(Update: Called it!) If you belong to a minority group, you've probably seen at least one movie with a character portrayed by an actor who doesn't belong to your group. Whether it's a white person playing a person of color, a straight person playing a queer person, or Tom Cruise playing any normal human being, Hollywood has a fetish for letting privileged people attempt to portray marginalized people. Their foray in 2013 was Dallas Buyers Club, a movie where Jared Leto attempts to portray a trans woman named Rayon, but accidently winds up playing a contrived plot device in bad drag. This role has also earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars tonight, an award which he seems heavily favored to win. And as a trans woman, this has left me with a very obvious Picard Facepalm handprint on my forehead.
In case you haven't seen it (spoilers from here on out), Dallas Buyers Club is a movie where homophobic/transphobic straight cis man Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) contracts HIV from a sex worker and eventually opens up a "gray market" venue for people to buy non-FDA-approved HIV drugs - the eponymous "Dallas Buyers Club." Through his interactions with the HIV-positive LGBT community (and especially Rayon), he is able to overcome his prejudice and learn that queerosexuals are people just like you or me, except with more loose-wristed hand-waviness. Although it's based on a true story, the narrative structure is very much a "White Savior/Privileged Savior" character arc a la Avatar, with queer people instead blue cat people and gay sex instead of weird ponytail tentacles.
And at the heart of Woodroof's journey from queer-hater to sympathetic ally is Rayon, a character who is a hilariously depressing amalgamation of every trans character trope out there: a veritable Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Megazord of obnoxious stereotypes. Other people have written in greater detail why Rayon is such an awful character - especially how her character is an entirely fictitious plot device - so I don't really want to rehash the problems with her. If you've seen the movie and know anything about trans people, you can probably figure out the problems with her character. If you haven't, the link is there.
Because it's not really the movie or the character that's bothering me all that much right now. After all, it's par for the course as far as terrible depictions of trans issues go. It's not even that Jared Leto has already been formally recognized for his performance and will, in all likelihood, go on to win the Superbowl of motion picture award ceremonies. Because he does deserve to win an award, really - he did a terrific job at doing what he was supposed to do.
It's actually what he was supposed to do that bothers me the most of all. Because although he was nominally playing a trans woman, that's not what he was doing. He was actually playing a caricature of what cis people think a trans woman is like. And that's it. There wasn't supposed to be any genuine depth, any real desire to give the cis world a glimpse into the life of a trans woman. It was about making something that didn't challenge cis people's preconceptions. It was about creating a pitiful character so cis people could pat themselves on the back for pitying her.
Leto has been praised for endeavoring to stay in character the entire time on set in order to immerse himself in the character of Rayon. But that immersion was never intended to get a better understanding of what it's like to be a trans woman or what it felt like for me in the early years of transition. It wasn't intended to capture what it was like for me to go out to a party for the first time presenting as a girl and hearing people whispering "is that a guy or a girl" as I passed by. It wasn't attempting to get into my mind and understand my feelings, the fear of "is this how it's always going to be for me/Will I always be an outlandish-looking freak/ Will I ever have a normal life again" racing through my mind after hearing that. The character of Rayon was not made for my benefit in any conceivable way: it was made entirely for the benefit of cis people.
Which is why this (probable) Oscar bothers me so much. It's an award for continued ignorance, the epitome of the cis world patting itself on the back for "not getting it." It's recognition for appropriating my narrative to change absolutely nothing about my life. It's someone taking 5 minutes of their precious cis time to wade into trans end of the pool and getting lauded by the rest of the world because of how much pee they think is there and how tough it must have been for him. And yet they will be too busy praising him to notice the turd he left floating there.