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April 5, 2014

The Rayon Effect: What Cisgender Actors Bring To Transgender Characters

By E Jessica Groothis


Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, 2013 saw the release of Dallas Buyers Club, co-starring Jared Leto as a transgender woman named Rayon. Rayon is a rare entry into cinematic transgender canon, and she has sparked a firestorm of debate around trans representation in fiction. Beyond the criticism of the content of the film has been criticism of the mere casting of Jared Leto, because he’s a cisgender man. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about Dallas Buyers Club or Jared Leto, although the film and its star provide a convenient locus of conversation, so it’s worth taking the time to unpack exactly what subtext and meaning Leto brought to the role, and by extension, what any cisgender actor brings to a transgender role, irrespective of the content of the film. This meaning is largely twofold: invisibility and artifice, two of the pillars of transgender oppression.

Criticism of Jared Leto reached a zenith of directness when audience members called out the actor at an awards ceremony (an event grossly mischaracterized by the media as “heckling”). This is how the actor defended himself:

“Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian — they can’t play a straight part?” … “Then you make sure that people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world, would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts that aren’t central to who they are.”

Even though Leto mostly just evokes a false equivalency between trans and gay people, we can safely infer he means to extend the argument to cis and trans people (“Rayons of the world” seems to be how Leto refers to trans folks). What are the implications of his comments? Well, he’s suggesting that if one group doesn’t have cultural and social permission to portray another group in fiction, then the converse would be true. It isn’t a surprising thing to hear him say. The argument has a nice mathematical logic to it, and Leto frames himself as a hero, and his detractors as villains: I’m playing a transgender person so that trans people have the ability to play a wider range of characters; in fact, you’re the ones who are transphobic for bringing this up.

The problem with this argument is that the logic doesn’t hold up unless you strip the parts of the equation of their real-world contexts. The converse is not automatically true because trans people and cis people are treated very differently by the world. This is not a case of two groups with equal societal standing, it is a case of one group that is marginalized, oppressed, and mostly invisible in mainstream culture. Trans stories need to be safeguarded from potential mistreatment by actors not connected to the material, but the same is certainly not true of roles that aren’t defined by trans status.

The way Leto frames his argument (that false equivalency) feeds into trans erasure by perpetuating the lack of distinction between gay and trans. By lumping the two together, he places specific trans experiences and realities under the shadow of cisgender gay people, where they can safely be ignored. Meanwhile, his presence at publicity events and awards shows allows for further invisibility of the people on whose backs Leto has earned accolades. When Leto shows up, on-screen and off, he’s aiding the idea that trans folks aren’t real.

Cis people are represented in every facet of media and culture and society, while trans people are erased from most conversations. So when the opportunity arises to depict a trans person, it’s important that we showcase that trans people are real, that trans people are living, breathing human beings and not just exotic novelties that only exist in the imagination. I want people to see beyond a cinematically constructed entity to a real person behind that character. It is especially important that trans youth have “possibility models” like Laverne Cox, rather than Jared Leto, who has been called out not just for the content of the film but for his public remarks and appearances, described by one writer as “the cisgender man’s version of “no homo””.

But Jared Leto’s casting isn’t just aiding trans invisibility. It actively props up negative stereotypes about trans people, trans women in particular. Jos Truitt wrote at Feministing after Leto’s Golden Globe win that “the narrative around this movie, the fact that a man in drag is playing a trans woman, perpetuates the stereotype that we are men in drag.” What’s key to note is the difference between the narrative within the film and the narrative around the film. The film cannot be divorced from the context in which it was created, and that context is an extension of that cisnormative framework of trans identities as artificial variations on one’s assigned sex.

We live in a cisnormative society; that is, one which sees cisgender people as the default, and transgender people as an exception to that rule. No one has to come out as cisgender, and no one self-identifies as cisgender unless making a conscious effort against cisnormativity and cisgender assumption. Transgender people are not just seen as a variation or deviation, but we’re seen as an alteration of a cisgender state. When people suggest that transition-related medical care is “cosmetic”, they suggest that trans identities are simply artificial layers on a (cisgender) starting point. When people suggest that a trans person is “born a [man or woman]”, they suggest that we began our lives in a cisgender framework. Trans folks struggle against the misconception that our identities are alterations of a more “natural” state of being, as though at our core, on some fundamental level, we are always and forever the sex we were assigned at birth.

When a man steps into makeup to become a trans woman, he embodies this mainstream trans narrative: a transformation process that amounts to nothing more than an artificial layer on the canvas of their own identified sex and gender. One positive Dallas Buyers Club review called Rayon “a man in search of artificial femininity”. This is exactly the kind of stereotype that trans women work tirelessly to overcome, and it’s incredibly disheartening to see this trope reified by a work of art that simultaneously claims to be a work of advocacy on our behalf. I don’t think that this sentiment was created out of thin air by the presence of Leto; no, I think it’s more likely that Leto’s presence affirmed existing prejudices in the author about trans women and transfemininity, prejudices which made their way into the perception of the character. Those prejudices, which run against the authenticity of trans people’s lived identities, are upheld and perpetuated by the presence of a character whose cinematic gender identity is artificial.

When a man takes on the role of a transgender woman, or vice versa, a chance for visibility is lost, and they make sure that their voice is louder than ours, and that trans folks will only exist as elaborate fictions, collections of artifice whose identities are as flimsy as a layer of makeup and a particular outfit. That’s what actors like Jared Leto bring to transgender roles.

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  • morganjamesmcdonald

    This is totally ridiculous. Has the trans community become so obsessed with victimization that they have come full circle and begun to stereotype and discriminate themselves? How can you argue that being trans is any particular way, or that someone’s portrayal was innaccurate. Last time I checked, people are all unique, and each individual, trans, cis, gay, straight, bi, whatever, is not required to act or feel like anything, just because of one defining characteristic.

    You try and break down Leto’s comment by attacking his tone, but the fact remains, A straight person CAN play a gay person, a black person can play a white person, and a trans person can play a cis person. It may be more difficult for them, and may require a higher degree of method training, but it’s possible.

    Articles and opinions like this DIVIDE trans people into a separate categories where they are singled out for being so ‘different’ that no one could possibly understand them. I’m just flabbergasted that it’s coming from a so called trans supporter. Shame on you.

  • DarlieB

    The roles tranwomen should play should not be transwomen. The should be real women , because they are real women! I don’t want to see a single one of you play transwomen. I want to see you play things like Joan of Arc or Juliet. SCREW JARED ! You are better than some one off “gosh I hope someone lets me play a transwoman because I am a transwoman” part. I think that is such a low shot! You are better! Read for any part! You can do it!

    • Cat MacKinnon

      I understand where you’re coming from, and I mostly agree…to an extent. A good example of an “exception” would be Jamie Clayton’s character in the web series ‘Dirty Work’. She played the role of a trans woman whose character showed what many of us go through on a daily basis. The script was handled remarkably well and she wasn’t used as the circus sideshow; she showed how things are and what we have to deal with. Her character was basically HER, except with a fictitious name. The other two main characters treated her respectfully, which isn’t something we see much of from the Hollywood mainstream. She stood up for herself without any implication that she was “less” than the other characters (one of my favorite lines was when she finally got tired of her coworker asking her personal questions and said, “I’m not your personal Transgender Learning Annex. Just fucking Google that shit!”

      Of course, that type of role is the exception rather than the rule (especially in mainstream Hollywood.) While I agree with your overall sentiment, I think there are times when having a trans person playing a trans person is absolutely appropriate. BUT, the script and story has to be right, and the character can’t be treated…well, how Hollywood usually treats us.

      • DarlieB

        That I agree with. We seem currently to be tragic , evil or humorous, in the wrong way. My deceased partner played a child care worker, a famous movie star, and tons of small part extras and only once played a transsexual. I will look up Dirty Work.

  • Andrew Murphy

    This is the equivalent of blackface.
    Not a LGB person playing a straight person or vice versa.
    A white person playing a black person.
    It’s that simple.
    Maybe he was good in the role, maybe it’s a good film, I don’t know I haven’t seen it, but that’s irrelevant; he shouldn’t have had the role of a trans person in the first place.
    He’s not the first BTW, just the first to win an oscar for it, Cillian Murphy did the same in Breakfast on Pluto, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t others.

  • DW

    The person who got the job was the actor who did the best job of acting. Yes, there should be more roles for trans individuals. But to say that cisgender individuals shouldn’t play those at all is ridiculous. Seeing a cisgender person actively exploring what it is to be transgender and learning through that process can be just as inspiring as seeing a trans actor taking a role.

    Jobs should be given to people based on merit and ability, not because they happen to “fit the role” due to their gender identity. And acting is very much a job. What really needs to happen is more trans individuals should get into the production and directing end of things; putting themselves in positions to hire other trans individuals for roles and parts. Not only are you then elevating trans actors into the public sphere and consciousness, but you’re putting trans people in roles not regularly filled (with exceptions like Lana Wachowski, who still had to earn her kudos as a male, unfortunately) with transgender individuals. Then, not only are you showcasing one talent (acting) but many talents, from directing to producing to the director of photography or head lighter. The sad part is that there’s a need to showcase talent to begin with and that its not just accepted as natural due to silly gender roles and the biases they create.

    • gladmueth

      Agreed. Any person or group of people wanting to shed light on their cause, have more opportunities and understanding have to step up, create the work first themselves, get proactive and make those opportunities for themselves. Women in Hollywood wanting more opportunities and better representation battle this every day, and have for many years. I support the transgender community in this but let’s be fair all around about it- yes, acting is a job – may the best actor land the role- whether male, female, transgender, gay, straight– and let’s see more transgenders working as film makers, directors and actors telling their stories so Hollywood can bring them into the fold.

      • There’s no such thing as “transgenders.” There are transgender people, transgender men, transgender women, nonbinary transgender people, etc. But no “transgenders.

        Also, you seemed quick to buy into the assumption that trans women aren’t doing anything about this beyond complaining. As I noted above in my response to DW, this is inaccurate.

        Also, none of these arguments are new, nor are they insightful. They’re the same regurgitated pablum that we hear every time something like this happens. Most frequently, they are a fairly accurate indicator that the person talking probably knows next to nothing about what they’re trying to say (in this case, knowing next to nothing about what trans women are actually doing in the media, in Hollywood).

        Also as I noted above, the whole “best actor for the role” narrative is completely false. No transgender women were given the opportunity to audition for the role, and the director didn’t even know there were transgender women. When he found out, he indicated he was not interested in having a transgender woman portray a transgender woman. So please explain again this myth of “best actor for the role” and how it applies here?

        Also, separating trans women from cis women again misses the point. Generally speaking, cis women get roles to portray cis women, and if a man does portray a cis woman, this isn’t going to eclipse media presentation of cis women. Also, trans women face the same problems that cis women face in addition to facing the issue that so many filmmakers love to cast cis men as trans women.

        • italics ^///~

          Agreed.. And please don’t get me wrong gladmeuth, I don’t think that you are looking at this differently because of any conscious effort. I do have to say though, to say “trans women are to blame for not trying hard enough” when the point of what everyone is saying is that trans woman ARE trying, just comes off as “victim blaming.” I know you really believe it is in part the fault of the trans community, but the problem isn’t what a trans person did, it’s that there wasn’t even an attempt to cast someone who was trans. It’s also that, regardless of the intentions of the script writers to adapt a film that was originally written with a gay guy that cross-dresses in mind, they failed to create a character that embodied what it actually means to be trans and they fed this failed perception of a minority.

          That being said, I think you are looking at this in the way it might eventually be, which is encouraging actually. 🙂 You are comparing a trans-woman with a cis-gender woman.. Just keep in mind that transwoman are met with a ton of hate and very little support. For instance, 55 percent of transgender individuals reported loosing an already established job because of being trans. This is just one of the MINOR statistics that face trans woman.

          I know we are all entitled to opinions, but what good is sharing them if we can’t all consider what the other person is saying? Anyways! I really really want you all to read this very informative survey and study done on trans people. It’s got statistics that make me want to vomit they are so saddening.. 🙁

    • This argument is not accurate. Jared Leto was specifically chosen for the role. No trans women were offered a chance at the role. So saying “the person who got the job was the actor who did the best job of acting.” That’s a favorite argument to deflect criticism, and it is also patently false.

      As far as merit and ability, Jared Leto’s portrayal of a trans woman has no merit, and highlights his inability to portray a trans woman.

      The rest of your argument is specious as you seem to assume trans people just aren’t doing anything but complaining, as if nothing’s happening. This could not possibly be further from the truth.

    • kara_h

      You can look at how other minority groups have been handled by Hollywood. For a long time all native american roles were played by caucasians. Hollywood was then shown they were committing a wrong by doing so. Yes, some native american actors look like they are caucasians, but the key point is what culture did they grow up in and that comes out in their performance. It is a question of casting a majority actor all the time or fitting the right people for the role. This whole thing is about erasure of minority voices from the conversation.

      • DW

        Hollywood absolutely needs to work on its portrayal and handling of minority groups. There’s been some work, but it needs to both go further and encompass all minority groups and not leave any out, which happens all too often with LGBT characters, portrayals and actors/actresses. At the same time, and I’ll use Jared Leto as an example since he’s the subject of the story, a genuine performance not meant to deride, mock or exaggerate a minority should be recognized for what it is. A performance that was attempting to portray a trans character in a flattering way (even if the character wasn’t always a flattering person as they were written or in real life). Was it a 100% perfect, accurate representation of a trans woman living in the 70s and 80s? Was it even a totally accurate representation of the real individual the character is based off of? Of course not, and you would be hard pressed to get that performance unless trans women were directly involved with developing the character and script. But it certainly wasn’t anywhere near Al Jolsen in black face either. Ultimately I think the best thing the role has accomplished is to both continue and open up more dialogue about trans issues.

    • Katrina Rose

      “The person who got the job was the actor who did the best job of acting.”

      You know who all auditioned?

      • Kathy11

        Funny how trans women are never seen as the best actors to play the parts of cis men………..never even asked to audition.

        One wonders why?

        Could there be difficulty in having credibility, perhaps?

  • Tarnished

    I had no idea Rayon was supposed to be a trans woman, I was genuinely confused about whether she was a transvestite or a trans woman, I thought she was supposed to be a man in drag and her comments about wanting breasts was part of some jumbled understanding of trans on the part of the writers.

    When I think about trans people in the 80’s this character is what I think about, not the average woman walking down the street but as some sort of walking-talking stereotype of what society used to think trans people were. If you were trans you were thought of as a gay man dressing as a woman and as such to a degree some trans people conformed to that idea – I think today it is easier to be a trans person who isn’t some sort of trans characterture. Maybe this is why they cast Leto, to be a man in women’s clothing rather than a trans woman – could a [trans] woman have played that part as well?

    On the other hand I could just be trying to excuse the trans equivalent of black-face…

    • Rachel Bellum

      The character was apparently originally written to be a gay man who cross-dressed. Leto has said it was his idea to make the character trans after a (apparently singular) chance encounter with some trans people which affected him.

      Trans actors were not considered for the role. One noteworthy response was roughly: Are there trans actors? -To be fair, I would be uncomfortable with the idea of them taking Leto’s idea and giving him nothing for it. However, one solution would have been to cast trans people in other roles

      Criticism of the character has received the response that the character fit the time and place. Though much like the article seemed to suggest, most of the critics seemed to feel it fit the stereotypes of the time and place more than actual trans people. The film has received additional criticism for apparently making the main character more homophobic than he was in reality. This has been defended by suggesting it fit their perception of one meeting with the person.

      Obviously the film was intended to be gritty. However considering Rayon did not portray an actual person, there were many options available.

      Personally, I don’t necessarily (automatically) have an issue with a cis person portraying a trans person. Nor do I necessarily have an issue with cross-sex cis person portraying a trans person.

      But I do find these criticisms very valid and convincing. The argument for placing trans people in roles portraying otherwise normative (or even relatively normative as interesting characters are often not strictly normative) characters is just as strong as it is for other minorities. And at this point in time,we have a lot of data to suggest the powerful effect it has on public perceptions.

      As someone who was recently working at a university where most of the entering traditional freshman had never met someone considered to an ethnic minority, I feel the importance of visibility in public spaces cannot be emphasized enough.

      Given the actual situation, it seems casting someone other than a trans person for a trans role should require a meaningful justification (Jennifer Boylan has suggested Transparent was approached this way though I would prefer a higher bar)). That the number of trans roles should be increased. And, that trans actors should be encouraged to seek (and receive when appropriate) cis roles.

      • italics ^///~

        I don’t think that there is much that I could hope to add to this comment, since you seemed to sum up the whole of my feelings towards this issue. Very well written and informed comment and I think it packaged up a lot quite nicely. Only thing I could think would be that, as much as the idea of creating a trans character is a good one, they shouldn’t have just adapted the role of the character from being a gay man in drag to a trans person: they should have written it that way from the start or, really, completely rewritten it. I say that because anyone who around a trans person knows how different from a gay person they are. Even with my being a very girly gay guy, it is obvious to everyone that I am not trans..