I’ve long felt that we should listen to people who have traditionally been shut out of the public conversation. But you don’t have to do what they say. I’m thinking some of the discussion over the “Dallas Buyers Club” Oscars falls into the latter category.
Two pieces on the board today. This one compares Jared Leto’s portrayal of a male-to-female transsexual to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” And this one scolds the “Dallas Buyers Club” makeup artists (!!!) for acknowledging the “victims of AIDS” instead of the preferred nomenclature of “persons with AIDS.” Hmm. Apparently these two brush-wielding wrongthinkers didn’t get the 31-year-old memo, quoted within:
In 1983, 11 gay men with AIDS who were in Denver for the fifth Annual Gay and Lesbian Health Conference, gathered in a hotel room and composed a manifesto. The document, which became known as the Denver Principles, began:
We condemn attempts to label us as “victims,” a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients,” a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People With AIDS.”
(And capitalize the W, fuckers! The P, too!)
I recall when this discussion was going on, and my fallback position on nearly all these matters of nomenclature: Call people what they ask to be called. It’s good manners. Frankly, in 1983 there wasn’t a lot of difference between an AIDS victim and someone who simply had the disease, as it was terrifyingly fatal. But as time rolled on and the new drugs emerged, it made sense. Not everyone who had HIV/AIDS was a victim, but someone living with a (fingers crossed) chronic medical condition that could be managed and wasn’t necessarily cause to put your affairs in order immediately. This passage overstates the importance of the language shift, I think —
Policing vocabulary is a tricky business—raising a stink about offensive nouns and incorrect pronouns can make outsiders feel defensive and annoyed—but there are times when it’s absolutely essential, and this was one. A 328-word statement penned by a tiny group of guys on the fringes of a second-tier medical conference saved millions of lives around the globe, even though very few people have ever heard of it. That revolution began when the people at the center of the crisis declared that they were not victims.
— but OK, whatever.
The former piece, about Leto, is more obnoxious.
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.
Hmm. OK, so make your case, then. The movie takes liberties with the facts, the writer contends, which makes it like about 99 percent of all fact-based filmed dramas; the plane carrying the Americans out of Tehran was not chased down the runway by Iranian soldiers, as it was in “Argo.” Hollywood requires drama; real life isn’t sufficiently dramatic, most times.
Leto’s character, Rayon, was entirely fictional, likely added (speaking as someone who knows just enough about screenwriting to be almost entirely ignorant about it) to give Matthew McConaughey’s character a foil, and to set up his prickly relationship with the gay community Rayon represents. Screenwriting 101: Conflict = drama. The fact Rayon is silly I flat-out disagree with.
What did the writers of “Dallas Buyers Club” and Leto as her portrayer decide to make Rayon? Why, she’s 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.
Again, everyone’s perspective is their own, but I didn’t find Rayon a sad sack at all, and in fact seemed pretty close to my memory of the drag queens and trans women I knew in that era. It was 1981-ish, after all, and just to have the gonads to live your life that way already put you out on the fringe. Another transsexual I knew at the time was still coming to work in a coat and tie. Needless to say, I didn’t know she was transsexual until years later.
And the earliest victims — that word again — of AIDS in that era were disproportionately addicts and prostitutes, after all. I mean, I guess Rayon could have been a super-together lawyer who preferred navy suits, but let’s be realistic. I love that “men who pretend to be women” contrasted with “men who feel at their core they are women” part. I’m a woman, and right now I’m wearing jeans and a sweater, an outfit I bet most trans women wouldn’t be caught dead in.
I think what bugged me most about that piece was its anger, the same that followed some of the Dr. V’s putter coverage, slinging around terms like “cis privilege,” “transphobia” and other jargon as though everyone knows exactly what we’re talking about. Even the sympathetic may find themselves mystified by this world, which I remind you requires no fewer than seven letters to cover all its iterations — LGBTQIA. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual/ally. If you really want to set your head a-spin, check out this video from Stephen Ira Beatty, born Kathlyn, and try to sort out the language. If that’s not too ableist of me.
Sorry, I liked “Dallas Buyers Club” and see it as a step forward, a very human film. I wish people could cool their jets about it.
That said, Lupita Nyong’o was the star of Sunday’s telecast. What a rare beauty, and what a sparkling speech. As Tom & Lorenzo would say: LUH HER.
How do we feel about the Kim Novak presentation? I am mixed. I read a very sympathetic defense of her by a film blogger whose work I admire, but I came away not 100 percent convinced. Novak is 81. I understand the need to feel beautiful, but at some point, isn’t it infantilizing her to blame cruel, cruel Hollywood for driving her to such lengths? The babe ship sailed decades ago; there’s no reason a natural beauty like Novak can’t look at least presentable in her dotage.
I do think this gets it right, though: If you have two X chromosomes in Hollywood, you just can’t win.
A little warmer today, but only a little. Ugh.