Twenty years from now, will we look back on Jared Leto’s portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club and wince?
In a bizarre Time magazine article entitled Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy, author Steve Friss goes on a long anti-Leto screed that begins with a rant against Hattie MacDaniel, of all people, saying
her portrayal of a house slave [in Gone with the Wind] is now, alongside the old Aunt Jemima syrup logos, viewed as an archetypical, racist touchstone. It is difficult to watch McDaniel’s infantilized Mammy without cringing.
He went on to call both her performance and the award she received for it “hypocritical and patronizing.”
Where to start with that? First of all, don’t you dare come for Hattie McDaniels. Her role in Gone with the Wind was a break-through for African-American actors in Hollywood. The character of Mammy warm and wise and very often the voice of reason. In fact, she’s the character that Rhett seeks out when he needs advice. It was an amazing role and MacDaniel’s talent shines through in every scene. Mr Friss seems to be forgetting that the character is from a book written in the 1930s about the American South in the 1860s. There’s no way the character of Mammy could be portrayed as a strong, modern African-American woman. And having her act like Angela Davis or Coretta Scott King would be ridiculous.
Acting anachronistically seems to be his basis for disparaging Leto’s performance.
Not long from now — it surely won’t take decades, given the brisk pace of progress on matters of identity and sexuality these days — Leto’s award-winning performance as the sassy, tragic-yet-silly Rayon will belong in the dishonorable pantheon along with McDaniel’s Mammy. That is, it’ll be another moment when liberals in Hollywood, both in the industry and in the media, showed how little they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring.
He goes on to describe the character of Rayon as
a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute, of course. There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core they are women — behave. And in a very bleak film, she’s the only figure played consistently for comic relief, like the part when fake-Woodruff points a gun at Rayon’s crotch and suggests he give her the sex change she’s been wanting. Hilarious.
Except that in 1986 most trans women in Dallas, Texas (i.e. outside of New York, LA, and San Francisco), were probably NOT activists, they most likely WOULD HAVE BEEN on the fringes doing drugs, turning tricks etc . Those people existed. It wasn’t until the rise of AIDS activism that many people found their voices and realized they could affect change within the community. And the film shows the journeys of Rayon and Ron Woodriff in startling clarity. Sure, they start off as hedonistic and self-centered, but by the end they’re most definitely selfless individuals, who show compassion and concern for a greater good. There’s nothing trivial about Rayon AT ALL.
Read the complete article here and discuss it further with me on Twitter @JSJdarling.