Whose Part Is It Anyway?

The last several months we have been hearing quite a bit of buzz around the movie Dallas Buyers Club. By all accounts it is an excellent movie, though I have not seen it. I hear that Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career. Another actor getting an awful lot of attention from this film is Jared Leto for portraying a trans woman companion of McConaughey’s character. That particular role, and his casting, has caused a bit of an uproar.

Keep in mind, I have already admitted to not seeing this movie. I have no idea what kind of job Leto did representing us. I have heard his performance was campy, but I have also heard it was genuine and heartwarming. I do know that he has made problematic statements. He has been dismissive of critiques that as a cis man he should not have been playing a trans woman. To him a role is a role and that is what actors do, play roles. He, and apparently the casting director(s) believe he was best suited to play the role. I wonder if any trans woman were considered, or even approached for the part. Somehow I doubt it.

I find it troubling that he ignores this, or that so many progressives, including some I usually respect, are showering accolades upon him while ignoring the issues coming up from his performance. People who write and speak so eloquently about the racial problems in our society see nothing wrong with this and I cannot help but wonder why. In the discussions of Twelve Years a Slave much was, quite properly, made of the fact that so much of the narrative fits into the White Savior myth. How much worse would it have been, though, had the directors gone with Brad Pitt in the lead rather than Chiwetel Ejiofor?

Because you see, that is a very accurate comparison. I will not be so crass to say Leto’s performance was identical to black face, that is ridiculous. There are decades of cruelty and abuse around that practice. It is, however, comparable. A cis-man put on a trans-woman drag and the whole world cheers him. Meanwhile, in the real world, we are mocked, abused, and even killed for actually being us. You see the problem, right?

Leto has defended cis and straight actors that play trans and gay roles. He claims gay and trans performers are free to play straight and cis roles, and even implies some sort of oppression when it is suggested he is not appropriate for the role. I would beg him to please: spare me. Straight and cis actors have been stealing these roles from us for years. Felicity Huffman was great in TransAmerica, but were any of the trans women who actually appeared in the movie ever considered for the role? Power dynamics matter, but straight, white, cis male Leto of course has won the brass ring of privilege and as such, and like too many in his position, refuses to even consider letting go of it.

So long as cis folk continue to get preference in playing us we will continue to be invisible at best and frighteningly alien at worst. If Americans were “forced” to watch us portray ourselves, we might actually be viewed as human, something that is still a struggle for all of us at some time or another (and all the time for too many of us.) As long as Americans see cis actors “choosing” to play us, our very being will be seen as a choice. We would never accept Leto playing Madame Curie, why then should we be accepting of this performance? If you can accept it, I cannot believe you accept my identity as valid, none of us can, and as long as you do so, you are part of our problem.


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