When I first saw Dallas Buyers Club back in October, my screening companion and I (both of us queer) went in with a fair amount of trepidation: On paper, the movie seemed like the kind of thing you might call “problematic.” For starters, DBC, which tells the true story of Ron Woodroof’s founding of an buyers club from which AIDS sufferers could purchase unapproved drugs, approaches the crisis from a homophobic straight man’s point-of-view—a risky, though not categorically bad, choice.* And then there’s Rayon, a composite transgender character who acts as Woodroof’s unlikely business partner. Obviously, trans representation remains a fraught exercise given the group’s history of being played for disgust or laughs, and casting a cisgender actor—especially a rather inarticulate one like Jared Leto—in the role didn’t bode well.
However, as the film went on, we were won over; so much so that by the end I was convinced that DBC was one of the best queer films I had ever seen.
That specific opinion, it's worth noting, was not widely shared. While mainstream critics have generally praised the film—so much so that it’s up for six Academy Awards, including Matthew McConaughey for Woodroof and Leto in the Supporting Actor category—criticism in queerland has been less glowing. A handful of writers have condemned Leto’s portrayal of Rayon as offensive or “pandering,” and others have taken issue with the very existence of an AIDS film that focuses on a straight person. As writing about the movie has ramped up in anticipation of Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, these and other critiques have returned with such vigor that I’ve started to wonder if we’re talking about the same movie.
So this week, I watched DBC again: I remain convinced that it is not only a good film in general, but also one that is “good for the community” in ways both obvious and subtle. In fact, I think DBC is so good on queer issues that I’m beginning to suspect that it’s the assumptions and motives of the detractors that are problematic. A few questions for those folks:
Does the AIDS crisis “belong” only to gay people?
As I wrote back in November, the “but-it’s-about-a-straight-man!” objection is misguided both artistically and politically. That’s like saying filmmakers should only make holocaust movies that focus solely on the Jews; just as artists should be “allowed” to cover the homosexuals, Communists, and disabled people who were murdered as part of that atrocity, so too should they be encouraged to engage with the (ongoing) AIDS crisis through the eyes of drug users, women of color, and, indeed, straight people. If the goal is to use art to try to comprehend these tragedies as best we can, shouldn’t we welcome as many angles as possible?
And anyway, if you really felt that DBC was only about a prejudiced straight man’s journey to redemption (a weird description in the first place, given that Woodroof’s “growth” in terms of LGBTQ tolerance is entirely mediated by business concerns), you weren’t paying attention. While the film is clearly a character study at heart, it does a fine job evoking the larger historical context through subtle, well-curated references. And to the movie’s credit, these are very much in keeping with the spotty collage of news footage, headlines, study results, and personal interactions that a politically apathetic pharmaceutical business owner would likely assemble during a time like this. The demand that DBC, a work of historical fiction, somehow be a gay-focused documentary is baffling.
What makes a movie “gay enough”?
While DBC may not be an overtly gay movie (in that it’s not Angels in America, I guess?), it’s absolutely queer. I cannot for the life of me understand how a viewer interested in queer representation could watch this film and not come away excited by the wonderfully strange love story it presents in the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon. Here we have two messy, wounded human beings who become partners in life and business in spite of all the prejudices—on both sides—that could have kept them apart. They look out for each other physically, financially, and, in their own way, emotionally. Their shared respect for one another’s street savvy—demonstrated beautifully in the early gambling scene—forms a bond that, while not romantic or sexual in nature, still looks a lot like love. When Rayon puts herself through the trauma of visiting her father to cash out her life insurance policy, or when Woodroof risks arrest to attack the doctor he holds responsible for Rayon’s eventual death, these are the rash and sacrificial actions of people who—in some fantastic, queer way—love each other more than themselves.
Even if you don’t buy that interpretation of DBC’s central relationship, a number of other queer values are clearly on display: the struggle to create alternative, ad-hoc family structures, the need to hack hostile bureaucratic institutions for survival, the experience of being rejected by friends and family because of something in your blood—these themes are all handled here with nuance and care. If you are still searching for a “gayer” AIDS movie, I humbly suggest that you reconsider your criteria.
What does a “good” transgender person look like?
As I mentioned before, a number of critics have found fault with Rayon precisely for the messiness that made her and Woodroof such a convincing pair. Before we consider the character, though, I want to deal with the part of this hate that’s coming from those who just dislike Leto as a person, or (and this is a feeling I share) those who have found his comments regarding the role regrettable: It should go without saying that neither of those things is relevant in evaluating (or in rewarding) his performance.
Unfortunately, a disturbing amount of Rayon-bashing remains even after those groups are excluded. Here’s an upsetting example, from Steve Friess in Time: “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.” He also dismisses her as “sassy,” “tragic-yet-silly,” and a “victimized dingbat.”
These words not only betray a frightening lack of compassion on the part of their author; they also are the definition of respectability policing. Clearly, Friess and his comrades are of the opinion that the only responsible way to represent transgender people (and presumably other minorities) is as clean-cut, noble exemplars of some politically correct, GLADD-approved ideal. They must have their lives in order and associate with the right people. They must adhere to the terms-of-art and understanding of trans identity that The Movement has rendered unto them. They must be serious, media-trained representatives of their interest group, offended when they are told to be offended, and they must never lighten their struggles with a little dark humor. In a word, they must be respectable. Rayon, apparently, does not qualify.
Excuse me, but who is Friess or anyone else to deem Rayon inappropriate as a human being? Yes, she’s fictional, but there are absolutely people in this world who are sassy sad-sack drug addicts—do they not deserve to be honored in art, to be cheered when they are selfless and to be mourned when they are lost? I well understand that such representations have a painful history of misuse, but I also refuse to believe that we must abandon them entirely now that we are ostensibly more enlightened. Indeed, as we enter an age where images of LGBTQ people are increasingly welcome, should we not exploit the expanded freedom to recuperate and complicate the “tragic trannies” and “mincing faggots” who have been abused in the past, even as we add more "respectable" figures to the mix? They are, after all, still in the audience, even if Friess would prefer they stayed in the shadows.
And indeed, preferences are what we’re really talking about when we analyze the LGBTQ-related criticisms of DBC—preferences about who can tell certain stories, preferences for what makes a piece of art “count,” preferences for how certain types of people should look and act. My preference? For critics to stop pretending that these judgments are ideologically neutral or ethically self-evident, because they aren’t, and because the vision for queer art they suggest is cramped, boring, and exclusive. If that’s “progress,” I’d rather hang back here with Rayon.
*As Slate revealed in January, there’s evidence that Woodroof may have actually been bisexual. While that revelation raises thorny questions about interview practices and the stories screenwriters choose to tell, DBC is not a documentary—fiction, however based in history, should be allowed some artistic license.
*Correction, Feb. 28, 2014: This post originally misspelled Ron Woodroof's last name.