Jared Leto has received some criticism for his role as Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the film Dallas Buyers Club. Detractors say the part should have gone to a woman who identifies as transgender and that casting a straight, cisgender, white man in the role is disrespectful, especially since TV and film are overwhelmingly straight, cisgender, white and male.
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This is a topic that has been well-highlighted during this Oscar season. The lack of diversity in Hollywood as it applies to gender and colour has been increasingly hard to ignore, especially as equal-rights continues to be a front and centre discussion. One aspect of the lack of diversity in Hollywood that hasn’t been touched upon as much is the lack of LGBT actors.
The real issue coming from the Dallas Buyers Club criticism is that trans actors aren’t well represented in TV and film. They aren’t completely absent, with the growing popularity of Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black, and Candis Cayne as the first transgender actress on prime time television, but some say when stories involve transgender characters, they should go to transgender actors.
I agree that this is an opportunity to highlight the lack of transgender actors in mainstream visual media, however, I don’t necessarily see the criticism of Jared Leto as being the right way to do it.
Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club
While I’m not trans and I know I can’t speak for the trans community, I do believe that Jared Leto treated the character and his involvement in the role with respect. While I am sure there are trans-identifying actors who could have played the character just as well, if not better, I believe that directing animosity toward Leto is potentially more harmful than beneficial.
When I shift the example over to something I can better relate to, it’s looking at the case of actors playing gay roles on film. Back in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as a homosexual man with AIDS in the film Philadelphia. The movie has been praised and accepted by the LGBT community for its depiction of the struggles of gay men in that time. In a period when openly gay actors were few, Tom Hanks, a straight man, helped contribute to changing attitudes toward homosexuality.
Since then, other straight actors have played gay roles on screen. Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes from Will & Grace (Hayes would later admit being gay several years after the series ended), and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal from Brokeback Mountain.
Sure, it’s easy for me to say that I’m not offended as a gay man, since gay actors are better represented on screen than they have been, but to suggest that only LGBT actors can play LGBT characters suggests that there is something different enough about LGBT people to warrant such a need. It is creating a sense of exclusivity that creates more of a divide than not. And it undermines the ability of an actor to pull off such a role on an emotional level if it is required. The job of an actor is to portray a character usually with different struggles and backgrounds, to get a sense of the depths of that character and what that character represents, and if they are truly successful, to extend that empathy and understanding to the audience who may not be familiar with those struggles.
Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia (1993)
The issue at hand isn’t that Jared Leto is wrong to play a trans character, nor was Tom Hanks, Jake Gyllenhaal, Laura Prepon, Matt Damon or Charlize Theron wrong to play gay and lesbian characters. The issue is increasing the presence of transgender actors in film and TV. Actors who should be given a chance to be considered for transgender roles but also for cisgender roles as well.
Instead of targeting Leto, questions should be directed at Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club, as to why he chose to cast Leto, a cisgender male, for the role and whether trans actors were even allowed to try out.
Questions should be directed in the general direction of all directors and movie producers as to whether they would cast trans actors for any role if the actor was deemed talented enough.
Awareness and understanding comes in phases and as trans awareness and acceptance continue to grow, having a trans character in a major movie that is respectfully performed is beneficial to increasing that.
I do agree the next step is furthering the presence of people in entertainment who are transgender. I don’t believe attacking those who are on our side is the way to do it.