Jared Leto is, indeed, that guy from My So Called Life, and more recently, lead singer of the band 30 Seconds to Mars. However, this year Leto has hit headlines for winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his supporting role in Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, Dallas Buyers Club (2013) alongside Hollywood veteran Matthew McConaughey.
As chuffed as he might be with his award success, Leto has faced a serious backlash from certain public circles for his casting as the transgender character, Rayon. which has made him a winner in the eyes of the Hollywood elite. Why? Because he is a cisgender, heterosexual male.
Groups such as Guerrilla Feminism have been following the reaction of the transgender community closely, and confirming their outrage that such an important role was not played by a transgender actor. Laverne Cox, who is best known for her role in Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, has been a particular favourite and is very open about her life as a transgender woman.
Aside from his casting, what first ruffled feathers was Leto’s acceptance speech for his Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe award back in January (as reported by Salon.com ) when his only real mention of his preparation for the role was that he waxed his entire body. It seems a little pathetic that he felt this was the most relevant comment to make about a character so rarely seen in award nominated movies.
It’s also worth saying that neither Leto or McConaughey mentioned AIDS in their acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes. It’s fairly transparent that neither actor has truly understood the depth of the story they were telling; which is even more sad when you remember the film is based on actual events and real lives.
And that’s the point. As heroic as it is to bring such an incredible story to the big screen and into the consciousness of so many
audience members, it only highlights the ignorance of so many when it comes to the transgender community. There were even journalists who referred to Rayon’s character as a transvestite. This is pretty much the equivalent of seeing someone with black skin and assuming they are from Africa.
The controversy of Leto’s casting has at least opened up a dialogue not only about the acceptance and recognition of the transgender community, but also about the representation of all of us in the media; in particular Hollywood. The question is: does it really matter that a famous, cisgender, heterosexual male was cast as Rayon?
On one hand, no, it doesn’t. Acting is his job and the focus should be on the quality of his performance, not the person he is in real life. If he can effectively and authentically represent the character and their story for a modern audience, surely this is the most important thing?
But he would have made a much bigger difference by using the role and his influence to give a voice to a group of people who are painfully mis/unrepresented by the media. As this isn’t the choice he made, it does feel like he is cashing in on the suffering of others and calling it art – but this wouldn’t exactly be a new low for the glitz of the Hollywood system.
On the other hand, it does matter. In the same way as disabled actors are rarely cast in the roles of disabled characters, which are instead played by able-bodied (probably famous) actors. How can people be accepted by society for who they are when they are not seen? The media controls the majority of images we consume, and without publications just like this one, all we would see are ‘attractive’, able-bodied, slim people who are selling us something. The media chooses to hide anyone who could be a threat to these ideals.
Things are changing, but extremely slowly and certainly not for communities like the disabled or transgender. This attitude in the media makes these communities even more ‘abnormal’ because when they are seen as part of the wider public, they don’t fit into any category the public can understand.
This should never have to be the case for anyone.
We are all just people, and this is one reason why I feel slightly sorry for Leto. To him it was just a job, and despite the backlash, there are members of the transgender community who think he does deserve those awards. He just completely underestimated the importance of what he was doing and wasted an incredible opportunity to embrace the transgender community and encourage the casting of transgender actors for future roles. The problem is, if it has been a transgender actor in the first place, this is something they would have done without question.
It is a long battle for recognition, appreciation and acceptance for any group of people who don’t fit the Hollywood celebrity ideal.
What they don’t understand is – we don’t want to fit, and we never will.