Jared Leto's Heckler At 'Dallas Buyer's Club' Panel Deserves More Than 15 Minutes
The Internet has been all atwitter for the past 24 hours about Jared Leto's response to an angry heckler — and, specifically, just how gracious that response was. To rehash: at a panel promoting his film Dallas Buyer's Club — for which Leto has already won a Golden Globe with his portrayal of the transwoman character Rayon — a woman reportedly called out to the actor, "Trans misogyny does not deserve an award." When Leto asked her what she meant, she responded, "You don't deserve to play a transwoman." And, as a People magazine report of the encounter editorializes, "Leto chose to handle the incident beautifully":
"… Because I'm a man, I don't deserve to play that part? So you want to hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can't play a straight part?" Leto said.
"Historically straight-gender people always play transgender people, and all of them received awards and credit for it," the heckler said.
Leto answered: "Then you make sure that people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art."
Now, I understand why most news sources have been framing this incident as a story about Leto and his thoughtful response, at least in terms of eliciting page views (though I would argue that the headline "Heckler Makes Legitimate Point" would be equally as notable). Still, in all our zeal to commend an actor for responding to criticism with anything more eloquent than a temper tantrum — and/or the fact that he then took 15 minutes to speak to this woman backstage — there's a chance that we're missing the message.
In fact, Leto's response doesn't quite address his heckler's point. First off, it's worth noting that historically, when gay/transgender actors have portrayed straight/cisgender roles, it often wasn't so much a voluntary choice to explore a new, exciting art experience as a necessary act of conformity (see: Rock Hudson). Sure, limiting the kinds of roles that any actor can play going forward threatens a slippery slope, but Leto's comment about "turning the tables" seems to presume that we live in a world where cis- and transgender actors have equal access to those roles.
Whether or not Leto himself "deserves" the role of Rayon aside (personally, I think his performance was just fine), the fact remains that once again, rather than cast a transgender woman in the role of, ahem, a transgender woman, the powers that be chose a(n ostensibly) straight man. Plenty of people have pulled off this kind of casting with aplomb — Terrence Stamp as Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a personal favorite — but the trend is troubling. Laverne Cox's excellent performance on Orange is the New Black is, of course, a great step forward, but it's hard to argue that transpeople have anything resembling equal representation on the silver screen.
Meanwhile, especially given the heckler's mention of "awards," it's worthwhile to note (perhaps cynically) that the types of roles that garner trophies often involve some kind of radical physical transformation. From Nicole Kidman's enlarged nose in The Hours to Charlize Theron's full Monster makeover — even Leto's costar Matthew McConaughey's almost unrecognizably gaunt frame — Hollywood tends to go giddy when stars do something to undercut or modify their societally-sanctioned attractiveness. It is considered brave — and in a way, in the face of our vicious and unforgiving tabloid culture, it is. (Plus, yes, Jared, whole-body waxes are a bitch.) Still, it's not difficult to understand why transwomen might be frustrated that their identity — one that is belittled, dismissed, and brutalized in record numbers day to day — is so frequently used as someone else's chance to stretch himself creatively, to be brave, briefly, before returning to his regularly scheduled stardom.
This is not to crucify Leto for the sheer fact of his performance — far from it. But the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his comments is worrying, if only because it risks diverting the conversation away from where it ought to be: the hecklers' assertion that transwomen are still drastically underrepresented in media — and frequently misunderstood when represented at all.
Take Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera's interview with Katie Couric last month, in which Couric demonstrated how most transwomen are regarded as little more than the sum of their most private parts. Or more recently, Janet Mock's double appearance on Piers Morgan, in which Morgan repeatedly, aggressively claimed to be "100 percent supportive," while also expressing bafflement, even anger, that Mock and her followers found his offhanded characterization of her as "formerly a man" offensive.
"Why have I been vilified for being transparently supportive of you? I don't get it!" Morgan asked, to which Mock replied, "Maybe you don't get it because you're not a transwoman."
Leto may well do a "beautiful" job tapping into Rayon's experience, but, put plainly, he's not a transwoman either — and while that isn't inherently a deal-breaker, it's important to recognize that, to be true "100 percent supporters" of transpeople, it's vital to offer them the opportunity to define and portray themselves. Or, in Mock's words:
"Being someone that is very visible in a stigmatized community — I am a transwoman of color, I am a young woman — and these are issues that I think that we need to give transpeople space to tell their own stories, and we should follow the lead of people who are out there and being visible and actually advocating for these rights."
So yes, thank you, Jared Leto, for engaging your hecklers in conversation instead of dismissing them outright. But let's make sure that, in this conversation about marginalization and misrepresentation, it's the hecklers who ultimately get to do most of the talking.