Dallas Buyers Club, Grantland and the Evolving Conversation of Gender Identity in Media

 

In this column, I refer to people in the transgender community using GLAAD’s Media Guide which requires that people be classified by their chosen gender, not by the gender they were assigned at birth.

Earlier this year, while Jared Leto was accepting a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, he ended his acceptance speech with the words:

 “This is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS. And to those of you who have ever felt injustice because of who you are and who you love, I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.”

 Many praised Leto for his compassionate and heartfelt speech, while others cringed.

Some in the transgender community, and others outside of it, felt that Leto’s performance of the character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club helped perpetuate negative stereotypes about transgender individuals. In an editorial, published prior to Leto’s Oscar victory, ESPN reporter Christina Karhl, who is a transgender woman, said of Leto’s performance:

   “We also have to sit through watching Jared Leto make an unsympathetic ass of himself while taking bows for his caricature of a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club.”

In an editorial for Time, where he correctly predicted Leto would win the Oscar, Steve Friess likened Leto’s performance to Mammy in Gone with the Wind, a role that landed Hattie McDaniel an Oscar, the first for an African-American actor or actress. Some would argue, in hindsight, that that role was damaging to the cause of equality for African-Americans because it fueled incredibly racist stereotypes. Friss points out that Leto’s Rayon is a completely made up character, although the movie is based on a real life event. He makes a valid argument that it was unnecessary, and in fact reckless, for Dallas Buyers Club to bring such a blatantly stereotypical character to life.

The argument, by those who felt that Dallas Buyers Club did a disservice to the transgender community, is that Rayon is an exact representation of the negative stereotypes mainstream society heaps on transgender individuals (most especially on transgender females). Rayon’s gender identity is not representative of who she is, but seemingly a shield for her own personal insecurities and character flaws. She is weak in an almost childlike manner, incapable of fully taking care of herself, obnoxiously flirtatious and, to a dangerous extent, sexually and personally impulsive. She also says things like, “God, I want to be pretty. When I meet you, I will be a beautiful angel.”

Does Hollywood have a greater duty to represent the transgender community justly, even if it may cost at the box office? Much of the hub surrounding Dallas Buyers Club came from Leto’s performance of Rayon. Would that have been the case if Rayon hadn’t been created in the first place, or wasn’t such an out of character role for an A-list actor? Should film production companies be asked to sacrifice sales for purpose? Dallas Buyers Club was based on a true story. So was fellow Best Picture nominee American Hustle. Critics seemed to find more offensive in the portrayal of the truth in that film than they did in Dallas Buyers Club although, as Friess argues in his Time editorial, its protagonist Ron Woodruff (of whose portrayal earned Matthew McConaughey this year’s Best Actor Oscar) may have been in real life bi-sexual and not likely homophobic, a far cry from the misogynistic, skirt-chasing cowboy that was represented in Dallas Buyers Club. How accountable is Hollywood for its portrayal of the truth and it’s perpetuation of gender, sexual orientation, and racial stereotypes?

It is sad to note that there is some truth to parts of Rayon’s character as it is a representative of the transgender community. The transgender community suffers unusually high rates of suicide and substance abuse. The movie also was based in 1985, and that needs to be taken into account. I would have to believe the transgender community has made certain leaps in the last three decades that probably could not have been truthfully indicated in Dallas Buyers Club.

If one were so inclined, it could be argued that a relationship between a pasty and successful lawyer and a caring Hispanic heartthrob is itself a stereotypical homosexual relationship. Add in a straight African-American father who is sickened by the whole production and you might find certain visible stereotypes in Philadelphia, another Oscar-winning film that dealt with the naivety and bias prevalent in the early days of the AIDS crises in America. Tom Hanks’s character infected himself through reckless sexual behavior. Is that a stereotype of the entire gay community or just a representation of a person that could have existed at that time?

I compare gender identity to sexual and racial identity only because these are all ways people identify themselves. Many times these identities help gravitate people into a community. As tolerance has evolved in our society, we have had to continually address all three identities and their portrayal in media. Gender identity is an issue that can be as visible as racial identity and then as complex, maybe more so, than sexual identity.

It’s noteworthy that Leto won the Oscar over Barkhad Abdi who played the pirate Muse in Captain Phillips, which was his first film appearance. Abdi was selling cell phones in Minnesota, a far cry from the glitz of Tinseltown, when he earned the role that would earn him an Oscar nomination, a role which he received only $65,000 for. He is Somali-American. He migrated to America when he was 14. Captain Phillips could have cast any number of recognizable, non-Somalian, African-American actors for the role. Instead they cast Abdi, a relative unknown who would then go toe-to-toe with the mighty Tom Hanks. Leto, despite his naturally feminine facial features (I know many women, and men, who would kill to have his cheekbones), is not a transgender individual. Should the producers of Dallas Buyers Club have cast a transgender actress for the role?

A fact not to be overlooked in all of this is that a transgender actress who signed up for that role would not only be signing up for a major Hollywood production, she would be signing up to become the face of an entire culture. That would be a heavy burden for anyone to carry. She wouldn’t just be an actress who scored a major role. She would be more, and she would be forced to carry it her entire career. She would no longer be just an actress but a transgender actress and working in an industry famous for pigeon-holing its most visible players. This would in fact be an incredible responsibility for someone to carry not only in her personal life but in her professional life as well.

Currently, an interesting aside to this conversation exists not on the silver screen but in the little box. It was Barney Stinson who created the Bro Code. The scotch-guzzling, high-fiving, legendary-saying, woman-crazed man-whore of How I Met Your Mother is portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris (who is openly gay). Meanwhile Cameron Tucker, the wrist-limping, gossip-hounding, man-squealing, diva-patriarch of Modern Family is played by Eric Stonestreet (who is openly straight). These two popular television characters most definitely albeit probably purposefully perpetuate stereotypes of gay and straight men. Of course their vehicles are television sitcoms, and Dallas Buyers Club is about the furthest thing from that.

Jared Leto doesn’t play every transgender person; he plays a transgender character. Can one character represent an entire culture? No. But can one character perpetuate harmful stereotypes? Yes. Gone With the Wind’s Mammy is only one example.

In 1915, D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was overtly racist and featured white actors in blackface  assaulting white women and only having their lustful urges thwarted by the heroic Klu Klux Klan. Did this movie lead to cross burnings and worse? I don’t think there is any doubt. Although still regarded as one of the most influential movies in Hollywood history, The Birth of a Nation was highly detrimental to the cause of civil rights in this country.

Al Jolson applied some blackface and portrayed a Jewish-American struggling to find his own identity in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which was Hollywood’s first full-length talkie. Jolson was known for many performances in blackface. This is a movie where blackface was less a statement on race than it was on the cultural norms of the time (although now it might be perceived as insensitive, and rightfully so).

Movies like Midnight Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and Brokeback Mountain were groundbreaking in their representation of homosexuality on screen. Yet characters in these films struggled with their own sexual identity and were never fully able to embrace it or were only forced into homosexual behavior because of circumstance or poor life decisions. One could argue that these critically acclaimed and award-winning films were hurtful to the perceptions of homosexuality. Instead of “How can I love you?” it was “Why can’t I quit you?”

Yet, neither Tom Hanks nor Antonio Banderas is gay, but together they portrayed a convincing, sympathetic, and loving homosexual couple in Philadelphia. It was Sean Penn who aptly brought trailblazing gay-rights activist and homosexual politician Harvey Milk to life in the Oscar-winning film Milk.

Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo essentially played not transgender characters but transgender caricatures in the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

Meanwhile it was Jame Gumb, a transgender serial killer, in The Silence of the the Lambs who said, while looking into a full-length mirror naked, “Would you f–k me? I’d f–k me.” Again Gumb is a character and not a real person; but could the portrayal of Gumb’s character in The Silence of the Lambs have given some individuals pause before publicly embracing their chosen gender?

I certainly wouldn’t equate Leto’s performance of Rayon to anything represented in The Birth of a Nation nor to a psychopathic serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. To do so would be not only dangerous on my part, but a complete disrespect to Leto and everyone involved in Dallas Buyers Club. But there is no doubt that Hollywood can influence cultural perceptions. How invested does Hollywood need to be in ensuring that it represents subcultures fairly and, if possible, positively?


 

To be completely frank, I am an avid reader of the website Grantland. The site is an offshoot of ESPN.com run by ESPN personality Bill Simmons. The website features young writers who publish often lengthy narrative-form articles on sports and pop culture. I have taken some inspiration for the website you are currently viewing from Grantland. I enjoy the articles posted on its site because they are often well-written, often humorous, and cover a wide range of subjects that are perfect for someone who can’t count to one hundred but has never lost a game of trivia at his local bar.

I’ve always been enthralled by journalism. As a child, I created mock newscasts. I loved the constant noise of ringing phones and clicking typewriters that I saw in the busy Washington Post newsroom portrayed in All The President’s Men. I idolized Josh Charles’s Dan Rydell in Sports Night. I got up early to watch SportsCenter and spent an hour each Sunday listening to the ticking clock of 60 Minutes. In high school, I was probably the only one who thought it was cool that I got to interview the attractive athletes for the school’s newspaper. In college, I was fortunate enough to work under some very accomplished men and women in the fields of print, radio, and television journalism.

The most important lessons in journalism, they can’t teach you in a classroom. There’s only one way to learn these lessons and that’s from experience in a newsroom. Maybe the most important lesson is knowing that you possess immense power, even if you garnish a wage that would make a high school English teacher shutter. It’s a power and a responsibility to bring a thought-provoking and truthful story to a mass audience. You must also balance this desire and duty to tell the story with a need to appreciate the rights and privacies of your subjects.

When Caleb Hannan set out to write a story on a revolutionary putter, he probably did not think he would create a national conversation on this issue. After more than seven months of reporting, Hannan published his story – “Dr, V’s Magical Putter.” That was on January 15th of this year. Hannan originally set out to write about the merits of a breakthrough design of a golf club, but his story became a chronicle of the unraveling of a coil of deceit created by the club’s designer regarding her professional and personal background. Ultimately, it would lead to his uncovering and then his broadcasting her transgender identity.

The article was published on Grantland on Wednesday, the 15th. By Monday the website had posted a letter from its editor-in-chief (Simmons) about the article that coincided with an apology by ESPN. Hannan originally received praise for the piece but was soon receiving death threats, according to Simmons.

Simmons’ letter was thoughtful and brave. In it, he honorably and (presumably) honestly laid out the choices his staff made in reporting and editing Hannan’s story. Simmons also rested the ultimate blame not on his reporter and not on his editors, but on himself. He brought up some interesting points about his reporter’s decision to write of the transgender identity of his subject Essay Ann Vanderbilt. His points were countered by a scathing, as well as insightful, editorial written, and published on Grantland the same day as Simmons’ letter, by ESPN reporter Christina Kahrl, who is (as mentioned above) a transgender woman.

The relationship between privacy and media has been and will forever be malleable. Just in the last few months we have seen the media praise the University of Missouri football team for not publicly leaking their knowledge of teammate Michael Sam’s sexual identity, meanwhile snapping photos of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s young children at their father’s funeral. Did Hannan have a right to investigate Vanderbilt, nay a duty, after she lied to him about her credentials? Was her gender identity important to the story? Was Vanderbilt naively hoping Hannan would write nothing more than an advertisement for her product? Was Hannan trying to sensationalize Vanderbilt’s unique life?

Should gender identity be as protected as sexual identity?

How does society and the press address the lives of transgender individuals in the time before they made their physical decision to embrace their own chosen gender?

These are important questions that there aren’t easy answers to. But we do have a duty to be understanding of the rights of all adults to make moral and lawful choices about their own person.

Earlier this year, social-media giant Facebook decided to add a gender-neutral drop down for users to identify themselves. An increasing number of individuals are beginning to identify their gender not by what their birth certificate says, but what their heart says. As a society we have a duty to respond in a tolerant and understanding way. It is how we respond to the increasing complexities of tolerance that’s important. Journalism will often raise the level of discourse. Grantland has inadvertently done that. It is unfortunate that it came at the cost it did. Would Vanderbilt want the publication of her personal gender identity to be the cost? My guess is no. Sadly, months before the publication of Grantland’s article, Vanderbilt took her own life.

ESPN.com writer Kate Fagan (as told to ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte) pointed out that: “As many members of the trans community have said on social media, ‘My life is not your teachable moment.'”

Yet progress takes understanding. Understanding takes knowledge. Knowledge takes education. Education takes learning. Education should not trump privacy, but you can’t have progress without education. Discourse can be a great way to spur education.

Answers to all of these extremely complicated questions will only come in time. I don’t have them, by any means. The answers though will come, and a society all we can do is be tolerant, understanding, and hopeful for progress.

Progress always takes time, but it is always worth the fight.

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