Manufactured Regenerated Cellulose Fiber: Rayon, the Trans Pity Prop
“Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta”
“Here pity only lives when it is dead.”
Virgil, Inferno, La Divina Commedia di Dante (XX:28)
Rayon: a contrived synthetic fabric with a pretense to being natural. Rayon: a versatile fabric engineered through chemical manipulation. Rayon: Man-made, redeveloped from natural polymers into artificial silk, loses shape when wet.
Quod vide … Rayon: the name of a transsexual woman played to international acclaim by Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
I’m not a film reviewer, as such, and my intention here is not to evaluate the cinematic merits of this film, its entertainment valuation, nor even whether or not Leto’s “walk on the wild side” was Oscar-worthy. I won’t speak comprehensively about the film’s many shortcomings overall: DBC makes a moderate effort to to glance at the corporate racketeers of America’s health system, but boosts a pirate’s economics of terminal illness as profit from the politics of disenfranchisement. Politically, DBC manages only to grasp at thematic straws in its soft rebuke of Pharma’s false promises in their commodification of AZT, as well as the administrated trade in suffering and survival in the market share of virtuous society’s most vulnerable. Leto’s bizarrely anodyne Oscar acceptance speech, about single mums and the Ukraine, managed to skip over any reference whatsoever to trans people — just some bland chin-up line about standing with us over injustices about “who you are or who you love” — because, Oscar in tow, he “stands with us”.
For the purposes in this post, my angle of assessment follows from the line of critique given by Steve Friess. He, writing for Time magazine, produced one of the more mainstream denouncements of Leto’s performance according to the ethics of marginal representation. But I’ve come neither to applaud or not applaud Leto. Applause, after all, is a reactive gesture to the theatrical mimesis of the “risky” performance . . . one that resembles nothing in its urge to represent the abjectified through playing with an image repertoire dependent on pity and disgust. Trans women, in particular, have been victimised in its positioning of nolî tangere alterity. In the hidden hermeneutic of exclusion and difference I analysed in depth for my previous post, Rayon provides another terrible example of transmisogyny within gender constructions, in which the normal (the Same) acts in opposition to the difficult difference of The Transgender.
So, although I find Friess’s conclusions misguided, I do sympathise with his initial concerns as to the “feel-good self-congratulations” in the celebrated enactment of a “badly misunderstood minority” for popular entertainment. However, I do not believe his racial analogy, upon which his argument rests, is effectual . . . or, quite frankly, well-thought out. Friess — inaccurately, as I think — compares Jared Leto’s Rayon to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy (Gone with the Wind, 1939). His thesis links and likens the Leto’s portrayal of Rayon, as pathetic trans woman trope, to Hattie McDaniel’s “Aunt Jemima syrup logos”.
Whether it’s Burchill accusing trans women of enacting a variant of “black face” or Friess’s comparison here … these empty analogies confuse and distract from a proper examination of transgender politics for another false equivalency of gender and race. While there may be a superficial variable of ‘exoticised minority’, a black woman accepting a script to play The Black Woman has limited exegesis in thinking about what was so problematic in Leto, a cisgender man, acting out the part of an ultimately tragic tr*nny trope. These analogies to race, in discussing trans issues, actually do not help in assessing the cisgender ideology that is loaded into Leto’s performance.
To get a better sense, we might pursue, instead, what J. Jack Halberstam notes in their Queer Art of Failure: Hollywood often deploys queerness as plot devices so that heteronormativity can regroup and reassert itself as a defensive act against the limited incursion of the Q, albeit with an object lessor or two along the way in pathos and pity. Add transgender to the equation, and the straight-cis dynamic of staying within the lines becomes even more urgent and antagonistic, but also noble in deploying its pity.
“I want to be pretty,” the clip showcased for Leto’s nomination: before the mirror, wondering over pink negligée about what being an angel might require.
Leto, as a straight cisgender male touting the theatrics of marginalisation, enables a technology of borrowing queerness to be disposed of as a necessary evil in pursuit of actorial excellence. Call it method acting, even. Leto takes on — that is, performs — an embodied abject of the Trans Woman, a contentious non-person normally deemed inadmissable to civil society, but temporarily permitted according to cissexist ethics of pathos and catharsis. Put another way — by not actually having a trans woman in the production, one can elide the invisibility of trans women in society by avoiding the presence of trans except as Ray-on and Ray-off gender experimentation. And whatever prejudices Leto’s aping of trans femininity presents, these can readily be sublimated by uncomfortable viewers through the virtue-politics of pity at a distance. This is one of Butler’s least regarded insights in “Performative Aspects and Gender Constitution“: cisnormativity will tolerate trans women on a screen or stage, but not on a bus or in the workplace. Trans people act as tear-jerking marionettes for the voyeurism of film, but those same trans persons become contemptible when encountered in the practice of daily life.
I agree, thus, with D’Addario who finds that rather than a person, Rayon is more a point or a that gets moved in and out of view depending on the emotional tenor of mainstream affective requirements. More plot device than personality, Leto manages to include almost every tragic tr*nny motif in playing one of life’s rejects who supplicates her way through the film through little more than verbal sashay . . . the beaten-down other who asks incredulously, “Why are you so good to me?”
Rayon, as played by Leto, provides a hallmark demonstration of how the cinematic trans women — first as defiance than as defilement — acts as a setting not a role. Throughout the film, her body becomes the lectern upon which Woodroof calibrates his prejudices. Thus her death, as the superlative dismissal of the other into obscurity, occurs off-camera, so that the audience’s autopsy of her memory can take any image they want (or, better need). Rayon provides an emotive opportunity to enjoy the symptoms of revulsion, while at the same time attaining vicarious redemption from the uncomfortable knowledge that one had, previously, been laughing at her identity. The pathetic fallacy of her femininity gets redeemed only through the morbidity of her tragic death: there was just no helping that tragic creature, now an angel, now free of her ‘wronged body’. As has been too often observed, a trans woman has the most cultural value when dead. As Rayon notes herself, in a rare moment without affect or artifice, prophesizing her own unattended doom: “There ain’t no helpin’ me.” Such is the teleology of being trans.
My sense of the problematic cinematic portrayal of Rayon was confirmed in the first scene we meet her. A sickly contraption of illness and artifice, we find her, in hospital, with plastered on rouge and torn tights. In meeting our hero, and his consternation at having to share the room (and by extension the screen) with a species of contempt, he recoils non-verbally as reactive necessity:
Rayon: “Relax, I don’t bite.”
Woodroof: “Get the fuck out of here, whatever you are!”
But then they play cards. Very symbolic. This film, upon the sound-stage of privileged affect, will play its poker pathos with the dying trans woman as both the visible card as well as the highest stakes. Thinking that she’s bluffing behind a false hand, Woodroof calls her out for both her cards as well as her gender: “All right, Miss Man”, he taunts, “what you got?” And he loses the game. Not only that, suffering from a muscle spasm, he must permit to having to consign his body to her massage. How wretched. A few notches off his heterosexuality. And such is the status of Rayon’s body throughout the film: she of the hand no one wants to shake. So, in a reprise of this scene in the supermarket, Woodruff physically coercing a former friend to”shake his [Rayon’s] hand” is somehow meant to be a heroic gesture. On one hand, our smuggler wins audience empathy by supposedly defending her honour in a chivalric gesture gloved in revised prejudice. But the prejudice he’s concerned with is the stigma of AIDS, not transsexuality: thus he misgenders her, at that moment and throughout, even beyond her inevitable termination. Dallas Buyers Club casts the trans woman not as “supporting role” but compliant tragedy. She is tragedy on the installment plan, pity as debit — paraphrase: pitié à crédit. The broken trans body elicits pity, but only on the condition that the ensuing cis discomfort of having to experience being in the indirect presence of a trans woman is subsumed within the catharsis of her death.
The Oscar as receipt of payment in full for this sacrificial contract.
Our deaths, their entertainment: Rayon as the indescribable and irresolvable space of disturbingly converged pathos and eros, must endure the discourse of the vanishing. She who is not sexy, but constantly made to feel falsely erotic — proudly farce, but begging for our affection.
Her faux femininity necessarily foils to Woodroof as carpe diem survivor’s bravado: the het-hero who seizes the day back from the scythe through drink, drugs, and unprotected sex. Ignoring the queerness of the historical Woodruff, the scripted version is framed throughout as “against the profile” of AIDS as a queer disease. Straight and manly from the moment to the bull is released from the gate in the film’s allegorical intro, Woodruff’s rodeo masculinity of riding the bulls and mounting the women — two of them, in fact, less his straight cred be put to question. He is decidedly the not-Rayon, purveyor of straight social collateral such as cowboy hats and Dutch porn. Cisgender satisfaction throughout. Suggesting otherwise — such as when he is feminised with “sugarcakes” in a bar — leads almost to a brawl. “Fine Hollywood pussy wasted”. Rock Hudson a “c**ksucker”. Cowboy hats and lassos. He’ll die with his boots on: he promises as much — “I’m straight, all right?” But AIDS, and the medical politics surrounding its treatment, leads to a collision of clinical pretensions, experimental medicine, and abject patients. And so Woofruff must revise his archly-codified heterosexuality somewhat, since AIDS only happens to high risk plague-bringers like f*ggots, IV drug users, and tr*nnies. Not “god damn Rodeo boys”.
We understand exactly what Woodroof thinks of Rayon’s botched masculinity when he points a gun at her crotch and advertises his services as a sex-change surgeon.
Pinkified throughout — pink nightgowns, pink (raspberry mocha) paint, pink hair bands — Rayon rarely gets to address the camera. She exists only through rejoinder and relay, screen edged and undeserving of a close-up except when in a mirror that reveals her own fraught gender pretensions. And so her marginalised position against the camera further excites the audience’s curiosity to see her downfall. A “creature” who is simply surviving, she provides a thematic kind of inspiration story of “being true” to oneself, in pop authenticity talk, but one crossed with a slow motion snuff film of the trans body as metaphysically doomed. Rayon’s embodiment is disease turned into vignette: she is the wrong-bodied cosmic fuckup, a fault of God, who earns one moment of gender recognition from Woodroof who pities her as a Divine mistake, one who is “dressed as the wrong doll” with a “set of balls”.
Who’d ever want to live a life like that? Not to mentioning supporting — what was Rayon supporting, exactly? Woofroof’s credentials of straightness as a pathetic foil and pity object in contrast to the rodeo protagonism?
So what’s being awarded here, in the Oscar’s honoured tradition of rewarding the “risk taking” of playing the freak, is the contrivance of transgendered subjectivity. The life no one wants to live, so the role offers abject cachet. Indeed, cis playing trans requires that the cis person surrender the comfort of a static sex assignment to put on the affect of gender confusion as ‘acting’. By refusing to have trans people play trans roles, Hollywood props up the false equation: Being trans is endemically synonymous with “being a role”. (And so Leto, in interviews, reflects on his experiences in terms of trying on skirts and getting lipstick straight: trans as fragments and affectations. Acting! in an SNL voice.)
But Ray-on and Ray-off. Transsexuality is a role device that Leto can claim, profit from, and drop as needed. Remember: Rayon is not a historical character. The entire point was crafted out of the cisgender gaze’s desire for an unattractive object of pity render into the art of her dead body, she who has failed the regime of normalcy. For Leto, transgender is a verb: he transgenders, perhaps in a Stanislavskian sense of method acting, of donning a dress and miming the identity, just to transgender back. An authorial flirtation with the abject other, and par for the prejudice in the trans woman’s body as cite of revulsion and scorn.
So I wasn’t surprised that Leto’s walk on the wild side, as the song played for his recent tribute to Lou Reed, didn’t enrich him with any empathy for trans women once he was able to lose the wig and put the pounds back on. I’m sure he took the part seriously, as such. But the part he was assigned was more about cis fantasies, rather exploitative of trans bodies in pain. And, not coincidentally, his post-film comments in interviews and speeches in regards to trans women have been crude and derisive. Indeed, he’s scornful in his unwillingness to even consider the power dynamics of telling “the Rayons of the world” that they’re “beautiful creatures”; but when “the Rayons of the world” complain, he tells them to shut up because gender inequality “goes both ways”.
Reportedly, McDaniel’s speech had been written by movie execs. In receiving her Oscar, she stated, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” Leto’s comments, to date, in claiming his prizes have been less anthemic: Seinfeld-esque jokes about shaving body hair and empty platitudes about the trans woman as “beautiful creature.” It’s the whole behind the scenes featurette — look at me and how wild I am for portraying a trans woman on screen but everyone knows I’m a cis guy and straight and since I’m not trans a lot of the trans stuff was gross but wow what an opportunity to grow as an actor!”
It’s all such a tired moralistic canard of “empathy through appropriative performance” that cis actors drag out when the play trans. Stephen Dorff did just as much as Candy Darling, and we all know about TransAmerica. Playing the freak is an object lesson in temporary pity, but its a ruse that predicates kindness upon distance, and sympathy with terminal pathos. Such is the topsy turvy incertitudes of buyer beware life-trading in DBC. And so when Rayon cries in the mirror, praying to be an angel one day, we feel the full force of cisnormativity in which her wholeness can only be found in death and disembodiment. She doesn’t want to die, she tells us, but no one wants her to live.
Of course, at no point is Rayon granted any kind of self-affirming monologue, or a back story of any kind. She’s always on the defensive, always on the receiving end of invalidation and aggression, or paternalism and pity. In donning a suit and submitting herself to being Boynamed by her father, the voice of his authority echos the private resentment of the cisgender audience: “You’ve made that choice yourself.” And she replies, blankly, “It wasn’t a choice, dad.” But Rayon never tells us what it really is — for to do so, the trans woman must enact something approximating a human person who’s dignity is beyond doomed choice/or doomed not choice, and this receives not a second of articulation in DBC.
Rayon is a “creature” denied the most fundamental human attribute: interiority.
Leto has been angrily contemptuous of trans criticisms of his performance and the unspoken logic of difference upon which the affective dynamic of his role depends upon. The “joke” about the gun as sex-change inscribes this tacit threat of partial cis acceptance for Rayon: we’ll revoke your presence at any time. This horrible genitalia joke in the film, not coincidentally, overlaps with the most hateful discursive threats to trans women’s safety … those comments we always find on websites whenever “bathroom bills” make progress … “If I find a tr*nny near my woman, I’ll cut his d*ck off”, the anonymous murderer writes as public warning.
Leto’s Oscar speech echoed his earlier privileged whinging about how his win equals a victory for all those “Rayons out there”. Tonight, he referred to trans women only by the merest euphemism, as those “people who have made a choice to live their lives.” And which people are those, Mr Leto? Rayon doesn’t live her life, but only doesn’t want to die: she deteriorates in slow, scrutinised motions of a trans woman receiving her inevitable closure as a result of cinematic relations of power and knowledge that structures trans identities as the periphery of puke.
Rayon, in death, is misgendered by her own doctor; she receives barely a 10 second elegy that ends with the epitaph, “He died from the disease as a whole”. Neither a woman in the encounters of life or the censorship of memory, this portrayal of Rayon is enough to terrify and sicken any of the trans women who “make the choice” — which isn’t actually a choice, or maybe it is … Leto can’t decide . . . we who live, not talking of living, with the uncomfortable awareness of othering . . .
Prejudice and presumption act as bad conscience that relegates us into the margins, only to briefly pull us back as pitiable tropes …. we who live knowing that, when we’re dying, many of us will not have our parents at our bedside, the wrong names will be stamped on our graves, and that those who spared so few thoughts on our “choices” will pontificate over the gallowed shadow of what they’ll write off as our as “what’s coming”.
First as fascination, later as remonstration, ultimately as rejection . . . the body of Rayon provides both comedy and morbidity through her trans status in DBC; as such, she functions as an objective symptom on the screen, not a life but an apparatus. She lives and dies as a substitute for cisgender anxiety about the inevitable failure of gender non conformity: a dangerous aesthetic that fails the psychical test of threatening the natural order.
Tellingly, Rayon dies — disappears — off-camera, ignored by the lens that followed her to the brink of pity, but pulls away to dispose of her … a pity predicated on the anticipation of a deserved death. Rayon — she whose name itself suggests the synthetic, little more than the stuff of costume, with T-Rex’s “Life is Strange” playing as the final credits roll.
How soon they forget the lesson that the dead trans woman is meant to provide as “educational opportunity”. Ellen, hosting the Oscars, insinuated that Liza Minelli looked like a tr*nny (or a drag queen, or a dude in the dress … — really, Hollywood doesn’t care to differentiate for transmisogynystic laughs in an opening monologue . . . they barely try to do so when portraying trans women for feature films.) For giggles or for antipathy, finally as misery, so goes the appropriation of trans lives in public gazes that merge pity with the buffer of hilarity. And all of this is eschewed under the aesthetic lies of common “facets of the human experience”: a much more generic way of briefly acknowledging, then hesitantly assimilating, the other before the business of prejudice recommences.
For his speech, as a cis man playing a trans woman, he deliberately avoided using the word “transgender” — not even passing his lips once — lest the tuxed-up academy be made uncomfortable. (Keep it to the screen, lad! Here’s a decorous affair, you know!) And that is the staged sanctimony of privilege and immunity. Leto’s mum was in attendance for his Oscar award. Mine hasn’t spoken to me in years. I’m sure she cried when Rayon died, however. That’s one difference between an award-winning script and the reality of trans “choices”. Repudiation is not a role from which a trans woman can disrobe.