Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) purports to be a biographical film, following AIDS sufferer Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) on his quest to fight the FDA and smuggle unapproved drugs into the States. He sells said drugs to HIV+ men and women with the help of his friend Rayon (Jared Leto), all the while enjoying a semi-romantic rapport with a female doctor (Jennifer Garner).
McConaughey and Leto give strong performances, and their extreme weight loss for the film should not go unremarked; they couldn’t look more ill if they tried. Seamless production, a well-selected soundtrack, and a tight script give the whole thing a lot of emotional punch, and I admit that I left the cinema with tear-besmirched cheeks. However, I wasn’t quite sure if I was crying for the plight of the characters I’d been watching for 117 minutes, or because of the injustice with which they had been portrayed.
There was something unnerving about watching a film about AIDS which saw homosexual characters marginalised and predominantly passive, whilst the audience laughed uproariously at its straight protagonist’s hammy homophobic jokes, delivered convincingly in Matthew McConaughey’s throaty Southern drawl. Such jokes seemed acceptable at first; this is, after all, a film based on real life, and it is more than likely that the real Woodroof delivered them himself. However, upon further inspection, it is clear that there is little more than a grain of truth to Dallas Buyers Club, and that this grain has been built up into a deceptive, money-spinning pearl by the ruthless oyster that is the film industry (excuse the ungainly metaphor).
As an example we might consider Rayon, Woodroof’s friend and business partner in the film. Rayon is an HIV+ transgender woman and a drug addict. I was immediately angry that the film’s characters refused to refer to her using feminine pronouns, but believing that she was based on a real person at the time, I tried to dismiss this as something which must have come from real life. Finding out that Rayon is fictional, however, made this writerly decision inexcusable. The media’s all-too-frequent refusal to call trans people the gender with which they identify is a huge problem, and when a film as widely exposed as Dallas Buyers Club is guilty of the same, there are real life repercussions. Add to this a smattering of transphobic jokes which figure Rayon as a deceptive cross-dresser and a farcical breast-fetishist, and we have a serious problem.
I don’t want to give anything away, but Rayon’s story arc is not a happy one. Now, were she based on a real life person, this would make sense. However, as a fictional character she is constructed in compliance with a myriad of damaging tropes. Once again, queer people are represented as weird, ill, immoral, and ultimately doomed; a film which sets out to stick it to the man and claim equal healthcare for AIDS patients ultimately partakes in the puritanical discourse which condemned said patients in the first place. It is a disturbing reality that commercial films such as this one find it very difficult to allow LGBTQ people mental stability, and a life which extends beyond the closing credits. It seems they have to die in order to give precedence to the “normal” protagonists. According to Dallas Buyers Club, male-to-female trans people are also incapable of shaving properly.
Many people would contest my argument by stressing that Rayon’s story is one which rings true with many people who lived and died during the AIDS crisis. However, the great thing about fiction is that those writing it can make it do whatever they want. There was really no need to present the homosexual population as a group of passive, promiscuous, drug-addled bystanders ripe for the picking by Ron Woodroof’s ruthless, hyper-masculine business acumen. Been there, got the T-shirt, and felt the dim sense of futility and shame which comes with identifying as homosexual in an overwhelmingly straight world.
The thing is, Dallas Buyers Club is a straight film. Its protagonist is a hyper-masculine, bigoted Texan cowboy, who discovers his HIV+ status and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, and, supposedly, discovery of tolerance. But is it enough that he reluctantly smiles in a gay club? That he smuggles AIDS medicine into the U.S. to sell to gay men at extortionate prices, even if he continues to use the insult “cocksucker” as he does so? As The Guardian states, the film’s version of Woodroof (allegedly bisexual in real life), is “just a great big straighty straight”, with every possible effort made to quell suggestions that he might be just a tiny, weeny bit inclined towards men. Love interest Dr. Saks (Garner) ensures this is the case. Dr. Saks is also fictional.
Although it is important to stress that AIDS is not simply a “gay disease”, it is absolutely crucial not to write gay men out of its history. Due to unavoidable science, AIDS always has and always will claim more homosexual lives than any others. Unfortunately, the film industry continues to do the same.