Cinema is inching forward, but audiences still crave the ‘familiarity’ of actors like Jared Leto taking trans-gender roles.
I’d imagine the term ‘media storm’ was originally coined in an age of sparse information, to conjure images of a real maelstrom of public interest. News presses running through the night, grubby children shouting “Extra! Extra!” and men wearing Anthony Edens, gouging each others eyes out with tiny pencils as they fight over who gets to use the telephone box next – that sort of thing. Maybe it’s that people need to gawk a lightning show to distract them from their daily lives, maybe it’s just a wildly liberal use of the term, but these days there seems to be several ‘media storms’ going on at any given time.
Trans-gender persons in general are a notably under-represented group; there are literally zero current trans-gender A-list actors
It’s just like the normal weather now. There could almost be forecast: “We’ve got a light front of James Franco insta-flirting with a 17-year-old moving across here, that shouldn’t bother too many people and will break fairly quickly, but I’m afraid the good new stops there folks – as many feared, the system of Miley Cyrus that has been causing a lot of flooding on Facebook and Twitter recently hasn’t quite dissipated; we’re in for a rough night!”. Still, not all of these supposed media sensations are as fatuous as, say, Fatboy off East Enders smoking a doobie and fapping on Skype. One particular storm that cleared a few weeks back actually opened up some interesting debates.
Jared Leto recently bagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of HIV-afflicted trans-woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. And deservedly so – he was incredibly convincing. There was, however, something that he wasn’t, something that has some communities despondent, and that is: actually a trans-woman. Now, I feel their pain. As actors, trans-gender persons in general are a notably under-represented group; there are literally zero current trans-gender A-list actors, and a quick search brings up few examples of past contenders for that status, the most notable of whom is Chaz Bono…
So I empathise with the cries of “well, if we can’t even get cast for actual trans-gender parts, then what hope is there?!”. On screen, the trans-gender community is worse than under-represented – it’s actually mis-represented. Let’s see, they’ve got Buffalo Bill (skin stealing serial killer), Norman Bates (corpse hoarding serial killer), Brandon Teena (in Boys Don’t Cry, errr…that didn’t end well) and Lois Einhorn/Ray Finkle, who disgusted Ace Ventura. The chief point is that, in the public consciousness, there is still an unacceptable level of ignorance, animosity, fear and dislike regarding the trans-gender community in general – who, like most sidelined social groups, have a majority that are simply normal, integrated and valuable members of their communities – and Hollywood isn’t really helping.
The sad truth is that even in this enlightened age people still aren’t all that comfortable with trans issues in general
The passion and commitment of such groups to their cause is certainly laudable, and their assertive voices are necessary to draw the ignorant and reluctant into the debate. However, as anyone who identifies with any kind of counter-culture movement will have experienced, there is a price for strong advocacy of a single cause. Your criticisms tend to be invariably myopic because they are born out of a vested interest in, and comprehensive knowledge of, a small and specific band of related social issues. Most people don’t have that, not by a long-shot. In fact, the sad truth is that even in this enlightened age people still aren’t all that comfortable with trans issues; accepting, yes, but not comfortable.
There is still a “behind closed doors” mentality when it comes to trans-gender persons. Comfort comes from familiarity, and when producing a movie like Dallas Buyers Club, the filmmakers are responsible for turning a profit as well as enlightening the viewer with challenging social issues. It means pitching to the familiarities of a wider audience, and not those of the specific groups that have vested interests in the subject matter of the film. From that perspective, casting someone familiar and credible like Leto instead of a trans-woman – while it may not satisfy the passionate and vocal proponents of gender and sexual equality – does much to further acceptance, by easing the viewer into an unfamiliar concept via a familiar avenue.
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Similarly with the actual content of the film, a hardline activist might find it ignorant at times, but for the broader audience it encourages empathy, understanding and acceptance where before there may only have been ignorance and prejudice. Unfortunately, instead of looking at Dallas Buyers Club as this subtle nudge towards acceptance and open-mindedness – which is all that should really be asked of it, beyond being artful and entertaining; it’s just a film, after all – this outrage has formed that is more misguided the closer you look. It essentially equates to: “Jared Leto, the actor, is assuming the identity of another person whose attributes he doesn’t share! How dare he!”.
Being a skilful actor is not about having experienced something, it’s about being able to understand that thing, distil it down, and present it affectingly and entertainingly through the prism of modern film. Last time I checked, Darth Vader’s casting call wasn’t “evil, patriarchal, space-sorcerer; second in command of a galactic empire; must be 6.5ft+, missing at least two limbs, and have third degree burns over 90% of his body”. Leto was chosen because he is both credible, and practised in the skill of acting and its practical application in a professional context, all as a result of having had a 20-year-long film career. It was not because he is of traditional sexuality. He probably beat some trans-gendered actors to the role, and if he did, he will have done so based on the acuity of his acting and his extensive experience alone.
More on Dallas Buyers Club: It’s all about performance
Featured image: Focus Features
Inset images: Focus Features; Fox Searchlight Pictures