For Your Consideration: Dallas Buyers Club Isn't As Progressive As It Pretends

By Kristy Puchko 2014-02-24 10:50:46discussion comments
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For Your Consideration: Dallas Buyers Club Isn't As Progressive As It Pretends image
From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. Today, Kristy explains why Dallas Buyers Club is unworthy of the Oscar.

Dallas Buyers Club has been gaining scads of praise, mostly for its lead actors Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, who both underwent drastic physical transformations to play a pair of AIDS-afflicted people in the early days of the epidemic. Understandably, the dedication these men gave to their performances is being admired. But I take issue with the movie's message, and how it's not nearly as progressive as it pretends to be.

On it's surface the film appears to be bringing attention to the AIDS epidemic, and how the plight of its earliest victims was ignored by people in power. And that's true. But there's something sinister beneath the surface.

Politics can be a heavy factor for better or worse when it comes to the Oscars. Just last year, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was an early front-runner for Best Picture. But its campaign crashed and burned when the film was made a political football by rabble-rousing politicians declaring it "pro-torture."

With the rise in discussion about the LGBT community--from marriage equality to trans awareness and the coming out of celebrities like Ellen Page, the presumed politics of Dallas Buyers Club could serve it well on Oscar night. Hell, Liza Minnelli--an outspoken advocate for the civil rights of the LGBT community--has been personally stumping for the film. There's an air to Dallas Buyers Club's Oscar campaign that embracing the film means embracing the queer community that was horrendously slaughtered by the AIDS epidemic, and still faces struggles in modern America.

But the truth is Dallas Buyers Club actually re-enforces a dangerous message that not only excuses homophobia, but actually promotes it.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Dallas Buyers Club tells the true-ish story of Ron Woodroof, who became an outlaw to get the drugs he and his AIDS-afflicted peers needed. In the film, his sexuality is aggressively heterosexual. We're introduced to him engaged in a threesome, and cheesecake photos of women are an ever-present part of his Buyer's Club office. This is the first sign of trouble in Dallas Buyers Club. According to long-time friends of the late Woodroof, the man would more accurately be described as bisexual. But not only did screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack decide to make their protagonist straight, but also they opted to make him a homophobic man's man who hurls slurs and is physically repulsed but the gay community he deals to.

I heard about the revision of Woodroof's sexual orientation before seeing the film, and suspected it might have been made to enable a stronger/more dramatic arc for the hero. Faced with the commonality of his struggle with the LGBT community, he'd realize he's not so different, and his prejudices and bigotry would melt away! But that's not what happens in the film. The gay community is more set dressing than an essential or ingrained part of the film. Serving as backdrop, it severely downplays the fact that the AIDS crisis predominantly impacted gay men at the time. Nonetheless, Ron rebuffs any inclusion in the community, and even profits off it for most of the narrative, selling drugs they need to live and buying flashy clothes and cars in exchange. His closest connection to the queer community is his tumultuous friendship with the trans woman Rayon, a character he regularly calls "idiot."

Rayon was born a man, but clearly identifies as female. She favors women's clothes, make-up and jewelry to identify her gender. She mentions a hope to get breast implants. Yet no one in the film--even her so-called friends--gives her the respect or courtesy to address her with female pronouns. Even after Rayon's death, Dr. Eve (Jennifer Garner) bellows out, "He was my friend too!" Maybe this kind of trans awareness would have been anachronistic in 1985. Still, it feels emotionally tone deaf when Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox has risen to fame. Moreover, this is just one way the film disrespects Rayon, and by extension the queer community as a whole, as she is its only major representative in the film.

The other Rayon issue is far more disturbing, and deals directly in her death. Essentially, the film behaves as if Rayon earned her death. When they meet, both Ron and Rayon--regardless of sexual orientation--have risky lifestyles. Both use hard drugs, presumably engage in unprotected sex, and work in a field that risk their physical well-being, be it rodeo or prostitution. But once Ron starts chasing down medications, he cleans up his life: no drugs, sex only with other HIV-positive partners (women of course), and dedicatedly eating better. Oh, but Rayon still gets high and eats junk food, no matter how much Ron warns her. And she dies. The contrast suggests that she deserved it for not changing how she lived her life. Doesn't that sound familiar?

In college I did a research project on AIDS and HIV in which I spoke with an openly gay man who worked for the Gay Men's Health Clinic. He told me something that rattled me to my core, and has stuck with me ever since: people in America consider health a virtue. Good people are healthy; bad people get AIDS. Drug users. Sexual Deviants. Not people like me, goes this thread. It's a smugness that many felt inoculated them from contracting the virus. But of course that's wrong. People also became HIV positive through sex with long-time partners, through blood transfusions, and through being born from a parent who was HIV positive. Still, the "immoral" stigma persists. And we see it again here. It is suggested Rayon had a chance to live, but chose not to change her lifestyle. So, she gets what R. Kurt Oselund at Slant describes as "a drug-induced death that further paints her as a pathetic deviant." And yet this is a movie that's supposedly good for the representation of the queer community?

Ultimately, Dallas Buyers Club purposely dilutes its queer identity. On Junkee, Glenn Dunks rightly calls this maneuver, "heterosexual white-washing of the 80s AIDS outbreak." Aside from sidelining and punishing Rayon, the screenwriters chose to downplay the bisexual identity of its protagonist, transforming him into a straight, macho, male homophobe. But why? Maybe because it's uncomfortable or off-putting to remind moviegoers that AIDS was initially described as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) or gay cancer? Maybe because after 20 years of trying to get this movie made, the screenwriters caved to mainstream pressure? Maybe to make it easier for audiences to identity with the plight of an AIDS victim, when some of them still find the whole gay thing kind of icky?

This isn't a new ploy, and it's actually worked before in the only other wide release about an AIDS patient in the last 20 years. Philadelphia couched the plight of an oppressed and AIDS-afflicted gay man (Tom Hanks) in the story of a homophobic straight lawyer (Denzel Washington) who is initially grossed out by his client's sexual orientation, and actually proud of this bigotry. This drama went on to earn five Academy Award nominations, and a win for Hanks. But in all the time in between have we gotten no further in our ability to discuss AIDS? Do we still need to sanitize it by making a movie also about a straight man, downplaying the gay community at large? At least Philadelphia's gay character got to die with some dignity, surrounded by loved ones. Rayon's death is intercut with comical shots of Woodroof jetting about in ten-gallon hats. And so it's easy to place blame on her for her body giving out, when Ron is well enough to gallivant.

Basically, Dallas Buyers Club is not the movie it's flaunting itself as to the Academy, instead it's what Daniel Walber of Film.com calls, "a heartwarming narrative about the against-the-odds triumph of straight people." It's a Trojan Horse that rides in on presumably good intentions, giving us a typical American man, tough, rugged, decidedly straight. And he's our window into the struggle of a community he refuses to join. He sneers as gay men flirt and dance at a gay bar, and this gives us the allowance to sneer too. He forms an acquaintanceship with a trans woman to grow his business, not out of empathy. And though he mourns her death, that actually reduces Rayon to a Women In Refrigerator figure, important only as a tool of the hero's emotional journey. This presumes that audiences still can't care about a queer character without a straight surrogate. Maybe that's true. But if the Academy Awards really wants to choose the Best Picture of 2013, it shouldn't be the one with politics that are this out of date and dangerous.
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