did not speak of trans women. Even in his Oscar acceptance speech, he mentioned Ukraine. No where did he ever mention the type of very REAL people he was portraying in the movie. To Leto and the director, Rayon was just a character, an act. To them, there are not real women in the world like Rayon.
Leto’s performance of Rayon was stereotype after stereotype. Rayon was the victim of transmisogyny through out the film. She was someone with no sense of direction who needed a man to save her. Her character eventually dies of HIV/AIDs. This narrative is all too common. Through out a 10 year study done by GLAAD of 102 episodes of television, trans people were portrayed as the victim 40% of the time. Their main profession? Sex workers (20% of the characters). Negative portrayals of trans people, especially trans women, plague media. In a note, I ‘love’ how the picture used on the page about trans portrayals in media is a drag queen.
This is not the only issue with portrayal of trans people in the media. Most portrayals are done by cis men and women, just as Leto played a trans woman. Many of these characters are played by people of the opposite gender of the trans character. Trans women are played by cis men, trans men are played by cis women. Very rarely are trans women played by cis women and I do not know of a single example of were a trans man is played by a cis man. Of course, this speaks of the non-existence of trans men and non-binary trans people being portrayed in the media, but that is a different issue.
Why? It is not due to a lack of trans actors. In fact, there are award nominated actresses with not only years of experience behind them, but lists of their appearances. For example, Candis Cayne has had numerous television appearances such as Nip/Tuck and Dirty Sexy Money. There is Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black and I Want to Work for Diddy fame. Or many Harmony Santana of Gun Hil Road? There are trans actors and actresses. Of course, these people are often forced to only play the roles of trans characters. They are never offered to play cis characters, or work outside as anything other than they are. So why are cis people allowed to play trans characters?
There runs a vein of cissexism, one that runs deep. A man playing a trans woman reinforces the idea that trans women are really men who are just acting or playing dress up. Trans people and their identities are seen as acts or even drag (which is why drag queens play trans women more often than trans women). As stated before, trans women are more often played by cis men. Why? Because to the media, trans women are really men. Trans men are played by cis women because they are really women. Our identities and appearances are held more closely to the gender assumed at our birth than those we actually are. Letting cis women play trans women with increasing frequency would imply that trans women are really women. Trans men would really be men.
There run another element in Leto’s portrayal, however it is more of his response than the character, in a way. When called on his transmisogyny, Leto talked about sexuality. Once again, perpetuating the idea that being trans is just a different type of sexual orientation. He asked if gay people cannot play straight people and straight people cannot play gay people. Of course, this ignores how the media works. As previously mentioned trans actors and actresses are pushed into trans roles. They are never offered roles that are not trans or focus around them being trans. Cis people have the freedom to accept whatever role they want. In fact, gay or bisexual actors/actresses have more room to accept straight roles than trans actors/actresses do. To the media, sexual orientation has less of an impact on a role usually than someone’s gender do. In fact, in modern media, almost never are cis women scripted to act for a cis male part, or vice versa. Why? Because it would be seen as absurd to do so, unless there was a deep social commentary in the film. The same cannot be said for cis people playing trans characters, especially those who are of another gender than the one they are portraying.
Saying a person should be able to portray any part they want due to their job avoids the realities and identities of people. It ignores the power of cis people being able to invade and take trans roles, and it ignores the problematic aspects of it. In an ideal world, this should be so, but we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world that pushes trans people out of the very few areas they are allowed, including in their very careers. Ultimately, our identities are seen as an act, something anyone can don and play out, no matter their reality. They are allowed to play us, while telling us to accept the lot given, blaming us for their oppression. To the Letos of the world, stop taking our voice for your own gain. To the Letos of the world, you do not represent us and never will.