Jared Leto Being Blase and Appropriative is Not Oscar-Worthy

Personally, I was rooting for Jonah Hill. The Wolf Of Wall Street blew my mind and I was thinking about it for days after. But the first thing I said leaving the cinema was, “Jonah Hill was AMAZING!” and I am completely in awe of how Hill has gone from being in lads’ comedies like Superbad to being such a phenomenal actor. Moreover, I can’t forgive Bradley Cooper for that monstrous portrayal of someone with mental health issues in Silverlinings Playbook and I can’t forgive Michael Fassbender for showing me his penis for two hours in Shame. I know absolutely zilch about the fourth fella (this in itself says something?) but the fifth nominee was the one person I really didn’t want to win Best Supporting Actor at the 2014 Academy Awards. The fifth nominee was Jared Leto – and, of course, he won.

Was a time when I could only place a face to the name Jared Leto because of Girl, Interrupted, in which he plays Winona Ryder’s heavy set, hairy-faced reviews-call-him-boyfriend-but-he’s-more-just-a-guy-she-fucks-a-couple-times. So when I heard he played a transgender role in Dallas Buyers Club, he didn’t seem the most likely candidate to act a female. Although, actually, to be honest, all I initially heard was he was playing “a transgender role”. No specifics on the gender of said transgender person. I thought maybe he acted a trans man. But no, no, far too radical to cast a man to play a man: Leto played a woman.

I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers Club. I’ll tell you that right off. I am glad I haven’t because the clips I have seen of Leto’s simpering lisping make-up-covered character, Rayon, made my stomach churn. Leto’s portrayal of Rayon is appropriative and offensive. He speaks in a silly high-pitched voice. In the clips I have seen, presumably meant to be high points of Leto’s portrayal, he employs said voice to make comments like, “Lookin’ for you, lone star” and “Do you like this dress? 'Cause I think the neckline's a little plunging.” His make-up is over-exaggerated and badly executed, with bright colours on his lips and eyes. In short, he is less like any transgender woman I’ve ever encountered and more like a pretty shit drag performer.

As if Leto’s depiction of Rayon being transphobic and appropriative wasn’t enough, it is also sexist. Why, just because Leto is playing a woman, does he suddenly become an ignoramus with make-up scribbled all over her face? Since when are women like this?? Just because one is a transgender woman, it does not mean that you are a caricature of the gender. Transgender women are, simply, women, and reducing them to mindless, clothes and make-up obsessives who speak like retro prostitutes and live their lives in impractical high heels is not a realistic portrayal. It is a sexist portrayal.
 
 

Predictably, the very fact that Leto played a transgender role was probably scandalous enough to get him the Oscar. As far as I can see, the Oscars are the most appropriative awards ever. As parodied in Tropic Thunder, there have been many Oscar wins for able actors portraying disabled people.
 

 
Jennifer Lawrence won for what I considered to be a mind-blowingly stereotypical and simplistic portrayal of a mentally ill person. Be someone who is considered “normal” playing someone who is considered “unusual” and you can basically start bragging about your Oscar before you were even nominated.


What shocks me most of all though is Leto’s seeming indifference to the honour he had of playing a transgender woman.
I googled “Jared Leto’s research for transgender role” and found NOTHING. All I found was articles saying it was appropriative for him to play Rayon. Which it was. Like, did he do any research for this role?? Has Leto met a trans person other than the ones who heckled him for acting said role? At least when Hilary Swank portrayed Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, she lived as male for a few weeks to experience – however briefly - living as a trans man.



And another thing Swank did which Leto didn’t: when she won an Oscar for playing Brandon, she put emphasis on how important transgender rights are. Leto? Didn’t really seem to care! This news website believed Leto’s speech paid tribute to trans people. Like hell it did. It was mostly about his mum, his brother and his band, and then he tacked on the end some token words during which he couldn’t even say the word “transgender”. Personally, I think it would make a world of difference, even if Leto had just said, “It was an honour to portray transgender experience.” “My character was an amazing woman and I admire anyone who has the courage to live their life like she does, as transgender.” Something as token as that. Just say the word “transgender”, for Christ’s sake! Because, no, “those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love” just doesn’t cut it for me.
 

 

People always ask me if I don’t believe cis people should play trans characters. And my answer is, frankly, no I don’t.
What’s my reasoning behind this? Transgender actors have a very limited pool of roles that they can play. They are not given cisgender roles so they can only play transgender ones. If all the trans roles are handed out to cisgender actors, the transgender actors are left with no roles. I am not anti cis people playing trans roles in theory, but I am anti it in the world we currently live in. If cis people can play trans roles, then I should be seeing trans people playing cis roles. And I’m not.

The same goes for actors with disabilities. The only roles they are given the option of playing are characters with disabilities, and so, no, I do not approve of handing out those precious few to able-bodied actors. Once again, in an ideal world, actors with disabilities would be given roles where ability is not strictly required. Which, when you think about it, is the majority of roles, and certainly applies to classic stage roles such as Hamlet or King Lear.
 

The very classy Laverne Cox
plays an inmate on OITNB.
But there aren’t even any transgender actors, I hear you protest. (In fact, I even hear Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Valee protest this.) Well, actually, yes, there are. You just haven’t heard of them because they don’t get roles. Here you can read a list of 10 transgender actresses who could have played Leto’s auto-Oscar role, including the fabulous Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black fame. Such a role could have completely made a transgender actress’ career and probably would have seen a transgender woman in the running for Best Supporting Actress. In short, the world would have been changed over night.

The follow up question is always if I think straight people shouldn’t play gay roles, and vice versa. Leto himself used this comparison when challenged about playing a trans role, which clearly illustrates he does not understand the difference between gender and sexuality, aka Transgender 101, which in turn clearly illustrates his unsuitability for a transgender role.
Of course, straight actors playing gay and cis actors playing trans are fundamentally different.
Gay actors play straight all the time so their opportunities are not limited to solely gay roles. Also being gay does not manifest itself in one’s body in the same way as being transgender does. Wider society may disapprove of or not understand transgender bodies and it is for this reason that transgender actors experience prejudice. Gay actors do not face this issue, as being gay manifests itself in one’s personal lifestyle rather than in one’s body and appearance. Lifestyle does not accompany an actor into the roles they play. Appearance, and all other aspects of the body, do.

Actress and butch, Lea Delaria.
However, there’s a fine line even with this. Actors such as Lea Delaria (again of Orange Is The New Black, aka That Show That Pretends It’s About A Women’s Prison But Is Actually About Minority Visibility, fame) who “look very gay” do not get roles because of how they are perceived. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Delaria commented, “Boys want to look at lesbians as their little shiny sex toy… Whenever they do send out something in show business and say they’re looking for a butch, my manager calls up and goes, ‘How about Lea Delaria?’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, maybe a lighter butch.’” Therefore, I think if you’re casting a butch character, you should cast a butch actress whose career is compromised by how she looks. Of course, being butch does not even necessarily mean also being a lesbian. Take for example roles such as the tuxedo-sporting transvestite/drag queen Victoria in Victor/Victoria.


Leto's sexuality is not the issue.
The cisgender community seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding which can be summarised best as: “What… Who… Where… How… YOU’RE JUST MAD COZ HE’S STRAIGHT!” This ridiculous article claims people are annoyed because Leto is a STRAIGHT actor playing a transgender role. As far as I’m aware, Rayon herself is a heterosexual, so how would this be an issue? The problem is not that Leto is heterosexual. The problem is he is cisgender. Sexuality has absolutely zero to do with the present topic.

Cis people playing transgender characters is less like gay people playing straight characters and more like blacking up.
Two actors have won Oscars for transgender roles and there has never been a transgender Oscar winner.
I mean, just imagine if actors were winning Oscars for black roles and there had never been a black Oscar winner! Nobody would stand for it!! I read this very interesting article which said it wouldn’t be long before Leto’s stereotypical portrayal of Rayon was considered akin to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone With The Wind, which also won an Oscar and which is a painful-to-watch racist stereotype. However, at least McDaniel herself is black.
 


The world at large just do not seem to get it. I know there are some really great cisgender allies out there and I am thankful for that, but moments like Leto winning an Oscar for his appropriative role is a moment when I realise how little cis people know about trans people on the whole. It’s a shocking slap in the face, like when one of my best friends (who is FTM) told me friends were happy he could put his “real” gender on facebook now you can customise your gender, even though his real gender is, simply, male. It’s like when people tell me they have a friend who is a trans man before calling him “she”.

I’d love to say I’m an example of a cis ally but I’m not. I haven’t discussed it on the blog before, but I identify as genderqueer. However, before this identity, I lived as and firmly identified as male for nine years. I have many, many trans experiences under my belt: gender counselling, crippling and damaging body dysphoria, chest binding, negotiating passing, negotiating name change and coming out as trans to friends, family, teachers and everyone else in existence, just to name a few. But I do know some wonderful cis allies and it is a comfort to know there are cis people out there who will be as angry as me about this.

And yes, I’m angry at Leto’s win. I do not, cannot, will not EVER understand why the world has such a hard time understanding that being transgender is a serious, beautiful, dignified way of life, which is incredibly hard to admit you are experiencing. It’s one which seriously limits one’s options and one of the ways this manifests itself is in careers, especially ones which focus on the individual and their body, for example, acting, modelling or sports. One of the reasons why living as trans is so hard is because of portrayals like Leto’s car crash of a character. Being transgender is a human way of life. Not a fucking perma drag show.
 
 

13 comments:

  1. I see where you are coming from, but I think you have to also take into consideration that this film is based in 1985, when it was a lot more difficult for transgendered individuals to transition as well as someone like Laverne Cox has. And trans people always say they were a mess when they began, you don't know where Leto's character was in the process of transition either.

    Transitioning with a more polished look also takes a good amount of money and time I would imagine. Laverne Cox is in the public eye, and has access to experts and the best hair for weaves, better makeup and better clothing. So you're argument that she looked a mess perhaps has to do with the fact that the setting and financial situation for the character could not a afford to do better. Shes an HIV positive patient looking to survive, putting a lot of money in to medical expenses.

    Should they have asked a trans person? Yeah they should have. This happens a lot in Hollywood. No one likes it but it comes down to bringing attention to a subject like this with big name stars who can carry the message.

    It may not be ideal, but I think at least films like this will pave the way for other stories, and producers will feel more comfortable putting in someone who is actually what the character they are portraying is.

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    1. Even if it was 1985; you expect me to believe that a Trans Woman who is regularly using illegal drugs and underground experimental AIDS medication can't gain access to simple Estrogen pills and Antiandrogens?

      I'm sorry. I'm just not buying it.

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    2. Thanks for your feedback! I COMPLETELY agree that the character would not look as glam as Laverne Cox on the red carpet, or even in her day-to-day life! But they could have cast a trans actress and made her look less glamorous and polished than she is in her real life, like they did for instance with Charlize Theron in 'Monster' - Theron is barely recognisable in that film!!! Also, to be honest, there are probably pre-hormones trans actresses, who would have loved to have the role. I don't think this necessitates casting a man, personally.

      I know why they do it, but I do think it's profoundly wrong, and it's a vicious cycle if people say "that's just the way it is" and get on with life.

      Agreed that hopefully in the future we'll see this changing.

      Alex xx

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    3. @Anonymous - How old were you in 1985? Because people who actually lived those years knew how Rayon is a realistic and accurate portrayal. I knew a lot of Rayons and I saw some of them die. Hate on that character is like discriminating the womanhood of a lot of people like her.

      Also, there was no role for a trans actor. It was Leto that chose to see Rayon as a pre-op trans woman, withouth him no representation in a movie, no discussion about us at all. So instead to bitch about why they didn't cast a trans (something that could only lead to legitimize people in asking that trans people should be cast ONLY in trans role and we don't want that, dont' we?) why not appreciate the fact that someone that as a cis male has privileges and access to many roles decided to give voice and representation to the community? ( Even if he's not a good political speaker ? Not everyone is good at it no matter how good your intention are.)

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  2. I really think you should read what Calpernia Sarah Addams has to say on the matter, who is the 'research' Jared Leto put into his role I guess you could say. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151909287962687&set=a.487504117686.266773.521932686&type=1&stream_ref=10

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    1. Oh wow... I researched quite thoroughly and did not find this. I think Leto should definitely have publicised doing this more. Quite bad that it's only known about because Calpernia herself mentioned it!!

      Thanks a lot for the link :) xx

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    2. I guess that bringng her to the DBC premiere, constantly talking about the trans people who helped him during the interviews and thanking her during the most important events (see the Oscars) isn't enough. Yeah.

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    3. Well, he clearly did NOT constantly talk about the trans people who helped him because I've read a lot of interviews and haven't read a single one until this link was left where he mentioned her or any other trans people for that matter. He also did NOT thank her in his Oscars speech. That is just an inaccurate statement.

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  3. the majority of the Trans community within the Entertainment industry feels like Calpernia has basically thrown them under the bus for her own personal gain. She seems to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo rather than focusing on the bigger picture for the community. She's always been apprehensive about communicating that there's a whole community of Trans performers out there. To her, if they don't think she's right for it, she seems to push them to hire a Cisgender actor to train rather than look for other Trans actors because it means she'll still make money. I think there is extreme value to having Trans consultants/writers/directors/etc on projects (and we still need to push just as hard to have them involved), but not at the expense of the public face of the community. Trans roles in Films/TV must ONLY be played by Trans Actors. It's the only way Trans youth and Trans people as a whole will have possibility models; and we need them to engage in active public education the way Laverne Cox has done with the platform she's been given by "Orange Is The New Black".

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    1. Preach. Just... preach. Totally agree with you! Don't think I have anything to add beyond that to be honest!

      Thanks for the feedback!!

      Alex xx

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  4. So, a transgender woman would have won an Academy Award for basically playing herself? I don't think so. That's why it's called acting. And he did mention in many interviews that he met with transgendered people as research, and he did thank "Callie" Adams during his Oscars speech. Look it up on YouTube.

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  5. So, a transgender woman would have won an Academy Award for basically playing herself? I don't think so. That's why it's called acting. And he did mention in many interviews that he met with transgendered people as research, and he did thank "Callie" Adams during his Oscars speech. Look it up on YouTube.

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    1. Wait, what? Do you really see all transgendered people as so similar that you think a trans woman playing a trans woman is just her playing herself? Would you say a cis woman playing a cis woman is just her playing herself? If so, hardly anyone should win Academy Awards!
      Also, he didn't mention "Callie" Adams or any other trans people in his Oscars speech. I have watched it many times during my research for this piece and know that to be a fact.

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