Does Dallas Buyers Club Have a “Pathetic Queer” Problem?  

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.
Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.

Courtesy of Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

Dallas Buyers Club is not a perfect movie. In its portrayal of Ron Woodroof—a homophobic, hard-living roughneck who, after learning he has AIDS in the mid-1980s and finding the FDA’s slow progress on treatment unsatisfactory, organizes a “buyers club” to smuggle experimental drugs in from around the world for himself and anyone able to pay the $400 monthly “subscription fee”—it leans a bit heavily on a hokey (and historically inaccurate) rodeo metaphor to symbolize Woodroof’s struggle. Also, its realization of characters within the medical establishment is perhaps a bit flat. Overall, though, I have to agree with Slate’s Dana Stevens: As a portrait of a complicated man who finds himself caught in an extreme historical moment, Dallas Buyers Club “feels right just as it is.”

What the movie does not feel, at all, is somehow problematic with regard to its treatment of queer characters or the larger AIDS crisis; and yet, some strange complaints in that vein have emerged. In a weirdly hostile review in Deadspin, for instance, Will Leitch dismissed DBC as “gay history for straight people,” while referring incorrectly to Jared Leto’s character, Rayon, as Ron’s “best-pal gay” who plays it “three or four octaves too high.” Rayon is a transgender straight woman, of course, and, given the relative nuance of Leto’s portrayal of her, one wonders how “low” a person’s gender performance octave needs to be to garner Leitch’s approval.

But correct identities aside, the larger argument that DBC somehow represents an incomplete, dumbed-down, or more palatable version of “gay history” is gaining traction. Most notable are a pair of articles by Daniel D’Addario of Salon.

In the first, he accuses the movie of being anti-science in its praise of the buyers club model and wholesale condemnation of the FDA, going on to argue that “its focus is so laserlike upon a particular character, and a particular time period, as to create a simplistic impression of a remarkably complicated time.” I might concede the first point if I didn’t think it is always useful to remind people that the pristine “scientific method” (of which D’Addario seems so protective) is very often corrupted by the very fallible people executing it—as was absolutely true in the case of early AIDS research. But the second point, that the movie oversimplifies and perhaps focuses on the wrong players in the AIDS crisis, is just bizarre. Aren’t narrative films, especially about sweeping historical events, only ever effective when they focus on particular characters and time periods to “create a simplistic impression of a remarkably complicated time?”

Indeed, the very conventions of the genre require that kind of pruning; if you want the thoroughness of a documentary, stick with How to Survive a Plague (which, incidentally, Leitch and D’Addario both hold up to DBC as if the comparison were somehow useful). By contrast, DBC is clearly a limited character study, and the character in question happens to be straight, homophobic, and interested in the gay community only insofar as they represent a large part of his customer base. As a member of that community, it was certainly upsetting to see family treated with such utilitarian coolness—but it would never have occurred to me to let that discomfort color my judgment of the movie on the terms it sets out.

Let’s be clear: Those terms are not about heroism or even really about a particularly sympathetic portrayal of gay people. Though the real Ron Woodroof eventually did become involved in some amount of pro-gay activism, the character we have here never “grows” much beyond a businesslike tolerance of his customers. All of his actions are performed in the service of self-preservation, and for that, he remains at the end of the film an unsettlingly and compellingly ambivalent figure. Even the warming of his relationship with Rayon—particularly in a grocery store scene in which Ron defends his business partner against a former friend’s insults—is clearly due to the specificity of that (again mostly business) relationship: We’re in the land of kinship here, not ideological enlightenment.

And speaking of Rayon, is she really as pathetic as D’Addario suggests in his second article, constructed primarily of a highly ungenerous reading of Jared Leto’s (irrelevant, in my opinion) comments to the press? It’s true that Rayon “is entirely self-destructive, continuing to abuse intravenous drugs long after diagnosis.” But does this mean that we can, as D’Addario insists, only understand her in terms of “pity, mild revulsion, and distance?” That sounds like a personal hang-up to me. To the contrary, I left the film feeling that Rayon was one of the most subtly and convincingly realized queer characters I had ever seen: She possesses, like most people, a mix of virtues and vices; she has love in her life, both from a boyfriend and, in their own, very queer way, from Woodroof; and her motivations are nearly as self-interested as his are, albeit softened by her relationship to the gay community. In fact, this particular composite character’s presence in DBC is the right fit precisely because of her tragic flaws—a more noble or “presentable” queer person would never have been interested in working with Woodroof in the first place.

In the end, this is really a question of representation: When a particular historical event is thought to “belong” to a certain group, how much freedom do artists have in portraying it? Must movies or other art about AIDS always focus on gay people? Woodroof was a real person who suffered, fought, and eventually died from the disease. He was also straight. Is it then categorically “wrong” or a waste of resources to present his story while countless others remain untold? Similarly, Rayon, though not biographically real, is a compelling queer character. But, with the stakes of representation seemingly so steep, are we no longer allowed to appreciate queer characters who happen to be sad or messy or living their lives “three or four octaves too high”?

I hope that’s not the case, not least because it smacks of an insidious breed of “respectability” homophobia. But more important, the notion that art about AIDS or any other fraught topic must meet a list of pre-determined political criteria—lest it be deemed “deeply flawed”—sounds not only chilling, but also terribly boring. It should go without saying that Ron Woodroof’s story does not stand in for the full experience of the AIDS crisis, gay or straight; to criticize it for failing to do what no single story ever could is downright bullheaded.