(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
We’ve gone over this before: “Problematic” issues are for people lucky enough to not have enough actual problems in their lives. They’re phantom pains conjured up and dwelled on by those who simply aren’t personally satisfied unless they’ve got an injustice to bitch about. When you see something referred to as “problematic” these days, you can almost always be assured that what you’re reading is a bunch of smug cultural policing spit out into the ether by a comically indignant asshole. Most of us can’t even imagine the kind of charmed life where the worst things that happen to us can be described merely as “problematic.” It must be nice to live like that.
And so, it won’t surprise you at all to learn that with Jared Leto’s Oscar victory on Sunday night, the debate over whether or not his performance of a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club should ever have happened has been reignited. Right now the Huffington Post is fanning the flames of this supposed controversy by publishing a series of indignant tweets by people who say that Leto won his Oscar essentially on the backs of all the trans actors who could have and should have been considered for the role of Rayon. It’s pitching the piece on Facebook under the headline, “Do You Think Jared’s Win Is Problematic?”
To put it bluntly, yes, Jared Leto’s win is problematic. It’s problematic in that it’s not a real problem but rather a made-up injustice that any sane person — gay, trans, straight, cis, etc. — should probably shrug off with nary a second look.
Yeah, I know, I’m “cisplaining,” or whatever the hell — being the privileged man who deems himself the arbiter of what should and shouldn’t be worthy of outrage. Tough shit. Leto brought humanity and depth to the role of a doomed transgender woman and he deserves the accolades he’s received in response to his portrayal. What’s more, while there’s nothing wrong with asking whether there exists a true trans actor who could’ve taken on the part, there’s a damn good chance that had the film hinged on the uncompromising demands of some in the trans community, it never would’ve gotten made in the first place. That’s how Hollywood works. Leto’s both a good actor and a sizable name, hence he got the part — and it’s a part he played well.
Trans people in this country face a hell of a lot of discrimination. There’s a high suicide rate among them. They suffer within a larger culture that often doesn’t fully understand them. They don’t have problematic issues — they have problems, ones most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom. No one’s saying that their concerns aren’t valid and shouldn’t be taken seriously — on the contrary. But getting angry over an actor doing his job, bringing the required humanity and dignity to a transgender character, and being honored for it, feels staggeringly counterproductive. Leto’s performance and his mere presence in the movie wasn’t some kind of insult to the trans community. As someone not trans, I think I’m at the very least qualified to say that Rayon, as played by Leto, made me feel deeply for the struggles transgender people endure well beyond the primary struggle with AIDS that that particular character was facing.
I’m not saying there wasn’t a trans actor who could’ve played the part, only that Leto played it well and probably doesn’t deserve to be beaten up for it. Sure, maybe he could’ve salved a few wounds by simply saying during his Oscar acceptance speech, “There are a lot of transgender people like Rayon out there who fight a difficult battle in our culture every day and I hope I was able to make them proud,” but it wasn’t a requirement that he state that word-for-word. He won an Oscar. He earned it. He deserved to enjoy it a little bit while also being humble about his success and acknowledging those not as fortunate as he is. I think he covered all of that pretty nicely.
The Oscars this year were, overall, a pretty stellar event in terms of representing various races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. If you’re not able or willing to see that then, well, I guess that’s pretty problematic.