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“Thoughts on Rayon- Dallas Buyers Club” – Precious Davis

I recently watched Dallas Buyers Club after hearing both objection and ovation over Jared Leto’s performance as the transgender character “Rayon”. I wanted to form my own opinion through the lens of intersectionality for which drew upon my experience and expertise as a performance artist, social justice activist, and transgender woman. While the narrative of being Transgender has finally become a household conversation through films like Dallas Buyers Club, and of course Laverne Cox’s role as Sophia Burcett in Orange Is The New Black is it important that we actively assure and hold media outlets accountable to honor the history, struggle, and depiction of authentic representations of our community, for they are a-plenty.

In terms of Rayon’s character, I wanted to know of whose experience this was actually representative of. Was it an authentic recreation of a transgender woman or a stereotypical archetype crafted for film without historical reference? Interviews with production document that Rayon is based on interviews with a number of transgender activists and doctors who shared stories throughout the writing of the film for script writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. It is also now known that educational transgender history and acting advising was given to Jared Leto from Calpernia Adams–who was thanked in Leto’s Oscar speech for which he won best supporting actor of the year for playing Rayon in the film.

While I certainly believe that such composite and narratives shaped a particular framework for a character who I did indeed root for; I did not fully believe in Rayon’s character, and feel that there could have been more well-rounded inspiration drawn from historical transgender figures like: Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, as well as Sylvia Rivera. An homage to “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed,” (recreated by bi-coastal performance artist Zackary Drucker, Rupaul’s makeup artist Mathu Andersen and photographer Austin Young in 2008), a brilliant piece of pop culture photographed by Peter Hujar would have shown someone had done some in depth research on the transgender heroine. (It’s important to note that Drucker would have been a terrific casting choice for Rayon).

I wanted to scream every time Rayon was misgendered in the film by the protagonist character Ron Woodrood (played by Matthew McConaughey). I don’t believe the dynamic presented through the depiction of their relationship was exactly historically accurate. I find it hard to believe that the outgoing, bright-eyed, pink eye shadowed Rayon would allow any man in real life to run over her in a way that disrespected her gender identity. In our introduction of Rayon, we see her pull back the divider in the hospital room not knowing who she would encounter. In that, we see a woman who is not afraid to inquire into the unknown or into that which could cause conflict. We later see Ron defending Rayon at the grocery store when running into his old pal D.J., who is instantly transphobic to Rayon. We are immediately aware of his stance of bias and bigotry once noticing her otherness–that which is not cisgender Caucasian male. It is in this moment that Ron tells D.J. To “shake HIS hand” in reference to Rayon. This was a perfect moment for Rayon to flex her inner Angel Dumott Schunard diva and evoke the famous words written by Jonathan Larson in the Broadway musical RENT; “ I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be, I’m more of a woman than you’ll ever get.” Even in death, Angel is referred to as SHE in Larson’s RENT by character Mimi Marquez ,which was originally conceived in 1989.

Warholian “Darling” is the essence of what Rayon should have, and is ultimately what I see trying to be represented and conveyed in the film; a fighter who is rough around the edges, a lover, and ultimately one who still lives and dies in the act of revolution via virtuoso of spirit. This is something that many transgender women and individuals who died and survived the first generation of the AIDS crisis have in common. If Dallas Buyers Club does anything well; it shows the encapsulation and visual timelessness of the struggle of individuals who were determined through guerrilla tactics, public activism and governmental accountability to survive. Such willingness, commitment and travailing at the dawn of the AIDS crisis to fight for life, medication, and hope is something that should be heralded for decades to come.

I am glad this story is being told, and ultimately do applaud Jared Leto’s dedication to go through a physical and mental transformation which indeed can be representative of the act of transitioning–a component of some transgender individuals’ identity. Transitioning is a unique and very individualized experience which differs from person to person. This should be treated with the highest regard, and I believe that Jared did take this into account. While it is classic Hollywood to cast a white male with star power in a role so that a studio can gain and assure significant profit, I believe that the social impact of casting qualified transgender individuals in leading roles creates visibility and access, and assures that we are ingrained directly into the systems which erase our history, refuse to tell our story, and propitiate stereotypes about transgender individuals.

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2 Comments

  1. Alexis Martinez wrote:

    Precious
    I appreciate the thoughtful reasoning in your article. Personally, Rayon represented a very heroic figure.. I felt that Leto took a lot of undeserved criticism for portraying a trans woman. Leto took a role that could have easily been performed as a tacky stereotype and transformed (no pun intended) Rayon into a fierce, loyal, resilient, woman who refused to be a victim.
    The movie, like most “based on a true story” narratives.. is about 30%, truth, and 70% varying degrees of fantasy, Leto’s & Jennifer Gardner’s character are totally made up, they never existed .. they are dramatic props used as a counter balance to Woodruff and the medical establishment. While it might be desirable to have a more historical representation, it’s just not part of the Hollywood genetic make-up. Their main goal is to produce & market the most profitable piece of art.
    Some of the things that you mention…like mis gendering.. was not only common, but VERY acceptable 40 years ago.. and while we might have liked Rayon or any woman…to spin into Wonder Woman in the face of the male abuse it just didn’t happen.
    Though we want reality, real stories, need real people to put them together. Back in the 60′s, Filmmakers … like Mario Van Peebles & Gordon Parks broke out of the Hollywood establishment…and began a movement of movie making…by Black directors, writers, techs…etc. some of the stuff was terrible…but for many Black film artists it gave them the training and exposure. We in the trans community would be wise to start telling our own stories…our own actors. writers etc.
    peace, love, & joy
    alexis martinez

  2. Cassandra wrote:

    Precious,
    The tone of your article was very poignant. I myself would have liked to have seen a transwoman in the role. I received much criticism due to my vocal opposition to Jared Leto playing this role, and perhaps my tone was too harsh. I ask however, how long must we have our story told by cisgendered men employing cisgendered actors to portray caricatures of transgender women? How long must we wait? Your article was magnificently written, but how many in the cisgender community took notice…instead how many of them indulged in their love of Jared Leto…the MAN as a skilled actor for taking on this role. I myself was not impressed by the writing of his character nor by his portrayal of a transwoman. I found it very unconvincing.

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