Last week, Steve Friess wrote a piece for TIME, titled, “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’“. The editorial goes on to discuss Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, talking about Hollywood patting themselves on the back, acting as though they were being progressive in awarding McDaniel the 1940 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Friess then refers to McDaniel’s performance as one “tainted by our collective understanding of how hypocritical and patronizing it was,” and stating, “McDaniel’s portrayal as a house slave is now, alongside the old Aunt Jemima syrup logos, viewed as an archetypical, racist touchstone.”
On the topic of Leto, Friess writes, “The Academy is on the brink of doing it again for another badly misunderstood minority… Leto’s award-winning performance as the sassy, tragic-yet-silly Rayon will belong in the dishonorable pantheon along with McDaniel’s Mammy. That is, it’ll be another moment when liberals in Hollywood, both in the industry and in the media, showed how litle they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring.” He then refers to a number of issues with the script. “[Leto plays] a sad-sack, clothes-obsessed, constantly flirting transgender drug addict prostitute, of course. There are no stereotypes about transgender women that Leto’s concoction does not tap. She’s an exaggerated, trivialized version of how men who pretend to be women — as opposed to those who feel at their core that they are women — behave.”
Where Friess — and several others — went awry was in trying to compare the two. I don’t have an opinion on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy, and whether or not it is, in retrospect, a racist stereotype. I haven’t seen Gone With the Wind since I was in my teens. While yes, the media, especially when dealing with underrepresented and maligned groups of people, has the ability to influence and further establish negative stereotypes, it’s important to remember that the oppressions caused by these stereotypes cannot be seen as interchangeable. Saying trans people were hurt by Leto’s performance and black people were hurt by McDaniel’s performance may very well be true statements. Even so, they hurt in different ways, and they can never truly be compared.
I can fully get behind the statements Friess made about Leto’s character. I agree that it reinforces stereotypes, and that it will cause lasting harm. I agree with him when he says that he believes that Leto’s performance (and subsequent awards) are examples of Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing next to nothing. But I can’t get behind his comparison of McDaniel and Leto. Both may be harmful in terms of how they shape public understanding of the groups they portray, but the harm falls in different ways, different shapes. That distinction needs to be made clear.
Over the past few weeks, as Arizona contemplated passage of a bill that would have allowed business owners to discriminate against anyone they disagreed with on the basis of religion (which would most notably impact gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender visitors and residents of the state), a number of outlets referred to the law as a “new Jim Crow.” I remember cringing as I heard Rachel Maddow say those words aloud on a recent broadcast.
Fact is, the bill would have been awful, but to appropriate “Jim Crow” is to downplay the actual impacts of Jim Crow laws.
Various forms of oppression can stack on top of one another, and don’t exist in a vacuum. Someone could be trans, black, disabled, and gay. They have to deal with society’s oppression that comes from any one of these attributes as a single factor, now congealed into a single, unique position in life. It’s because these oppressions don’t exist in neatly compartmentalized boxes that intersectionality is important. It’s because of this that we shouldn’t diminish horrible past events by drawing comparisons to present day actions.
This is why I asked, “What’s the non-appropriative way of saying, ‘blackface is to people of color as Jared Leto’s Dallas Buyer’s Club performance is to trans women?'” To be honest, I wasn’t sure there was an answer. In hindsight, maybe it would have been more apt to ask, “is there,” instead of “what is.” From Friess TIME article to people on twitter to Frontiers LA to Cyd Zeigler in Playboy, people were making direct (and indirect) comparisons to Leto’s performance and blackface. That comparison seemed problematic, which is why I asked if there was a non-appropriative way of making that comparison.
To be 100% clear, I don’t think it’s my place to “reclaim” or appropriate anyone else’s oppression. There need to be ways to describe the harm caused by Leto’s performance, but as a writer, I haven’t come up with the words. I’m at a loss, and I feel saddened by the fact that this film’s impact will be to further confuse the public as to what trans people are like. Instead, it conflated trans women with drag queens and cross dressers.
After posting my question, I was flooded with tweets, telling me that the very basis of the question itself was racist. I feel absolutely awful that I caused pain to others, to ask something racist. I am so truly sorry. My intent, to gently guide people who were appropriating the term away from it, isn’t relevant. My actions, the result of my own clumsy wording, on-the-fly thinking, and poor judgement, caused pain to others. I am so sorry.
I shouldn’t have touched that one. It wasn’t my place to try to guide people to safer analogies. As a writer, I know that it’s important to be able to draw parallels, to give people a frame of reference. Saying something is “bad” doesn’t give you an indication of how bad. “I sprained my foot. It hurts,” doesn’t tell you much about what the hurt is. “I sprained my ankle, and it feels like someone is hitting my leg with a baseball bat with every step I take,” gives an outsider a frame of reference.
I’m not going to stop trying to find that frame of reference, but I will be making a conscious effort to leave even the most indirect references to tools of systemic oppression (i.e. blackface) out. If I’m going to continue to work to boost trans awareness, issues, etc., I need to do better. I will, and so should you. Find a frame of reference that doesn’t evoke that type of pain for other people, and let’s leave blackface out of it.