The Golden Globes gave Jared Leto an award for playing a trans woman because Hollywood is terrible

Jared Leto

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson. Via Salon

Last night Jared Leto won a Best Supporting Actor (the award for ladies is Best Supporting Actress, so this was in the dude category) for playing a trans woman.

I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, in which Leto plays Rayon, a trans woman with AIDS. I will not see Dallas Buyers Club because I don’t hate myself. Leto’s performance may be a “revelation” as some have called it, though I highly doubt I’d see it that way. It also may be awful, stereotypical, and offensive, which sounds like the way Rayon is portrayed based on the opinions of folks who’ve seen the movie and actually care about trans women. I suspect the latter, since Leto gave an offensive speech about physical transformation when he won the Golden Globe and has described Rayon as an “unbelievably impossible person.”

Hi, I’m over here being a possible trans woman. What’s up?

I have no interest in watching a cis man in drag play a trans woman ever again. No matter what Dallas Buyers Club does as a film, 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.

I hate everything about Felicity Huffman’s weak, female impersonator-y performance in TransAmerica, but at least she’s a woman playing a woman — but that’s not enough. I personally know multiple great trans lady actors. Why not cast a trans woman to play a trans woman? (For that matter, why aren’t trans women being cast to play cis women when we’ve got so many cis people doing trans drag?). I find the feminist conversation around Orange is the New Black pretty bizarre: it’s a fun show, but it’s a trashy, soapy sitcom, not a realistic depiction of the lives of marginalized and incarcerated women. Having said that, at least the show bothered to cast a trans woman to play a trans woman, which shouldn’t be a big deal but is. And of course the indomitable Laverne Cox knocked it out of the park. How does anyone in Hollywood look at that show and not realize it just makes sense to cast great trans women actors to play trans women?

At least the award was just a Golden Globe. All awards shows are ridiculous spectacles, but the Globes take the cake. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association sounds like a group of reviewers or movie-related journalists, but they’re actually a bizarre collection of rich folks who’ve routinely excluded actual critics and journalists. All awards voting is political, but it’s a well-documented fact that Golden Globes are basically bought and sold. Still, awards give some sense of legitimacy, they’re promotion for the movies that win, and they pile up — a Golden Globe could spiral into an Oscar win.

And this isn’t just an isolated incident. Trans women seem to be getting increasing visibility in Hollywood — and not in a good way. Lori, Maya, and I went to the movies together this weekend, and every comedy trailer we saw (and there seem to be at least 2 hours of trailers before a movie these days) was super racist and sexist — the worst “joke” probably being in the trailer for Bad Words in which Jason Bateman told a very young South Asian kid to shut his “curry hole” and our jaws hit the sticky theater floor. And then came the trailer for The Other Woman, which looks like an anti-feminist remake of The First Wive’s Club, a film I absolutely adore. In addition to the racism and sexism, this trailer included basically the same joke about a cis man taking hormones and transitioning that played out in the Netflix season of Arrested Development (a show that’s been super transmisogynist throughout its run #sorryhipsters). At least we weren’t subjected to the trailer for 22 Jump Street which I’d already seen, and which includes a despicable joke about the rape of trans women in men’s prisons. I don’t know what any of these movies will actually be like, but why is Hollywood leaning so heavily on bigotry to sell us films? How is this OK?

Before going to the movies we’d tried to entertain ourselves with an episode of Louie. Unfortunately, we started watching the season 3 premiere, which opens with a horribly transphobic and racist stand up routine about genitalia. I’m a big fan of Louis C.K., who’s humor is often “offensive” and controversial, but in a way that’s aimed at power. Jokes making fun of people who have it worse than you are easy. It’s harder to mock privilege, and that’s been the surprising power of comedy for a long time — just think of royal courts where jesters were able to mock the king. Louie’s humor is usually aimed at white supremacist patriarchy, usually used to show that the emperor has no clothes. It’s a good way for a privileged white dude to use his position. Watching this comedian make an ignorant, hurtful joke about “transvestite” genitalia tells me that in his eyes I’m not human, not worthy of the humanization that comes from mocking the ways trans folks get dehumanized. I’m just a punch line.

We’re hearing a lot right now about what a great year 2013 was for women in film. Movies that pass the Bechdel Test made more money than movies that don’t. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a movie with a female lead, topped the 2013 box office. Folks say the last time this happened was The Exorcist in 1973, though I always considered Father Karras the lead. So I’d go back to 1965 and The Sound of Music — that’s almost five decades. Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is a white woman playing a character who’s a person of color in the books (which makes the racist anger around casting Amandla Stenberg to play Rue, who’s Black in the books as well, even more offensive). Frozen and Gravity, both female-led movies, also did well. I really enjoyed Catching Fire, and as a woman it was great to be reflected in the lead. It’s been a good year for white cis female characters, yes. But I’m also a trans woman, and Hollywood has been pretty terrible to me on that level — and to people of color in general.

Increased visibility is important for marginalized folks like trans women. But only when that means increased awareness of our humanity. Visibility can be dangerous when it’s based entirely on bigoted stereotypes. As Laverne Cox pointed out in response to Katie Couric’s ignorant bigotry very recently:

The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

We are so much more than our medical histories. Reducing us to jokes about hormones and genitalia dehumanizes us, supporting a culture in which we’re targeted with violence. Rewarding a man for his brave portrayal of an “impossible” trans woman perpetuates stereotypes about us being men in drag, which also supports a culture of dehumanization and violence. Most of the increased visibility trans women are getting in Hollywood right now is not a good thing — it’s cruel and it’s dangerous. We deserve much better from the stories our culture tells itself.

Jos Truitt Jos Truitt is over it.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • ellestar

    I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers Club, either. However, it is my understanding that Rayon’s character isn’t fully fleshed out (more just a plot device so that the main character learns empathy for gay and trans people). Combined with Leto’s problematic comments, I will have to say that I question the HFP’s decision to award the performance. However, I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just really uncomfortable saying with certainty that the award is undeserved.

    I do completely agree with you that the role of Rayon should have gone to an actual trans person. Or, at the very least, they should have done an exhaustive search of trans actors before going to the more mainstream actors.

    However, to nitpick, I do have a problem with calling Katniss Everdeen a “person of color” without any qualifiers. She’s only ever described as a person with black hair, gray eyes, and olive colored skin (I have these things, only with brown eyes, and I’m white). She absolutely may have been a person of color, of some mixed ancestry, but it’s impossible to know. I absolutely do not think the casting call should have gone out as it did asking only for white actresses. That was completely wrong. But the character herself is not given a specific ancestry and the author of the book had no objection of Jennifer Lawrence in the role.

    Getting back to the crux of this post, I will admit to not having challenged my preconceptions and attitudes about trans people until the last few years. Jos, your contributions to this blog have really helped me examine my thoughts and beliefs about trans people and I really appreciate learning more from your perspective. So thank you for posts like this.

  • Y. Kaas

    For the record, Louis CK isn’t white. He is white passing, yes, but he’s actually multi-racial and is Mexican in both nationality and ethnic heritage. In fact, he was raised in Mexico and didn’t speak English until he moved to the US when he was 7.
    Erasure (especially by white people) is a big problem.

  • crissy red

    thank you for your article. i have no desire to see movies where trans woman like myself are portrayed by anyone but a transgender person. I appreciate individuals like yourself who have the guts to say these things of outright inequality and misrepresentation. One true post op transgender female in a starring role on tv (Orange..New Black) is not enough and i’m only slightly impressed by this. Thanks again!

  • Raquel

    Rayon is a tragic character. So?

    The main character is a straight white guy. So?

    I think it’s a bit strange that they fabricated Rayon. When I saw the film, I was confused that everybody used the wrong pronouns and she never corrected anybody. Why? Were the writers/producers/everybody just clueless? Did they write a trans character without having ever met one? That much was definitely a little disappointing.

    But Rayon is strong. Woodroof is a big asshole, and she stands up to him and wins his respect. At least that’s what I saw. Maybe everybody else just saw a pathetic dying tranny.

    Dallas Buyer’s Club is a good movie, though. And it stars Matthew McConaughey. It’s a mainstream movie, and it’s winning awards, and the second most prominent character in the film is trans. I think that’s pretty cool!

    Let’s pick our battles, people! Any publicity is good publicity, right?

    Everybody liked Rent, right? But they called Angel “him” half the time. Even her boyfriend couldn’t decide which pronoun to use. And she dies. Tragically.

    Look how terrible the portrayals are of trans people in movies. Most people with gender issues are serial killers! Dressed to Kill? Serial killer. Silence of the Lambs? Serial killer. The Crying Game? Pretty creepy. And John Waters movies didn’t exactly advance transgender rights. Is that the kind of representation you’d prefer? Would you prefer they didn’t make Dallas Buyer’s Club?

    Transamerica and Better than Chocolate weren’t degrading, but they weren’t mainstream, either.

    It’s sad that the only trans person played by a trans person I can think of is Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black. But I’m sure there will be more. Things are getting better. Everybody saw Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars.

    Get a grip on reality. Family Guy did a more respectful portrayal of a transgender woman (Quagmire’s dad) than most movies do. Hell, Mr. Garrison on South Park is less offensive than most trans women in movies. How can you complain about Dallas Buyer’s Club? It’s at least a step in the right direction.