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Here's How Virgin Atlantic Made a Huge Fail for the Trans Movement with 'Dallas Buyers Club'

by Alice Lytton
June 25, 2014 12:53 PM
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I recently made the return trip from London to San Francisco. It's a schlep I do a fair amount and I always fly Virgin Atlantic. Yes, they promote a grating nostalgia with their weird 50s ads, where women are hot, always be-skirted attendants on the arm of the suave man-captain. But you know, they also have one of the best safety records around and I'm a nervous flyer. So I hit the limits of my feminism at about 30,000 feet above sea level, I guess. Virgin are also, usually, the best when it comes to inflight entertainment. After nervously reading through the safety instructions I get through take-off by obsessively reading the entire contents of "Vera", their inflight listings guide.

Well, this trip "Vera" was certainly a distraction. But not in a good way. As I scanned through the films I noticed "Dallas Buyers Club". I've seen it before and wouldn't really watch it twice, but before I moved on I noticed something odd in the film's description. It starts off fine - it's "rich and compelling, the direction "bold and absorbing" - and Matthew McConaughey is praised for "giving what is by far the best performance of his career". It then goes on:

"That he's matched in intensity by Leto as a cross-dressing fellow patient is testament to the quality that goes right through this richly satisfying film".


Um, sorry? For one, Leto's character had a name - Rayon - and she was a trans woman, not a cross-dressing man. Right here, right in this mistake, we see exemplified so many of the problems of carelessness around trans narratives.

During Oscar season Leto pissed off a number of people by eliding the differences between being a man who cross dresses and being a transgender woman. Jared Leto might have had to "cross dress" in order to play Rayon, but Rayon, the character he was portraying, was not a guy who, for whatever reasons of self-expression, dressed in conventionally "feminine" clothes but still self-described and self-understood as a man. Let me say it again: Rayon was a trans woman.

This mistake from Virgin gives a new perspective on the now old objections to Leto's casting. The point is that some media and some audiences confuse Jared Leto's act of transforming himself into a male actor playing a trans woman with the lived reality of what it means to be a trans woman. To be sure, the Rayon character is not the spokeswoman for all trans-identities, as this excellent op-ed from Parker Marie Molloy pointed out. But by referring to Rayon as a "cross dresser" Virgin, and all of those media outlets who have made a similar error, reveal just how far we have to go in the conversation about gender identity.

We don't have to stay silent about this. Tell Virgin Atlantic this is not okay on Twitter, let them understand the mistake that has been made, and, if you're flying with them, engage in a little DIY activism of your own (just make sure to send us pictures - we'll publish any that come in!)

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  • More bees with honey | June 25, 2014 8:34 PMReply

    "The point is that some media and some audiences confuse Jared Leto's act of transforming himself into a male actor playing a trans woman with the lived reality of what it means to be a trans woman." - The Rayon character was never positioned as a representation of what it means to be a trans woman... it was but just one story based on a composite of a few trans women in Ron Woodroof's circle during the 80's, in Texas. That's it. It isn't possible to have a single representation for all trans women any more than it is to have a single representation of what it means to be a cis woman/man/lesbian/gay man/etc. You reference Molloy, but does Calpernia Addams' perspective not merit equal consideration? She has said she knew trans women like Rayon. The op-ed writers and other self-appointed advocates themselves do more harm with amped up outrage and aggressive responses that leave no room for dialogue. Keep going this way and we'll be seeing fewer and fewer trans characters in film and tv ... because who needs another headache (says the studio exec)?

  • Alice Lytton | June 26, 2014 7:23 AM

    Thanks for taking the time to write your perspective. I do hear what you're saying, but I don't think it applies in this case. By citing Molloy I wasn't saying that trans women like Rayon didn't exist. I just wanted to make clear that I didn't think the Rayon character was a single representation of all trans women (so you and I agree on this). My argument was that there is a difference between cross-dressing and being a trans woman. The Rayon character was a trans woman, and being described as a "cross dressing fellow patient" fundamentally misses this. I think it perpetuates the mistaken idea, still held in some quarters, that being a trans gender person is simply a matter of dress. It's not. I'm afraid that I just don't agree that pointing this stuff out - and being frustrated by it - will have any negative effect on how many trans characters there are in mainstream film or TV.

  • Rick | June 25, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    This seems like mostly an innocent misunderstanding that could be corrected by some education. This article seems to want a more aggressive stance.

  • Rick | June 25, 2014 2:01 PM

    I didn't mean aggressive as in violent or something. I think your response is relatively more aggressive than it really has to be. I don't see any transphobia. I don't see any targeted aggression toward the community. I see someone who was either under-educated or mis-educated on the matter. A person who was simply trying to recommend a movie. Yes, his information is incorrect, but is it really necessary for a call to arms to tell him how wrong he is? A "By the way, this part's wrong" with a following "Oh, sorry about that." seems like a better approach.

    On the front page, you write: "When will the media stop being so casual and careless with the language they use for trans men and women?" I feel like for a lot of people, this conversation is brand new and these kind of mistakes are going to happen as more and more people enter it. They aren't shots at the community, they are learning opportunities for those not really connected to it. Whenever someone learns something new, they make mistakes. It's just human.

  • Alice Lytton | June 25, 2014 1:29 PM

    I am pretty ticked! But that's not the same as advocating aggressive tactics. I do think that journalists should be much better informed about the things the write about; there's not really much of an excuse to make these kinds of mistakes. It's laziness, and it's a laziness that has a very real effect on some people in our community.

  • Rick | June 25, 2014 1:19 PM

    You seem pretty ticked. As soon as you "Um sorry?" the whole article took on a "how dare you" tone.

  • Alice Lytton | June 25, 2014 1:13 PM

    Hi Rick, I agree completely - it's definitely a moment for education. I'm not too sure, though, what's aggressive about taking a pen and replacing the mistake with how it should be? I also quite specifically suggested people let Virgin "*understand* the mistake that has been made". Again, hardly a call to the barricades...

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