Whose Club Is It Anyway?: The Problematic of Trans Representation in Mainstream Films——“Rayon” and Dallas Buyers Club

in Screen Bodies

Abstract

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) offers a stereotypical representation of trans themes and images that do not fit contemporary gender-diverse communities, creating negative images and damaging connotations that could last for years. This article explores the stereotypical characterization and clichéd narrative devices deployed to create the fictitious character of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club and examines the ongoing problematic of trans representation within mainstream cinematic texts by comparing Dallas Buyers Club with The Crying Game (1992), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Transamerica (2005). To contextualize the ongoing issues raised by the film and its screenplay, this article reads Rayon as one example in a long line of socially proscribed Hollywood “fallen women,” here, with the narrative displaced onto the transgender body.

On 2 March 2014, as Jared Leto was awarded one of the screen industry’s highest accolades—an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role—he received a standing ovation from the audience. As Leto accepted the award for his portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, he spoke in heartfelt, gentle tones:

incredible … so proud to share this journey with you…to all the dreamers out there … in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela … we are here and as you struggle … we are thinking of you tonight … this is … for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS … to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are, or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you.

(Oscars 2014; emphasis added)
Remarkably, as he spoke in gratitude for responses to his depiction of the transsexual character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013), and despite his politicized articulation and rightful acknowledgment of the millions who had died from AIDS around the world, Leto made a gaping omission. Significantly, in this speech, he failed to thank or recognize the transgender or transsexual community.

The Problematics of Mainstream Film

Dallas Buyers Club is a feature-length film (117 minutes) classified as a “Biography/Drama/History” on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb 2013a). It relies on traditional Hollywood genre conventions, fictional narrative structures, and filming styles to convey the “real” story of Ron Woodroof, who is portrayed as a heterosexual rodeo cowboy credited with establishing an HIV medications Buyers Club in Dallas in the mid-1980s after doctors gave him the bleak prognosis of having “about thirty days to live” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 11). The story moves among the antagonistic, heterosexual rodeo culture of Texas, the broader hegemonic establishments of the hospital, pharmaceutical offices, police stations, and courtrooms, and scenes of Texas counter-culture and street life. Set in 1985, in the midst of the AIDS crisis in America, when open hostility toward homosexuals and rampant denial of AIDS were prevalent (Kinsella 1989: 3), the film attempts to capture the mood of a time. This era was one of the most devastating periods in twentieth-century gay and transsexual history, and Dallas Buyers Club serves as a powerful reminder of the historical and social backgrounds against which mainstream films continue the hegemonic stereotyping of narratives and characters.

The portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club provides an invaluable insight into the representation and misrepresentation of transgender in contemporary cinema and the narrative and stylistic tropes such narratives employ to make the story salable and readable for mainstream distribution and reception. Such positioning of films to meet mainstream audience expectations on-screen often equals box office income. Through a critical engagement with Dallas Buyers Club and comparison with other contemporary films that have narrative treatments of trans themes and lives, it becomes apparent that due to the hetero-normativity of the film classifications (ratings) processes, the hegemonic positioning of Hollywood in relation to general audiences, and the economic basis of the screen industry focused upon general audiences, mainstream movies remain problematic textual sites for trans representation.

Within this article, “trans” is used as an inclusive, non-essentialist term. The specificity of the term “trans” within Western settings (Binaohan 2014) does not account for the wide range of cultural and affective relationships of people to their bodies within non-hegemonic settings across space and time.1 As this article is focused on a mainstream film—written, directed, produced, and awarded within the Hollywood hegemonic film industry in the twenty-first century, about Western-born white characters—the term trans is appropriately utilized as a descriptor for Rayon.

The characterization of Rayon is problematic within the screenplay and in the subsequent film, especially for audiences reading Rayon as a person. The difficulty arises because Rayon is described and written within the screenplay as a “cross-dresser” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 21, scene 30), who is marked by male pronouns throughout the script, displaying not only the screenwriters’ transphobia but also their ignorance of how Rayon’s identity would be perceived by twenty-first-century audiences. In addition, Rayon is then portrayed on-screen by Jared Leto as a transsexual. Rayon does not simply dress in clothing that would be identified by audiences as “women’s clothes” (the definition of a “cross-dresser,” as used in the screenplay, or the problematic term “transvestite”); rather, Rayon lives, acts, walks, talks, works, and loves as a trans woman. Rayon is also portrayed with a physical embodiment that suggests femininity early in the stages of transitioning, an important observation for textual exegesis that will be discussed further in this article.

Despite the themes of the film, focused on the AIDS crisis, the sourcing of HIV medications illegally across the border in Mexico out of dire necessity, and the subcultural communities of gay men and trans people, the director was able to cast marquee-name actors in the leading and supporting roles. Matthew McConaughey appears as Ron Woodroof, Jared Leto as Rayon, and Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, and both McConaughey and Leto were subsequently awarded Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Performance for their respective roles.

Even a surfeit of screen industry involvement and awards has not protected the film from considerable ongoing controversy, especially the negative response of the trans community internationally against the representation of the transsexual character of Rayon. After the film was released, Rayon was described as “anti-trans” (Tannehill 2014), “offensive,” and “super transphobic” and the producers as “a bunch of wankers” by many within the trans community (Facebook, 8 March 2014). As well, it has been noted that because Rayon is marked as trans through the image “of a patient awaiting treatment” (Califia 2003: xl), Rayon continues a long history of the disenfranchising treatment and portrayal of trans people in mainstream film and society: “In medical and feminist discourses, transsexuals are stereotyped as patients” awaiting, or undergoing sex reassignment surgery (1).

The film was produced at a time in mainstream cinema when there was a shortage of substantive texts dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer themes and, in particular, a rarity in the mainstream of texts with transgender characters and narratives. In the three years since the film debuted, there have been mainstream screen texts released online via subscription video on demand services (SVOD) that portray trans characters, played by trans actors, in affirming narratives. These instances include Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black (Jenji Kohan, 2013–) and Jamie Clayton in Sense8 (Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 2015). While the online screen world moves forward at a rapid pace in its representations of gender-diversity, the world of the mainstream theatrical release cinema lags behind such cultural trends.

This article is situated within the broader disciplines of screen, media, and cultural studies and the critical field of contemporary trans cinema scholarship that includes such thinkers as Jack Halberstam, Eliza Steinbock, Anthony Clair Wagner, Jonathan Williams, Wibke Straube, Joelle Ruby Ryan, and Cael Keegan—all of whom have made significant contributions to developing transinformed, trans activist scholarship on cinematic representation in film and television.

Performing Trans

The screen performance/character portrayals associated with the narrative traditions (Baron and Carnicke 2008: 7) of feature film, and in particular of drama/biography/history, deployed in creating Dallas Buyers Club demand a high level of performance preparation and commitment to character portrayal on-screen. Such investment was recognized in 2014 when Dallas Buyers Club won all the major awards in Hollywood. The tally included fifty awards and thirty nominations (IMDb 2013b), including the prestigious Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Academy Award to McConaughey), Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Academy Award to Leto), Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling (Academy Award), and the equivalent awards at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. In addition, the film won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture (IMDb 2013b).

Despite appearing only in approximately half of the film (entering at scene 30, exiting at scene 119), the character of Rayon is presented through a range of stereotypes and negative tropes associated with transgender people in general and transwomen in particular. The writers held off on only a few intersectional depictions (age/ethnicity/ability) in creating Rayon in a stereotypical and negative manner. The character is positioned as a socially ostracized and marginalized person, who has HIV/AIDS, at a time in 1985 when social panic considered HIV to be a highly contagious virus, contractible through casual contact and a pathologized terminal disability.2 Such a depiction emphasizes the “failure” of the non-normative, queer, and transed body in society (Halberstam 2011; Keagan 2014).

While Rayon has no direct equivalent in mainstream cinema,3 there are cinematic precedents for the treatment of gender-diverse and trans characters. These include texts such as The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992), a suspense film in which a mysterious nightclub singer Dil has a gender “secret,” Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), a biographical feature film based upon the life of transmale youth Brandon Teena, who was violated and murdered, and Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, USA, 2005), a fictional feature film focused on the narrative of Bree, a transwoman on the eve of her long-awaited gender-confirmation surgery. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, the characters of Dil in The Crying Game and Bree in Transamerica were conceptualized as trans within the screenplays, and this conception plays out on-screen with clear trans-centered performances. Furthermore, in Boys Don’t Cry Brandon presents a different trans characterization and different temporal context than does Rayon because the fictionalized character is biographical, based on the life and murder of a young trans man Brandon Teena in 1993.

In Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica character narrative arcs are focused on geographic movement. In Boys Don’t Cry Brandon moves to the small town where he is subsequently violently “exposed” (Halberstam 2001), violated, and murdered. In Transamerica Bree learns she has a son from an earlier relationship, and her therapist insists she acknowledge her son before signing off on Bree’s surgery. This leads to Bree embarking on a road trip—the transitional narrative device utilized in cinema to represent “transition as a geographic trope” (Prosser 1998: 5). Significantly, such travel is one of three key “symbolic representations of dysphoria” (Keegan 2013: 3) identifiable within films with trans narratives. For Bree, the road trip narrative represents a “body that journeys from negative to redemptive affect” (Keegan 2013: 2). Following Jay Prosser (1998), scholars have continued to develop theorization of the road trip and narratives of geographic movement as significant to representations of trans (Cotton 2011; Keegan 2013; Ford 2014; Kunzel 2014).

Hollywood Tropes

While superficially these films may appear to have little in common with Dallas Buyers Club, a closer exegesis reveals some interesting comparative elements. These comparative points include a recognizable Hollywood negative story arc for non-heteronormative characters, such as the one first outlined by Vito Russo (1981) and subsequently documented on-screen in The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995). Rayon is the first character to die in Dallas Buyers Club, an incident that locates the film with the vicious Hollywood practices of killing gay and marginalized characters (Epstein 1995; Russo 1981). Interestingly, this practice also follows the established genre rules and narrative traditions found within the Hollywood cinematic subgenre of the “fallen woman” film (Jacobs 1997: x), where female characters who do not subscribe to normative lifestyles and gender expectations ascribed to their perceived gender/sexual roles (of family life, as a wife and mother) end up on the street, suffer humiliations, and die before the ends of the films. This negative trajectory is a cinematic means of bringing the audience back into a state of “wholesomeness,” of reestablishing hegemonic control, which has been an underlying moral of cinema and imperative of censorship since the advent of mass-produced synchronized sound cinema (Wittern-Keller 2013: 17, 18, 21). As this genre makes clear, the message is simple—if you are an outsider (read “outside the hegemonic family structure,” “outside hegemonic defined gender/sexual roles”), you will not survive long in society. This narrative of negation is clearly recognizable, transposed onto gender-diverse individuals, in mainstream films with trans characters, including Dallas Buyers Club. Following this narrative cycle, the homosexual, lesbian, and gender non-conforming character suffers during the narrative and dies before the story ends.

Misrepresenting the Trans Body as “Fallen”

From the start, Dallas Buyers Club insinuates Rayon is a sex worker through her costume, gestures, mannerisms, and positionality in relation to Woodroof and the cis-gay and transsexual communities. Rayon is personified as a “working girl”: she wears a short skirt, ripped stockings, and walks in high heels, sometimes stumbling along seemingly dazed (implying drug use). In one scene, she holds her hands on her hips as she walks toward the car in which Woodroof sits and leans in over the window, assuming a posture commonly coded as the image of a working girl soliciting a client, and then gets into the passenger side. In this scene, the characters exchange money and insults as they discuss selling HIV/AIDS medications to Rayon’s friends (Borten and Wallack 2012: 38–39, scene 57). This depiction of Rayon further represents trans in a demoralizing, negative light, involved in what was a criminalized occupation in the 1980s and for mainstream society and audiences would still be considered a distasteful and “outsider” occupation.4 “When nearly every media portrayal of a transgender woman is as someone who is incapable, sad, and/or pathetic, it makes it that much harder for us to be taken seriously and dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in” (Tannehill 2014).

This depiction of Rayon’s character—as a patient awaiting treatment and as a sex worker—positions Rayon as marginalized, an outsider engaged in a criminal occupation, a user of illegal drugs (further criminalizing the depiction), and a person living with a deadly disease. They burden the narrative of Dallas Buyers Club and communicate to mainstream audiences the disheartening, misleading messages that transgender people are “sick,” “need treatment,” and are “criminals.” These messages communicated via the medium of a fiction film and outside the context of the actual lives of trans people are dangerous because they eschew the extensive documentation of trans lives that is available. The necessity for some trans people to seek treatment (including for gender confirmation procedures) or during periods of ill health (including with HIV in many locations) and the fact many trans people around the world are sex workers or users of street drugs, including hormones, and subjected to daily violence and discrimination is well researched by scholars including Joseli Maria Silva and colleagues (2014) in relation to Latina transwomen and by Beau Molnar (2014) with respect of transmen. These scholars have immersive experiences in the lives of the people they are documenting. Molnar frames his discussion of transmale sex work in the language used by sex workers as “radical sexuality by choice or necessity,” speaking of the “relative invisibility of the emotional and affective labour” (2014: 5, 8) of sex workers, backgrounded against the HIV and sex work activism of many contemporary trans men and women. This is critical in positioning what such work means to the people involved.

It is also a powerful reminder that many sex workers are activists and that in Dallas Buyers Club, while Rayon is on the front lines of connecting gay and trans people with HIV medications, this work is not depicted as activism but as profit-driven commerce, undercutting the immense meaning of her labor. Such real-world research is sensationalized within the fictionalized form of the feature film, displacing it from gender-diverse lives and communities, without a transliterate (Ford 2014, 2016) understanding of how these serious issues impact trans people’s lives through systemic oppression.

This representation of Rayon—a transwoman—positions the depiction within the Hollywood genre of the “fallen woman” genre, traditionally a set of films centered on “a woman who commits a sexual transgression … is expelled from the domestic space of the family and undergoes a protracted decline. Alone on the streets she becomes an outcast—often a prostitute—suffering various humiliations which usually culminate in her death” (Jacobs 1997: x). In Dallas Buyers Club, such a “fall” from a middle-class family to the streets is explicitly indicated toward the end of the film in scene 110 (Borten and Wallack 2012: 73a–74). In this scene Rayon visits her father, who is a bank manager. Rayon dresses in clothing out of character for her, in a style that audiences would generally attribute to men (a business suit she borrows from Ron Woodroof), to cash in a life insurance policy in order to secure funds for continuing the work of the Buyers Club.

Reading Rayon as a character in a long line of socially proscribed Hollywood “fallen women,” with generic cues displaced onto the transgender body, highlights the history of the classification (rating) systems of America and the role and impact these systems have had, and still have, on mainstream film production while situating these effects within historical and cinematic representational contexts. This emphasis is possible because the “fallen woman” genre is particularly noted as a means by which producers have historically “dealt” with a range of narrative depictions of “outsiders” in mainstream film—enabling Motion Picture Association of America approval and theatrical release. As Bordwell and Carroll remind us, this genre illustrates “how Hollywood’s internal censorship mechanism produced negotiated representations of women at the level of image and narrative” (1996: 29).

Lea Jacobs’s 1986 doctoral thesis (published as a book in 1991, reprinted 1997) further highlights how the “fallen woman” genre was significant within mainstream cinema, “because such films helped to define the limits of what was permissible, especially in the realm of sexuality. Many of the MPPDA’s5 rules for handling stories which involved so-called sexual deviance were specifically elaborated in terms of this genre … By focusing on a genre, we can systematically trace the permutations of narrative conventions instigated by censorship” (1997: x). That Hollywood films use specific genres as shorthand for selling stories to audiences is well-established (Bordwell 2006; Bordwell et al. 1997; McWilliam 2009; Neale 2000). This generic representation of Rayon problematizes the position of transpeople within society because it implies all transpeople are “fallen.” Because the majority of general audiences may never (knowingly) meet and interact with a trans person in everyday life or understand trans lives, these screen representations may give them only negative and incorrect assumptions. At the same time, the generic characterization of Rayon also serves to position the character of Ron Woodroof heroically within the film.

Significantly, the film uses different genres for specific elements of the story (characterization, story arc, story world). The primary story arc follows the heterosexual character Ron Woodroof on a “hero quest”—a narrative structure derived from the 1949 work of Joseph Campbell (2008) and used frequently by Hollywood screenwriters (Vogler 1992) with “mentor figures” such as Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and Dr. Vass in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) (IMDb 2013c). Though positioned as the “hero” in this narrative, Woodroof’s character is written and portrayed anti-heroically because he uses recreational drugs, and has unprotected sex with multiple partners, and lives in a trailer. The secondary but parallel storyline involving Rayon, uses the “fallen woman” genre to structure her story. There are also subplots involving characters from the gay and transsexual communities who become members of the Buyer’s Club. As well, the film uses a mixture of stylistic elements, including some from the “Rodeo Film” a sub-genre of Hollywood Westerns (characterization, costume, dialogue, rodeo, and bar settings) (Lusted 2014: 228). Narrative elements and style are also derived from the “Medical Drama” genre as the (anti-)hero quest of Ron unfolds within the authoritative settings of the hospital and courtroom. There are further ethical implications behind the film’s use of aspects of the Western genre (and Rodeo sub-genre) which contains elements of homosexual-cowboy subtext readable for some audiences) in relation to the construction of Ron Woodroof as a proudly heterosexual rodeo cowboy. According to Downing and Saxton (2010: 13), “The cowboy is the figure whose intimate connection to his own end, and the knowledge of it as a limit point, makes any act of protection or sacrifice a pure act in and of itself.” From early in the film (Borten and Wallack 2012: 9, scene 13),6 Woodroof knows he is going to die (11, scene 13). Positioning Woodroof as a rodeo cowboy on a hero’s quest and Rayon as a street sex worker—both “outsider” figures—carries ethical implications for how Dallas Buyers Club unfolds through the contrasting endings of both characters. In addition, framing the overall film as “biography/drama/history” (IMDb 2013a) “authenticates” the story even though major elements are fictional. Major issues surface in this mixture of genres and styles. These elements include a narrative that intertwines a heterosexual main plot, a transsexual secondary storyline, and gay/trans subplots—all of which move the narrative between opposing gendered and sexual worlds, hegemonies, and subcultures. This creates tension and conflict within the story. However, this mixture of genres may also provide an explanation for the range of spectator responses Dallas Buyers Club has generated (Hsu 2006), particularly the visceral, negative responses from within the trans community.

In Dallas Buyers Club, like many cinematic “fallen women” before her, Rayon, a trans woman, is depicted on the streets, on drugs, and terminally ill. She also dies about thirty minutes before the end of the film. As well, the “fallen woman” genre conventions return in Boys Don’t Cry, even though the film focuses on a young trans man, Brandon Teena. This time, though, transposed onto a transmasculine body. Brandon lives in a small town, where he is vilified, raped, and murdered for failing to conform to societal expectations of gender and sexed embodiment. While acknowledging that The Brandon Teena Story is based on the real-life story of a transmale youth who was brutally murdered in Nebraska in 1993, it cannot be overlooked that the 1999 feature film shares narrative structures and characteristics identifiable with the fallen woman genre, while acknowledging the different gendering of Rayon (a trans woman) and Brandon (a trans man). Reading these two films carefully in tandem reveals how the generic conventions of the fallen woman, gendered female in the twentieth century, may be shifted across genders and sexualities as a genre. Within this genre, the person is an “outsider” or an outcast from society, vilified for not conforming to hegemonic gender/sexual expectations and suffers accordingly for living life as an individual. In the time the fallen woman genre originated (1920s–1940s), women were the primary target for vilification if they failed to conform to hegemonic expectations. This history does not foreclose new interpretations of the genre across genders and sexualities and the cinematic transposition of genre conventions in the twenty-first century onto the screen bodies of trans women and trans men.

Significantly, themes of money are noted within the fallen women genre. In early Hollywood films there is the “gold digger” female character who attaches herself to a strong and financially attractive man and from this liaison gains access to what is considered to be “ill-gained” money. In other narratives within this genre, on the street sex work or other societally disapproved avenues of obtaining money are implied (Jacobs 1997). This theme is clearly discernible within Dallas Buyers Club, where money is obtained through the sale of on the street of HIV/AIDS medicines not approved by the FDA and through the sale of Rayon’s life insurance policy due to her terminal illness with HIV/AIDS. In Brandon Teena’s story, though not made explicit within the feature film version but depicted in the earlier documentary The Brandon Teena Story (Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir, 1998), there are issues of Brandon fraudulently obtaining money by cashing “fake cheques” and using unauthorized credit cards (Sloop 2000) in a low-income, geographically isolated small town.

Indicative of the ongoing problematics of trans representation in mainstream cinema, the fallen woman genre, though long outdated and unacceptable for narratives centered upon women, may now be clearly identified as reappearing in the mainstream in late twentieth and early twenty-first century films as a disciplinary narrative structure, transposed onto gender nonconforming bodies. The representation of Rayon provides a key textual example of how the fallen woman genre is transposed onto the trans body.

Transfacing

Salient issues are also raised within these texts by the casting of non-trans actors to play trans characters, a practice called “transface” (Reynolds 2015). Transface raises comparisons with the now-rejected and discredited practice of “blackface.” With blackface, white actors wearing black face paint portrayed African American characters and non-indigenous actors portrayed First Nations characters, a practice that was common throughout Hollywood and early cinema. With regard to on-screen trans representations it has been observed that “It is no longer acceptable to cast cross-racially, so why is it acceptable to cast someone who is not transgender in a transgender role?” (Rohwer 2013. Yet the practice sometimes continues.

In each of the main texts under consideration here, an actor from a privileged background (white, non-trans) plays a marginalized trans character on-screen. While Bree in Transamerica is a transwoman played by a non-trans female actress, Felicity Huffman, raises issues similar to those associated with Jared Leto playing Rayon, the depiction of Bree (and Huffman playing Bree), did not arouse strong anti-sentiments and criticism like when audiences saw Leto playing Rayon. The character of Brandon Teena, a transmale youth in Boys Don’t Cry is also played by a non-trans female actor, Hilary Swank. Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena was also criticized from within the trans community; yet, like Leto, Swank also won an Academy Award—for Best Actress in 2000 (IMDb 1999). In The Crying Game, the trans character Dil is played by a gay actor with a Ghanaian background (Jaye Davidson). While the film became known for its “big secret” (the gender plot twist involving Dil), Davidson’s portrayal of Dil did not arouse the criticisms like those of Swank playing Brandon Teena or Leto playing Rayon. This less antagonistic reaction could be because of the intersectional background of the actor (within the cis-gay community, from a Ghanaian family). These different responses alert us to issues of spectatorship and questions as to why general audiences responded affirmatively to the character of Bree and why trans audiences responded negatively to the character of Rayon, suggesting the normative subjectivity of general audiences and mainstream filmmakers.

In Transamerica, Bree is a character that is sympathetically created, conservatively portrayed, and positioned in a story arc centered on reconciliation with a previously unknown son, whom Bree attempts to get off drugs and away from street sex work. To redeem her son, Bree poses as a plainly dressed, christian missionary—an example of a group that has a “deep stake in maintaining the gender-binary” (Stryker 2008: 27)—on a road trip aimed at helping the young man (the son who is unaware until late in the film that Bree is his parent). The road trip genre in this film serves not only as a trope of geographic trans migration but as a journey of family redemption, an acceptable narrative for mainstream hegemonic audiences.

The Role of “Exposure” Scenes in Trans Narratives

The “exposure” scene or narrative (Halberstam 2001, 2005: 77, 78; Keegan 2013: 6; Keegan 2015; Zagler 2011) plays a central role in films with gender-diverse and trans characters. The exposure takes place when the body of the trans person is laid bare for spectators, such as in Transamerica when Bree needs to use a bathroom and the son walks in and briefly glimpses male genitalia in side profile. Such exposure is also seen in The Crying Game, when Fergus (Stephen Rea) takes Dil to a hotel room and Dil disrobes, revealing a male-coded body, much to Fergus’s shock. Notably, Bree does not die at the end of Transamerica, validating mainstream views that if an individual affirms normative values (monotheistic religion, gender-binary family structures, anti-drugs and anti-sex work positionality), then a person has an enduring place in society. In short, Bree is the opposite of Rayon, who is outside the family, on drugs, on the street, and engaged in sex work, implying that Rayon lives (or has lived) a sexually uninhibited life. Such a trajectory is the opposite of trans bodies in geographic transitional narratives (Keegan 2013: 2). Rayon’s story arc is about a body that has no redemptive journey, on a downward spiral of negative affect.

Dallas Buyers Club contains several exposure scenes. Toward the end of the film, Rayon undresses in front of a mirror (removing the suit she borrowed from Woodroof), observes her emaciated body, and says “I’m gonna look pretty if it’s the last thing I do” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 74, scene 110a). The mirror scene is another key narrative device used within cinematic and literary traditions to represent dysphoria (Keegan 2013: 3). This scene reveals Rayon’s body to the audience, who are clearly shown Rayon does not have breasts. This exposure scene, which takes place in front of a mirror, challenges audiences with the complexities of trans representation.

Rayon’s positionality within the text is implied as transsexual. Her desire to have gender-confirmation surgery is present within the story as background information and raised directly by Woodroof early in the film when he speaks disparagingly to Rayon, referring to “the sex change you been hopin’ for” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 43, scene 63). Yet that decision is problematized in this scene. Cheetaking (2014) notes the necessity for hormone therapy pre-surgery is not suggested by the appearance of Rayon’s body. What could be added here is that this is how Rayon’s body appears at this time. The comments by Cheetaking may not take into account the counter-effect HIV medications, specifically AZT, have had on Rayon’s appearance as evidenced by her emaciated body in the mirror scene. This scene could also be read through the screenwriters’ conceptualization of Rayon as a cross-dresser (Borten and Wallack 2012: 21 scene 30), although this does not play out on-screen with Leto. Susan Stryker provides further insight into the complexities of the term cross-dresser, while this is, “a term intended as a non-judgmental replacement for ‘transvestite’ … The practice of crossdressing can have many meanings and motivations: Besides being a way to resist or move away from an assigned social gender, it could be a theatrical practice … part of fashion or politics” (2008: 17–18).

On a deeper social level Rayon’s exposure in scene 110 (Borten and Wallack 2012: 73a–74) has far-reaching implications. In the bank visit scene, Rayon is dressed in clothes audiences would identify as male. This situation presents one of the more troubling character exposures within the text and recalls similar instances within mainstream films with trans characters in general. Here, Rayon is emotionally exposed, shown at her most vulnerable. Rejected from her biological family, Rayon’s picture is excluded from the family photographs on her father’s wall. Her father is embarrassed by Rayon’s presence. The discomfort of this scene is intensified by the erasure of Rayon as a person through having her wear ill-fitting men’s clothes (one of Ron Woodroof’s suits) and appear as male (Ray), in order to bypass the gaze of bank employees and gain access to her father. This scene is devastating to watch because it indicates how normative society crushes the “personhood” (Bettcher 2014, 2015; Stryker 2008) of trans people through enforced conformity. In fact, it could be argued that scene 110 is the only instance in the film where Rayon actually cross-dresses. Throughout the scene, Rayon’s humiliation continues as she expresses a submissive body posture—unlike her sassy gestures and postures earlier in the film. With shoulders slumped, she sits opposite her father as he berates her, and she has to plead with her life for the money.

Misgendering Matters

The screenplay for Dallas Buyers Club is transphobic, with only masculine pronouns used in reference to Rayon. This misattribution continues in the confused on-screen characterization of Rayon, who is described as, and spoken to within the film by other characters, in terms of “he,” “his,” and “him.” This misgendering and misidentification are evident from the first time Rayon enters the narrative at scene 30 of the screenplay: “Sitting on an examining table, meet Rayon, a cross-dresser in his early 30s, in long eyelashes, earrings, painted nails with a pink scarf tied around a full brown curly wig” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 21). This scene continues, with Rayon depicted as more interested in the neckline of her blouse than the results of the AZT study. Although this scene may support readings of Rayon as a transvestite or cross-dresser the way the term is introduced, within the screenplay could be interpreted pejoratively (Borten and Wallack 2012: 21, scene 30). This representation is later positioned with reference to images of the gender-bending rock star icons, such as Marc Bolan, with which Rayon lines the walls of the Buyers Club. This image of gender and sexual fluidity emerged during the era of 1970s glam rock but continued to resonate into the 1980s through culture, including music and fashion. For these reasons, the exposure scene in front of the mirror (scene 110a) is inconclusive as a definitive identity-marking moment for the character. While Rayon is revealed as flat-chested, her corporeality does not prove or disprove she is a cross-dresser. Rayon could simply be a young transwoman, early in transition, when signs of bodily transition are less apparent.

The screenwriters’ choice of terminology in scene 30 where Rayon is described as a cross-dresser—a word that could be considered demeaning or pejorative, in part, because it denies any gendered embodiment or sexual specificity, reveals the deep issues within the text. This script construction and misgendering, which may be critiqued as the filmmakers’ demonstrating a lack of knowledge about trans lives or even as an example of consciously biased screenwriting, continue to the last scene in which “Rayon lies alone in bed, delirious from morphine, mumbling beneath his oxygen mask” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 79). This misattribution continues despite Rayon being addressed with a female name, dressed in clothing that audiences would identify as women’s attire and makeup, and presented with the attributes, vocal intonation, bodily movements, and gestures of a trans woman throughout the narrative. Key characters in the film all participate in this misidentification of Rayon. Even the sympathetic Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner) indignantly yells at Ron Woodroof after Rayon’s death “He was my friend too, you know!” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 83a).

Through misgendering and misidentification, Rayon is denied any actual identity. Rayon is denied cinematic representation as a transwoman who may or may not wish to access hormonal or surgical therapies. Rayon is also denied characterization as a transsexual living in a complicated, transphobic, and homophobic era, who enjoys the aspects of femininity and wearing clothes she feels beautiful in publically because she is a young trans woman. The screenwriters fail to depict Rayon simply as an embodied human being. Within the text, Rayon’s identity as a cross-dresser is challenged, with her gender identity as a transwoman suggested (albeit in disparaging language) by Woodroof, who remarks on Rayon’s “spending money on titties” and that “he will give you [Rayon] that sex change you’ve been hopin’ for.”

Upon close reading of the screenplay, it becomes apparent that the screenwriters have devised a clichéd portrayal. For example, while Rayon is described as being feminine in appearance (Borten and Wallack 2012: 21), the script’s description of her bed-ridden death scene includes these instructions: “After a few beats, he takes [the oxygen mask] off, leans over to the side table, takes a compact and a tube of lipstick from his purse, and starts to apply it, his hands trembling as he does. His mission accomplished, he sets the lipstick aside, then leans his head back. And as he closes his eyes and drifts away” (79).

The incorrect male pronouns are used a distressing total of ten times in this final scene. Examples of such entrenched misgendering are evident throughout the screenplay. With such disrespect and misunderstanding evident in the text, the issue of the transphobia evident throughout the screenplay is amplified on-screen throughout characterizations of Rayon. Leto has publically stated that his research preparation for the role of Rayon was directly with members of the trans community (Criswell 2014) and that he utilized trans knowledge in constructing Rayon’s on-screen personae. These public statements raise the stakes of Leto’s subsequent failure to recognize the trans community in his Oscar acceptance speech and directs attention to his failure as an actor to intervene in the transphobia evident within the screenplay. One might ask why Leto did not utilize his star power and agency to interpret the representation of Rayon in less stereotypical ways. These failures are intensified even more through the depiction of Ron Woodroof as racist and homophobic. A rodeo cowboy living in the center of a homophobic rodeo scene at the time he is diagnosed with HIV and given “about thirty days to live” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 11), Woodroof engages in unprotected heterosexual sex and recreational drug use. Yet, rather than stigmatizing the character, the film deploys these actions as part of the characterization of the heteronormative, red-blooded, masculinity of the rodeo scene. Woodroof is depicted as a very masculine “man’s man” in contrast to Rayon, who is feminine.

The screenplay and film for Dallas Buyers Club were in development for a period of twenty years (IMDb 2013h). During this time, the legal, social, cultural, political, and economic positions of trans people around the world were constantly changing, with many significant legal rights won. Readers are left to question how such disrespectful misgendering, trans ignorance, and transphobic writing were still produced after twenty years’ work and with Leto having prepared for the part of Rayon using trans community knowledge to help develop the character. What social responsibility do writers, directors, producers, and actors have toward marginalized individuals and communities they make their living from portraying on-screen?

How to Win an Oscar

Jared Leto underwent an immense physical transformation in order to play this role, losing thirty-nine pounds to present the diminishing physicality of Rayon (IMDb n.d.). Throughout the film, Rayon becomes increasingly emaciated, due not only to HIV/AIDS but also to her implied and depicted recreational drug use. Leto’s physical transformation (and subsequent Oscar for the role) can be usefully compared to the physical transformation required of Nicole Kidman to play Virginia Woolfe in The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) or Charlize Theron to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003). Each of these portrayals is an Academy Award winner. Each of these actors is noted for the physicality of their individual performances and the physical demands that such roles make upon performers (Baron and Carnicke 2008). Leto’s portrayal of Rayon has a specific range of character gestures. As the story progresses, the character diminishes from her initial confident personae—walking with a posture that suggests a privileged background. When Rayon and Woodroof first meet in the hospital, Rayon does not convey a street-person persona, but more the attitude of a “lady of the house,” with feminine clothing, makeup, hand gestures, and vocal tones. Leto (IMDb n.d.) spoke about his physical changes in preparation for the role and the challenges presented by the accompanying immense emotional and perceptual changes.

Support of Leto’s performance/depiction of Rayon, as evidenced by the screen industry accolades, for example, is problematic for different—if not entirely separate—reasons than the representational issues throughout the text. In this situation, Leto is an actor in a privileged positionality (white, male, non-transgender), portraying a trans character who is a drug-using, street sex worker—an arrangement that raises key class and embodiment issues. Rayon is depicted using drugs in a very small number of scenes in the film, including two explicit scenes of intravenous and nasal use of drugs. The drug use is shown particularly toward the end of the film and is part of the characterization of Rayon’s deterioration as it accompanies Rayon’s progressively worsening physical condition. Such imagery presents a moralistic stance on drug use. Intersectional issues and the negativity toward sex workers and recreational drug users within normative society convey to audiences negative and incorrect stereotypes about transpeople in general: “There are Rayons out there, but according to the media, we’re all Rayons” (Tannehill 2014). That many transgender people live within what hegemonic society deems marginalized subcultures (including as sex workers, recreational drug users, and participants in other criminalized activities out of necessity or for survival), complicates reading of Dallas Buyers Club. Against the background of the daily experiences of many transpeople’s lives, Rayon could be read differently, perhaps as a valid cinematic representation of trans. Yet the widespread outcry against Rayon from within the international trans community at the time of the film’s release serves to underline how this image is widely rejected by trans people.

The cultural-temporal displacement of Dallas Buyers Club’s narratives and audiences—the film is set in the mid-1980s but was produced for audiences in the twenty first century—means audiences received the text through the lens of trans experiences in this time. This displacement could explain why reception of the text led to protests of the cinematic depiction of Rayon’s trans body as transphobic. Within this argument, though, there is no attempt to read Rayon within terms of respectability politics or to claim all films need to depict affirming representations of trans people or any group in society. The representational issues surrounding Rayon specifically burden the plot of Dallas Buyers Club and almost overwhelm the story arc because they are so frequent in this text to the point they almost transgender is more a trope than a representation in the film.

Leto’s very enactment or Rayon through nuances of expression and gesture (Baron and Carnicke 2008) and specific postures and movement have called for criticism from within the trans community by transwomen: “The very way Rayon moves also very clearly is this stereotypical “straight man trying to act like a stereotype of femininity” thing. Rayon walks with her hands up in the air almost like a Disney Princess would, strutting around in her heels, waving her butt with a very—obviously—deliberate hip sway, visually flaunting her femininity” (Cheetaking 2014).

We may interpret such a strongly negative reaction following Baron and Carnicke, who suggest explaining “variations in audience response, recognizing that interpretations of filmic gestures are influenced by viewers’ personal associations with comparable social gestures” (2008: 4). The physicality of Leto’s interpretation of Rayon raises the issue of embodied memory in performative gestures and “the role of embodied practices as repository and vehicle of collective memory” (Laster 2012: 211). The criticism by Cheetaking (2014), that Rayon moves like a “straight man trying to act like a stereotype of femininity,” reveals how gendered bodily memory of movement and gesture influence performative gestures even for highly trained actors. In short, for trans people, Rayon simply does not read as trans but as a performative (Butler 1990) parody of trans, out of touch with the twenty-first century. These criticisms could be deflected by noting “transitions in the meaning of gender within a given cultural context” (Sloop 2000: 167) or by temporal defense of the text—that it is set in 1985, in the late twentieth century and reflects trans people at that time. However, rigorous historical scholarship of these years (Stryker 2008) would lead to a rejection of this view for there was a powerfully focused trans activism throughout the decades in which the film is situated that fought against the types of marginalization and exclusion represented within Dallas Buyers Club.

Cheetaking (2014) also criticized the “obsession with super-feminine clothes, super-feminine actions, makeup, heels, and all of the most frivolous aspects of femininity” in the characterization of Rayon. While presentation in clothing and makeup audiences would identify as feminine is not of itself marginalizing, the narrative depictions of Rayon in both the entrance and exit scenes within the text are focused on superficial aspects of physical appearance and in transphobic language. Such a focus is marginalizing. In Rayon’s final scene, this marginalization is intensified as Rayon is in a state of severe pain, medicated with morphine, and on her deathbed. The screenplay notes Rayon puts on makeup as “His mission” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 79). This language trivializes the individual, diminishing the significance of Rayon’s story arc, while continuing to ascribe normative societal images of what is considered to be attractive for a woman to a trans person. The denial of “personhood” has been noted by leading transgender scholars such as Susan Stryker as a historical discrimination and political strategy to limit a trans person’s effectiveness and place in society (Bettcher 2014, 2015; Stryker 2008).

Playing Gay Straight

In order to secure a mainstream audience for Dallas Buyers Club, the film codes Ron Woodroof as heterosexual. This presentation erases speculation about the actual Woodroof’s sexuality and whether or not he was gay (Hall 2014; Minutaglio 1992). Interestingly, this erasure creates a narrative problem: how, in 1985, to connect a heterosexual character with the subculture of predominately gay and trans community “buyers.” The writers created the fictitious feminine trans character Rayon as a bridge between the heteronormative world of Woodroof and the gay subcultures in which he must learn (from Rayon) to move in order to sell the drugs. If Woodroof were portrayed either as bisexual or as a straight-acting (closeted) gay man, the character of Rayon would not have been required. It is important to recognize that the producers, director, and writers could have chosen to create any combination of characters to support Ron in his quest or could have told the story with Woodroof as a gay man.

Because of speculation that Ron Woodroof was gay or sexually ambivalent, this cinematic representation becomes doubly regrettable. This presentation makes a heterosexual character a hero of the AIDS crisis, at a time when the majority of mainstream society was psychopathologizing and stigmatizing gay men and transsexuals, both in the media and in private spheres. It also fails to situate the activist origins and intentions of the historical Buyers Clubs, which were started in the United States predominately by gay men living with HIV/AIDS (Hodel 2013). Finally, the film fails to convey the threats homosexuals and transsexuals faced across the United States in the mid-1980s, a time of particularly dangerous vilification and homophobic violence.

Ethical Issues

As a final point, we should note the ethical issues raised by the depictions of Rayon’s death—he is portrayed as emaciated “alone in bed, delirious from morphine, mumbling beneath his oxygen mask” (Borten and Wallack 2012: 79, scene 119)—and of Woodroof, whose death is not shown. In stark contrast to Rayon, as Dallas Buyers Club closes, Woodroof is confusingly portrayed “20 pounds heavier, looking healthier” (93, scene 148). We see him riding in the rodeo ring, when “the image freezes on a perfect frame on this cowboy in action to control the beast. The crowd’s cheers are echoing in the distance” (ibid.; capitalization in original). The audience is deprived of an ethical ending to the film. Woodroof gets a heroic ending, riding out in the rodeo ring to a cheering crowd (ibid.) while Rayon is left drugged and withering in a hospital bed, returned to the location/characterization we first encounter her in the film. This selection of images also overrides the concluding text of the film, which identifies the actual date Ron Woodroof died. The ending of Rayon reinforces the negative tropic representation of trans as “a patient” (Califia 2003: xl) within the text. What Downing and Saxton (2010: 43) said of the ending of Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) aptly serves to describe as well the close of Dallas Buyers Club: “The ethical work that needs to be undertaken to show one cannot escape outside of power structures in a feel-good way is simply not followed through in this film, and it lies with the critical viewer to restore this ethically indeterminate dimension to a deceptively triumphal spectacle.”

Rayon provokes ongoing considerations of the ethical issues raised by this text (Bauman 1993; Downing and Saxton 2010) in the light of contemporary trans culture and the socio-cultural implications for cinematic representations in the twenty-first century because the representation of trans in film can have a constitutive role for trans communities. Mainstream films, while positioned within the hegemonic screen industry, are written, directed, and produced by teams who are aware of and often directly connected to non-hegemonic, gender-diverse sections of society. While the mainstream may seem to be limited in what the films can or will contribute, in the twenty first century we can and should expect more from the highly paid production teams and actors who interpret trans lives for wider audience consumption. Inroads into tackling transphobia within Hollywood are being spearheaded from within the SVOD online sector.7

However, until such initiatives become an integral part of all film production, the issue remains, that when the only films being widely promoted, widely distributed, widely seen, and canonically awarded (Ford 2016) are films such as Dallas Buyers Club, a rather one-sided view of a community is presented. Until there are an equal number of screen texts produced that show trans people as successful, healthy, loved, cherished, with adequate money that does not have to be earnt in marginalized settings, and characters that are alive at the end of the narrative, the problematics of the representation of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club will remain.

Notes
1

A respectful acknowledgment is made of non-Western, First Nations, and indigenous traditions that include Third Gender, Two-Spirit, and concepts beyond the Western binary of “male” and “female.” The reader is directed to important works such as Caroline Epple (1998), Gabriel S. Estrada (2011), and Angela Sterritt (2016). The term trans* has not been used within this article, as all trans activists and scholars have not adopted it and it is a term intensely codified by contemporary Western perspectives, perhaps even more so, than the word simply written as trans.

2

It is acknowledged that in 2016, in the age of retroviral medications, many people live full lives with HIV, which is now not considered a terminal illness in Western/affluent countries. However, in 1985, AIDS was terminal. Even in 2014, HIV/AIDS continued to be a terminal disease in many developed and developing countries, particularly in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. According to the World Health Organization, “HIV is perceived as a problem of marginalized groups such as injecting drug users, refugees and men who have sex with men” (WHO 2000; emphasis added).

3

For a working definition of “mainstream film,” we might consider the following: the film is produced by one of the six major motion picture studios (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporations, Universal City Studios LLC, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.) (MPAA 2014a); production costs are financed by the studio, and the production budget is high, ranging up to $200 million; distribution is via an in-house or affiliated company; there are wide cinema releases (a large number of screens on which a film is exhibited to a paying audience) due to the studios/distributers owning the major cinema chains; major awards are received, signifying mainstream acceptance (e.g., Academy Awards, Golden Globes, SAG Awards).

4

These comments do not reflect the position of the author. The comment is made from the point of view of the screenplay and hegemonic society/audiences.

5

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America (MPPDA) established in 1922 was the forerunner of the current MPAA (n.d.).

6

The HIV diagnosis is in the first ten minutes of the screenplay.

7

Trans filmmaker Rhys Ernst (with Zachary Drucker) has “co-created and runs Transparent’s Transfirmative Program, which builds bridges for transgender people into the film industry” (Ernst 2015).

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  • TannehillBrynn. 2014. “Why Jared Leto’s Rayon Is Bad for the Trans Community.” Bilerico Project3 March http://bilerico.lgbtqnation.com/2014/03/why_jared_letos_rayon_is_bad_for_the_trans_communi.php (accessed 30 November 2016).

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  • VoglerChristopher. 1992. The Writers Journey. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

  • Wittern-KellerLaura. 2013. “All the Power of the Law: Governmental Film Censorship in the United States.” In Silencing Cinema: Film Censorship around the World ed. Daniel Biltereyst and Roel Vande Winkel1532. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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  • ZaglerAdrian. 2011. “The Critical Representation of Gender and Queerness in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: Looking at the Interplay of Narration and Narrative in Brandon’s ‘Exposure’ Scene.” Paper presented at the Karl-Franzens-Universitat GraZAustria. http://www.grin.com/en/e-book/177613/the-critical-representation-of-gender-and-queerness-in-boys-don-t-cry (accessed 30 November 2106).

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  • World Health Organisation (WHO). 2000. “AIDS: Palliative Care: UNAIDS Technical Update.” http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Jh2930e/5.html (accessed 22 November 2016).

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Filmography

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Contributor Notes

Akkadia Ford is a PhD graduate in Cultural Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, Australia and is a trained filmmaker. Ford established and directed Queer Fruits Film Festival (2009–2012). Ford’s current areas of interest focus on transgender representation in film, transliteracy, queer film, film classification (ratings systems) in Australia and the United States, gender disruption, film festivals, and issues of audience and spectatorship. Ford’s recent publications have focused upon transliteracy as an innovative theoretical approach to reading gender-diverse cinema in the Trans New Wave.

Screen Bodies

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Experience, Perception, and Display

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  • VoglerChristopher. 1992. The Writers Journey. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

  • Wittern-KellerLaura. 2013. “All the Power of the Law: Governmental Film Censorship in the United States.” In Silencing Cinema: Film Censorship around the World ed. Daniel Biltereyst and Roel Vande Winkel1532. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    • Export Citation
  • ZaglerAdrian. 2011. “The Critical Representation of Gender and Queerness in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: Looking at the Interplay of Narration and Narrative in Brandon’s ‘Exposure’ Scene.” Paper presented at the Karl-Franzens-Universitat GraZAustria. http://www.grin.com/en/e-book/177613/the-critical-representation-of-gender-and-queerness-in-boys-don-t-cry (accessed 30 November 2106).

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