TIME Media

Everyone Needs to Lay Off the Miss America Contestants

The 2015 Miss America Pageant Finals
Kira Kazantsev, newly crowned Miss America 2015 walks the runway at Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall on September 14, 2014 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Donald Kravitz—Getty Images

Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer who teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

If we're criticizing the pageant for degrading women, why should we ourselves degrade those individual women in our commentary?

The newly crowned Miss America speaks Russian and Spanish. She earned a triple degree – in political science, global studies and geography – and is heading to law school at Fordham. She’s an outspoken advocate against domestic violence and sexual assault at a moment when we can use as many different voices addressing that problem as we can find.

To read social media last night and today, though, you’d think Kira Kazantsev was a talentless idiot with no self-respect. Beyond the mockery of her performance tapping a red cup to the beat of “Happy” – which she said later was her way of encouraging little girls to think outside the box – she was also blamed for the fact that a production flunky misspelled Jane Austen as “Austin” in a pop-up fact about her favorite literature.

What was especially disconcerting was the fact that so much of the snark and insult came from feminists and other progressives. Some of the same oversensitive, full-time scolds who the day before were on a tear because CNN’s Chris Cuomo wondered aloud where the line is between a spanking and assault on a child, were completely at home degrading the finalists in utterly stereotypical terms or retweeting such remarks.

These women were reduced, by the very people who oppose the objectification of women, to their looks and clothes and what that presumably says about them.

One, Miss Massachusetts Lauren Kuhn, was once attacked by a cheetah in Zambia, according to a pop-up factoid. The woman is at Harvard Dental School, but that didn’t stop people from getting sarcastic about why someone like her would ever go to Africa.

More importantly, can you imagine any world in which it would be OK to have two or more women of any color other than white on a stage and people casually remarking, without controversy, that they’re hard to tell apart? You know, like these:

Even when they tried to show off their entertainment talents, it went like that.

By the time the Jane Austen snafu took place, the hate-watchers were giddy. Some had tried to make hay out of replies to questions about ISIS or domestic violence, but it didn’t really stick.

The Jane Austen error, though – that went viral. Because, of course, it confirmed every negative thing certain people think about women like these.

At some point, some of the allegedly offended folks admitted their self-loathing for how they’d spent their Sunday night. They had many choices – I watched Boardwalk Empire and part of the PBS mega-documentary on the Roosevelts, both more allegedly highbrow – but instead there they were feeling superior to the women they were appalled by. Odds are good the TV audience for Miss America was primarily women anyhow, given that there was a football game on, too.

I don’t begrudge the masses, anonymous and notable, the joy of remarking on the clothes, the performances, even the question of whether a grown woman should have to bare her midriff to win a scholarship. That’s all fair game. But when folks project societal issues onto these individual women, it seems worthy to step back and ask why.

As Taylor Marsh, a feminist and Miss Missouri in 1974 who put herself through college with winnings from pageants, noted in a Huffington Post piece before the show yesterday, “You’d think by now there’d be a higher bar on expressing opinions and rendering judgments on another girl’s choices that are actually nobody else’s business.”

Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


A White Gay Man and a Black Woman Hug It Out

Steve Friess & Courtney Jones Stevens

In the name of an open dialogue on race, two sides of a divisive opinion try to come together in an online chat

Last month, Time.com posted a piece, “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away,” by regular contributor Steve Friess responding to University of Mississippi student Sierra Mannie’s op-ed, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture,” also published on Time.com.

The reaction to both pieces was explosive, proving how large the racial divide remains in America and how different the perspectives are of even well-intended people of both sides.

After engaging with his dissenters, Friess asked one of the women with whom he exchanged emails to have an on-the-record chat, in the name of an “open dialogue about race.” Courtney Jones-Stevens, a 26-year-old who recently earned a master’s degree in college student affairs administration from the University of Georgia.

Their conversation has been edited for space and approved by both parties.

* * *

SF: Good afternoon, Courtney. How are you?

CJS: I’m not feeling especially peaceful today in general considering what all has transpired in Missouri, but I’m ready for some insightful discourse.

SF: So is this a good time to have a dialogue on race relations in America?

CJS: It’s a good time for white allies to get into white communities and do some educating.

SF: Well, that’s a good segue to why we’re talking in the first place. I wrote a piece that I had hoped was a way of describing the commonalities between white gay men and black women and why we ought to be allies. I felt the original writer, Sierra Mannie, singled out a pretty small group of people—white gay men maybe make up one percent of all non-black people— for ridicule and attack.

CJS: Correct.

SF: Please tell me as best you can what you found wrong about what I said.

CJS: I know the title set the tone as directive and patronizing.

SF: I agree the headline was specifically problematic. It was, however, written as a parallel to the title of Mannie’s piece. Do you see the reverse problem of tone and disrespect?

CJS: I do empathize. I can see parallels in the casting out of gay White men and Black women. But for many Black women, race and gender exists in a strange space. What resonated from Mannie’s piece was that, although you may not be one of them, there are plenty of gay White men who at least make attempts to emulate Black women. You felt she was speaking to you even though you say you aren’t one of those men, and that speaks volumes to how privilege works.

SF: The discussion of privilege is frustrating because black people don’t want their world views, worth or ideas boiled down or dismissed based on their color. Yes, I’m white. And male. And gay. And disabled. And Jewish. Why does my perspective become invalid because of some of my traits?

CJS: Not invalid, but you can never understand what it is to be Black in America, to be forever objectified and subjugated. Mannie didn’t come from a place of disdain but exhaustion. I cannot tell you how many experiences I’ve had with microaggressions, with decent white folks who assume things about me and approach me or respond to me accordingly.

SF: You say many white gay guys emulate black women. I don’t believe there are so many, but if there are some, so what? Anyone admiring and celebrating black female culture would seem like people who are not out to harm you.

CJS: Steve, if someone says, “X is offensive and it’s not taken as you might have intended,” and your objective is to forge an alliance, your respond cannot be, “So what?” Do you know how many times I get “Whaddup sistah girl?!” and my white counterparts get a simple, “Hello.” Or how many times I’ve been asked to teach someone how to twerk. It’s just exhausting. This is from white gay men in the work place, in bars and clubs, etc.

SF: You must understand that that sounds completely bizarre and alien to me. And most gay white men I know.

CJS: Maybe it’s regional. I doubt it is. In the South, using blackness and being adjacent to black things is a cash cow.

SF: Do white straight men do this?

CJS: Absolutely. Although from straight white men, it’s more of a sexual objectification and fetishizing.

SF: So it’s a white male thing. Why isolate a very small portion of white men, the gays, for attack? Mannie accuses white gay men who “act” too black-female of being cultural thieves.

CJS: Mannie called out some folks who’ve flown under the radar.

SF: So the sense is there’s been enough written about racist behavior coming from the white world in general and that her piece was about a subset, white gays, who hadn’t been called out?

CJS: Right. The racism that’s rampant in the LGBT community and the cultural appropriation that happens in that community goes unnoticed. Nobody has a problem with gays doing the “Single Ladies” choreography in the club with each other, but there comes a point where we enter territory in which we don’t belong.

SF: One of the great ironies is that I’ve been shopping an essay for more than a year in which I react to Andrew Sullivan and others who are just stunned—stunned— by the head-spinning advances toward gay acceptance. It’s really easy and obvious; white men and women have been so involved. Whites came while having been embedded or secretly on the inside of America’s levers of power. Look at the gay movement through the lens of privilege and it’s pretty easy to see why it has been so successful so fast.

CJS: Okay. This is good. As awful as it is to hide parts of your identity, gays can and have. And to climb to a position of power with whiteness and then come out, I can’t describe it, but I don’t have the luxury of doing it. Who I am, what people think about who I am, and how people treat me on a daily basis is always visible. And that’s what’s so disturbing about folks from all walks of life who pick parts of who I am to use for their own amusement or advancement and tuck those things away when they no longer need them.

SF: Are we trying to determine whose historic burden has been worse? Because going the first 20 years or so of your life in a family that might reject you like a foreign organ is not a way to prepare anyone for a happy life.

CJS: No. I don’t play that game.

SF: But aren’t we? When you or Mannie want to describe why being closeted and fearing everything dear to you could be ruined or taken from you if your identity is known is someone a luxury?

CJS: It would be a luxury to be seen as something other than my color and gender at the outset of every interaction.

SF: For most of my life, I wore gigantic hearing aids. People always treated me as though I was mentally impaired until they got to know me. Anyone with any physical deformity, too, knows how it feels to be judged on sight. It’s not just people of color.

CJS: Yes, but do the police follow you, stop you, frisk you? Do they assume you have a weapon and shoot you? Do you see that?

SF: Yes. I do. Just because I felt called to defend very nelly gay guys doesn’t mean I can’t see the difference.

CJS: Fair enough.

SF: During the firestorm that followed my piece, I was goaded by many people to explain what I had done for black women or what all gays had done. And any time I offered any answer, I was then attacked because that wasn’t good enough or people thought, “Oh, so just because you did this you think…” It was incredibly frustrating.

CJS: I’m trying to think of the best way to say this. It’s multi-pronged. There is never enough to do when a cause is still ongoing. And I am honestly sitting here trying to think of instances where gay White men have stood side by side with Black women in solidarity. I’m stumped. And that’s not to say that it never happens, but I’m at a loss for examples.

SF: Actually, several prominent gay groups and people have spoken out about the Michael Brown death. I just sent you a press release showing a statement from 17 major gay groups condemning the Ferguson police. Are you surprised by that?

CJS: I wouldn’t say surprised I am glad to see it. It is unexpected, but I wasn’t taken aback.

SF: The reaction of the gay community to this incident isn’t as novel as you think. Going back 20 years, I’ve seen gay organizations boycott states that passed anti-black or anti-Hispanic laws. There were columns in the gay press about what Trayvon Martin had to do with gay social justice. I want to believe that you’ve seen pro-gay writing in the black media as well that I’d never have known about. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

CJS: Right and because access to that isn’t as open as it should be, it’s easier to say it doesn’t exist. I guess I have to bear responsibility for not having looked. But, still, the euphoric alliance you wrote about does not exist, and I don’t know many people on either side making an effort to forge it.

SF We can’t solve this or even pretend to represent anyone more than ourselves, but I look at these two groups and I see a lot of commonality. And people were hectoring me, “What? What is there in common?” Do you see it?

CJS: Between white gay men and black women? It’s nothing I’ve ever even considered. I suppose it exists, but I’ve not had a chance to build many relationships on that foundation.

SF: Why? Surely the opportunity has presented itself.

CJS: It’s not an organic thing for me, honestly.

SF: That’s where I’m confused, because it is organic for me. And to say that sounds like I’m going, “some of my best friends are…”

CJS: I don’t feel like being a social justice educator in every single interaction, you know? Sometimes I just want to be. I know several gay white guys and I’ve built great relationships, but they weren’t based on shared experiences of oppression.

SF: Well, no. That’s not a basis, but it is something you learn about one another as you go through life.

CJS: Yes, for sure.

SF: So Mannie wrote from her experience. I wrote from mine. I live near Detroit, I’ve always had a very broad range of close friends not only of races but also of different ages. And because I see it that way, because I feel optimistic that people who get to know one another will like and want to help one another, I walked into a buzzsaw with this piece.

CJS: Yes, yes you did. Your piece seemed to come from a place where gay white men are extending the savior hand and helping us black girls come up from the depths as you all have done so swiftly.

SF: I didn’t mean it that way! I just saw two groups with a lot in common who should be encouraged to help one another. It feels like a delicate line.

CJS: It is. Absolutely.

SF: People of good intentions will step on (and in) it.

CJS: In a way, we have to walk on eggshells with each other until a foundation built on trust has been laid. I believe in treading lightly as a general rule because I never know what life experiences have altered someone’s perspective.

SF: But whenever I hear about the importance of having a “dialogue on race,” I wonder – who is supposed to do this? Who qualifies? How does anyone do it without causing controversy or being attacked? What does it even mean? If the only people who can do it are the people who know precisely how not to misspeak or those who are willing to just cede the entire argument to the other people, what good is it?

CJS: Opening a dialogue should go something like what took place with us. Neither of us started by attacking each other personally. We have very different epistemologies, but we built something before having this conversation.

SF: Take the election of Obama. No, it didn’t end racism. But it was something substantial that showed millions of white people can look beyond race.

CJS: No one wants white people to look beyond race.

SF: Wait. You don’t?

CJS: I want to be seen for who I am. I want my history to be understood. I want my cultural differences to be acknowledged and appreciated without being encroached upon or perverted.

SF: We’re going to need to wrap up. Do you have questions for me.

CJS: We were actually able to cover my questions. The dialogue delved into your thought process. That’s what I wanted to know more about.

SF: Well, let me be clear. My intent was not to issue marching orders. It was not to pretend to be a savior. It was to describe my own reality, the world I dwell in. Mine is as legitimate as that of Mannie’s. But I felt like I was describing ways of coming together and she was trying to divide groups.

CJS: You’re entitled to have a reaction. I genuinely believe in people’s reactions being shaped by their experiences. Much of the way we respond to things is shaded by what we know to be true based on the lives we lead.

SF: Also, I didn’t enjoy being run through the ringer on Twitter, but I couldn’t deny that many people were telling me something hard to hear. I tried to agree with some and explain my differences with others, and that got distorted and amplified. So after this comes out, I am going to try to keep my trap shut and observe regardless of how hurtful and dehumanizing much of the reaction can be there.

CJS: I’m definitely nervous about the response. I’m grateful for this opportunity, but nervous.

SF: Well, here’s a hint I learned a little bit too late: The “mute” button on Twitter is your friend.

TIME sexuality

Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away

We, too, know what it's like to be ostracized and pushed down.

In the earliest months of our relationship, my now-husband wanted me to understand something fundamental about his tastes, so he took me to a concert with acts I’d only vaguely heard of. I knew Queen Latifah, obviously, and was somewhat aware of Erykah Badu, but the rest of the lineup at the 2005 Sugar Water Festival, a short-lived summer showcase for black songstresses, were new to me.

Also new to me as a child of an upscale, white Long Island suburb: the composition of the audience. There were an overwhelming number of black women filling the vast Mandalay Bay Convention Center, which was unusual enough for a show on the Las Vegas Strip. But these women were accompanied, to my surprise, by more than a smattering of white men. Gay white men, that is. Very gay white men.

Those relationships fascinated me — and made a certain sense. It’s easy, once you start to imagine it, to see the natural connection between the two ostracized groups, both of which have translated that marginalization into defiant, self-affirming subcultures. My then new beau came of age in the urban nightclubs of Washington D.C., New York, and Tampa, all places where many white gay men found acceptance and common cultural cause with their oppressed black sisters who, in turn, flooded the scene, seeking places to revel away from so many predatory, demeaning straight men of all races.

Last week, that alliance came under attack by misguided University of Mississippi senior Sierra Mannie, who believed she was defending black women from cultural theft by launching an assault on white gays who, to her mind, behave too black. She zinged, “You are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you.”

Others have already burned the piece down to its homo-ignorant nub, noting that Mannie writes cluelessly and obscenely about the nature and challenges of being gay. Her fire is fueled by some undeniably racist interactions, a supposed epidemic of white gay men who actually wish to be called by stereotypically black names and anoint themselves “strong black women.” It’s difficult to dispute that such behavior is weird and offensive, but it’s illogical to suggest all gay white men are “thieves” on that anecdotal basis alone.

Yet here’s what else Mannie overlooks in her full-frontal assault: White gay men as a group could be the truest friends black women can have in American society. No alliance is perfect, but this one has the potential, if nurtured properly, to reconfigure the stories of race and gender. White gay men — once intensely vilified but now able to harness our white male privilege for good, having learned what being on the outside is like — are a conduit through which black women can work against both countervailing forces that push them down.

Gay white men, in fact, pioneered a prototype for this. Not long ago, the biggest barrier for social acceptance for gays was heterosexual men. Then we co-opted them. At first, those old enough may recall, straight men refused even to speak to us, lest others perceive them as less than fully virile, if not gay themselves. Even those who deigned to be friendly did so at an arm’s length, claiming to be discomfited by irrepressible images of us — with them? — in sexual positions. Over time, this eroded. They liked our music. Straight women liked our clothes, our hair and our manscaping, and straight men will do just about anything to appeal to straight women. We were house-proud, fashion-forward, smart and funny, versed in both high and low culture. By the early 1990s, straight, urban men even accepted a hybrid moniker: the metrosexual.

Once those lines were blurred, once straight men not only accepted gay men but sought out our advice — remember “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy”? — men of all sexual orientations could see their similarities far outweighed their differences. Familiarity bred affinity, and affinity forced straight men to realize they had little to lose — and perhaps the admiration of straight women as a fringe benefit — by supporting full equality for gay people.

Our willingness to share our culture facilitated this detente. But “willingness” may be a strong word because it would have happened whether we were happy or angry about it. Mannie can bark at the gay white universe to lay off, but an appealing means of expression and art are the ultimate in open-source culture.

There is no question white gays have intrinsic advantages over black women in American society. Sure, we’ve taken our lumps, but black women certainly win the sweepstakes of oppression by a landslide. It is, in fact, this basic difference — race — that has enabled us to blitz through our civil rights movement in head-spinning fashion, while black women continue to face painful economic and political hurdles. Why did gay rights go from fantasy to entitlement in a blink of the historical eye, even as other oppressed minorities fend off efforts to deny them the ability to vote or obtain a decent education? Because so many of the gay men (and women) who came out were white and, thus, already embedded in the nation’s most powerful institutions.

But we’re here now, and we’re natural allies. The mutual fondness between so many black women and white gay men arises both from similar, if not shared, experience, but also a strikingly similar approach to coping with it. Some tropes emerged from black female culture and some from the gay world, but how or why is the stuff not of pundits or essayists, but of doctoral dissertations by social anthropologists. We aren’t going to get to the bottom of that on Twitter.

Still, cultural alliances like this are rare and should be treasured, not chastised. Black men didn’t have one. Neither did Jews or Native Americans. Arab Americans sure don’t. But through some fluke of cosmic association, black women have kindred spirits in white gay men. Don’t push us away.

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

TIME Religion

My Turn as a Target of ‘God Hates Fags’ Preacher Fred Phelps

The Rev. Fred Phelps leads the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.
The Rev. Fred Phelps leads the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. Michael S. Williamson—Washington Post

'Would you care who I am if I was nicer?' he asked. 'Would the governor care who I am if I was nicer?'

The night that the media sensation known as Fred Phelps became a national celebrity, few in his hometown of Topeka, Kan., were able to watch. Minutes before that July 1993 episode of the ABC newsmagazine “20/20” aired, as another reporter and I sat in the newsroom of the Topeka Capital-Journal waiting to see what Barbara Walters would do with him, a series of small, otherwise inconsequential tornadoes swept through and knocked out power to most of the city.

‘This world is full of filthy sodomites and sinners such as yourself,’ he told me. ‘If I am hated, so be it. But I will be heard.’One might have thought that Phelps, who had at that point spent years largely unnoticed outside of Kansas for his “God Hates Fags” pickets on prominent Topeka street corners and the occasional gay pride event in Kansas City, would have taken the blackout that night as a sign of God’s displeasure. But Phelps was master of the long con, and he knew the best for him was yet to come.

As I learned as his target just weeks before his “20/20” star turn, Phelps — who passed away yesterday at the age of 84 — was probably the most preposterous, maniacal anti-gay activist in American history. After one of his many estranged children reported via Facebook in mid-March that Phelps, founder of a “church” made up almost entirely of his and a couple other families, was in a hospice center and near death, one last surge of renewed national attention visited him. If he was conscious, he surely enjoyed every bit of it.

The P.T. Barnum of homophobia and hate will be remembered as the guy who persuaded the Supreme Court to uphold his rights to picket at the funerals of fallen soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, he also picketed the funerals of countless people who died from AIDS, Bill Clinton’s mother, and murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard. Phelps occupied a place on the anti-gay fringe so extreme that even Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms distanced themselves.

For those reasons and others, there will be obits and, inevitably, a Queerty listicle of Phelps’ greatest hits. The Internet already buzzes about celebrations to mark his passing which, of course, would thrill Fred. Jesus, he often noted, was hated in death, too.

What probably won’t be noticed was what a brilliant, prescient publicity monger he was and how he portended so much of the desperate look-at-me political culture.

At the time Phelps targeted me, he was weeks away from his “20/20” star turn, although I didn’t know that. I was a summer intern at the Topeka paper that year, freshly out of the closet at the age of 20 in an era when that was still a novelty and a serious risk to life and career. I accepted the reporting internship in Kansas, in fact, before I told my family I was gay — so that if they rejected me, I’d have a place far from my native Long Island to be that summer. (They didn’t.)

Phelps was known locally because he and his group conducted nearly daily picketing demonstrations at Gage Park, which was at the time rumored to be a gay cruising spot, as well as outside of a restaurant managed by an out lesbian. The city council had attempted to shut him up a few times, but Phelps and his daughter, both constitutional lawyers, won time and time again in court on First Amendment grounds. Those battles would presage his Supreme Court triumphs.

At first, coming from New York, I regarded Phelps as a weird quirk of Middle America. As I worked on a piece about gay youth in Topeka, however, I realized the toxic nature of Phelps’ wrath, the terror he spread. Every gay or gay-supportive person I spoke to mentioned their fears of becoming one of his targets.

Then, as they all predicted, I became one. After my piece ran, someone in the Phelps gang surreptitiously took a photo of me leaving the office. They drew horns, a tail and a long slithery tongue on it, declared me a “faggot who loves smoking the sausage,” among the more benign claims, and faxed this pre-Perez Hilton piece of art to the Topeka newspaper, the local TV stations, and various city and state government offices.

Had I planned to live there, the outlandish, extremely public nature of the incident could have crushed me. Instead, it made me laugh. Phelps sent such faxes constantly, making everyone from the governor to the editor of the Topeka Capital-Journal look like AIDS-spreading demons with voracious and illicit sexual appetites. Nobody, I thought, could possibly take this guy seriously.

But they did. ABC’s report on Phelps aired nationally, and suddenly he was a thing. He’d sit down with any reporter to spout off the vilest Biblical nonsense. Presumably, donations poured in from somewhere because all of a sudden, Phelps and his group were able to pop up in future years at gay pride events I attended in Chicago and San Diego, in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and even outside a Las Vegas high school student production of “The Laramie Project,” a play about Shepard’s death. Gay couples would make out in front of his pickets out of spite and more reasonable religious people would try to talk sense to his followers. Both were fuel to his fire.

Phelps was catnip to the media. He knew it and he loved it. And I know this because he told me so. In my final week in Kansas, I was sent to cover some local government meeting. Phelps was there for some reason; he had gotten his start, of course, as one of those local gadflies who show up regularly to rant during public comments segments of all manner of public boards and panels.

Knowing I was leaving town gave me the courage to introduce myself. He didn’t recognize my name or the fax he’d sent, such a busy bigot was he. But he was pleasant and gregarious, and he said nothing cruel or damning to me in person. That emboldened me to ask why he was so blunt and mean in his attacks. Wouldn’t he have a better chance of getting people to listen to him if he weren’t so harsh?

“Son,” he said with a chuckle as he placed a thick, veiny hand on my shoulder, “would you care who I am if I was nicer? Would the governor care who I am if I was nicer? Would Barbara Walters care who I am if I was nicer?”

But, I asked, do you actually believe what you’re saying?

“Oh, yes,” he said. “As God is my witness, I do. This world is full of filthy sodomites and sinners such as yourself. It needs to be cleansed. People need to be warned. I am called to warn them. If I am hated, so be it. But I will be heard.”

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

TIME movies

Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’

Jared Leto as Rayon in Jean-Marc Vallée’s fact-based drama, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit:  Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features
Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Anne Marie Fox—Focus Features

'Dallas Buyers Club' has garnered praise for the actor's supposedly brave portrayal of a transgender woman. Don't expect anyone to find it admirable 20 years from now.

Correction appended, 4/22/14.

Back in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” Hollywood was incessantly proud of itself. The Academy indulged in feel-good self-congratulations that night because McDaniel was the first black person to win any of its acting honors.

(MORE: Oscars 2014 Prediction: Why Jared Leto Will Win Best Supporting Actor)

“It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America, an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” explained the actress Fay Bainter before calling McDaniel up from her segregated table in the back of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom where she sat far from her white co-stars.

In the light of more than seven decades, that moment and performance are tainted by our collective understanding of how hypocritical and patronizing it was. McDaniel’s portrayal of a house slave is now, alongside the old Aunt Jemima syrup logos, viewed as an archetypical, racist touchstone. It is difficult to watch McDaniel’s infantilized Mammy without cringing.

(MORE: Grantland Transgender Scandal Signals Progress)

Now the Academy is on the brink of doing it again for another badly misunderstood minority. Unless virtually every odds maker and show-biz pundit is wrong, the straight actor Jared Leto will on Sunday win the Best Supporting Actor statuette for a portrayal of a transgender woman with AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Not long from now — it surely won’t take decades, given the brisk pace of progress on matters of identity and sexuality these days — 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 little they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring.

(MORE: The Wrong Way To Write About Trans People)

Part of the problem stems from the film’s script itself. The audience is only taken in if they think they’re watching a true story, and “Dallas Buyers Club” is largely shilled as such. But the Ron Woodruff who defied his AIDS death sentence for years and who set up an alternative means of selling unapproved HIV medication to people with HIV around Texas was, by all contemporary accounts, at least bisexual and not the least bit homophobic.

So the story being shopped as true is, at its heart, a fiction. The movie Woodruff is a hyper heterosexual and bigot, and his heroism stems both from creating the Dallas Buyers Club and being taught tolerance by Leto’s Rayon. And Rayon is an entirely fabricated person.

(MORE: Barneys Is Counting on 17 Transgender Models for Its Spring Campaign)

What did the writers of “Dallas Buyers Club” and Leto as her portrayer decide to make Rayon? Why, she’s 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 they are women — behave. And in a very bleak film, she’s the only figure played consistently for comic relief, like the part when fake-Woodruff points a gun at Rayon’s crotch and suggests he give her the sex change she’s been wanting. Hilarious.

Hollywood has long found humor in aspects of transgenderism — be it simple cross-dressing or actual transexuality — and shows no signs of letting up. From “Some Like It Hot” to “Tootsie,” a guy in a dress is always deemed clever and funny. And the trend, if anything, shows signs of escalating from benign and misinformed to threatening. As Jos Truitt notes at feministing.com, the “22 Jump Street” trailer doesn’t even cloak its transphobic “humor” in allusions, with characters cracking wise about the prison rape of trans women. These are the coming attractions, the parts the filmmakers or their marketing consultants think are the most enticing. “Most of the increased visibility trans women are getting in Hollywood right now is not a good thing — it’s cruel and it’s dangerous,” Truitt wrote.

In “Dallas Buyers Club,” Rayon is tormented not by having HIV but by being transgender. You see it in the scenes in which she sits shirtless before a vanity dusting her face with a makeup brush or visits her estranged father in men’s clothes to plead for money. She’s the victimized dingbat whose incompetence and unreliability exists to show how far Woodruff has come both as a businessman and a human being. And, remember, the entire relationship is fiction. Not fact-based fiction. Pure, 100 percent fiction.

Leto claims his research included sit-downs with transgender people, but none have come forward to acknowledge they advised him and the full credits don’t specify any particular transgender consultants. The transgender world is pretty small, especially in Los Angeles, as I learned when I wrote my L.A. Weekly cover story about the suicide of transgender L.A. Times sportswriter Christine Daniels. Nobody who knows anything about this life is sticking up for this performance.

Some of the criticism of Leto is, indeed, unfair. He was heckled at a Santa Barbara film festival by transgender activists frustrated that the role didn’t go to a transgender actress. That’s a real problem — of course transgender performers are underrepresented or nearly nonexistent in Hollywood with the almost singular exception of Laverne Cox of “Orange Is The New Black” — but it isn’t Leto’s fault. Had he, as Jeffrey Tambor has in the brilliant Amazon Prime pilot “Transparent,” tried to understand the trans experience as one of the soul and not physical artifice, he probably wouldn’t be attacked like that.

No, that’s not the problem here. The problem is what Leto did with the role and the fact that reviewers cannot stop fawning over it. Back in McDaniel’s day, reviewers and interviewers did the same, with McDaniel insisting her portrayal was authentic and the rest of the non-black world largely buying it.

It won her the Oscar, to be sure. And Rayon probably will win Leto one as well. And that’s grand for them. But that may not be the whole legacy here. Once transgender people receive the broad respect they deserve, Leto’s creation, like McDaniel’s, will be seen as a crude throwback of a less aware era.

Correction: This article originally stated incorrectly that Mammy shrieks about “birthin’ babies” in Gone with the Wind.

Correction: The original version of this story misquoted an article on feministing.com. The quotation has been removed.

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.


TIME Retail

Hallmark’s Problem With Gay Love

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The corporate card-maker could muster only one option for gays and lesbians to express their feelings on Valentine's Day

I stand at the racks in the local CVS inspecting the merchandise and pondering life’s little issues: Should we be mice this time? Or little bunnies? Gosh, the bunnies are awful cute – but, dang, the one on the left is wearing mascara and lipstick, isn’t it? Mice then? Or does that one have a bow in its hair?

This is how gays browse for Valentine’s Day, birthday, wedding, or anniversary greetings. We walk into Walgreens or Target, ignore just about any card that shows pictures of actual humans or that declare love to a “husband” or “wife,” because inevitably the language, and probably the imagery too, will be positively hetero. Instead, we find cards with mutually enamored, anthropomorphic animals and ascertain they aren’t drawn to imply gender. Or, alternatively, we go schlocky because a crude cliché about one’s age or a knowing joke about the banality of a long-term relationship really knows no sexual orientation.

With the acknowledgment that the gays of Sochi and Uganda would kill for such mundane dilemmas, I’m still baffled. If this is an ultimate first-world problem, it is because the marketplace in first-world countries is supposed to resolve these inconveniences and awkward moments by providing products to satisfy a growing niche. Back in 1992 when I sought out my first Valentine’s card for another man, I expected nothing more. More than two decades later, though, it’s surprising – and surprisingly bad business – that so little has changed.

The key player here, of course, is Hallmark. There are other card makers, but Hallmark dominates the $8 billion-a-year industry with more than 5 billion cards sold in the U.S. annually, and a presence in drug stores and other retailers that goes far beyond its own 38,000 stores. Back in 2008, when only Massachusetts and California had legal same-sex marriage, Hallmark made a big deal about rolling out what they considered to be gay wedding cards. Even though the cards were carefully unspecific — artwork showed intertwined flowers and overlapping hearts and the nondescript message “Two hearts. One promise,”– they enjoyed praise for their foresight.

That the company is basically doing roughly the same thing six years and 15 additional marriage-equality states later is strange. This is an age, after all, when all-American icons Chevy and Coca-Cola include same-sex families in their diversity montages during the most mainstream of TV events, the Super Bowl and Olympics.

“This year, Hallmark offers two cards in our in-store Valentine’s Day selection that are specifically created for same-sex relationships — titled ‘Love: Man to Man’ and ‘Love: Woman to Woman’ — and they are labeled that way in the display,” the company’s publicist, Kristi Ersting, wrote to me last week. “There are other relevant Valentine’s Day cards that would be appropriate for same-sex relationships as well as other romantic relationships. They would be found in the display under titles like ‘Love for Him / Her,’ ‘Man / Woman I Love’ and ‘For My Partner.’”

Wow. Two cards, one for each same-gender pair. Neither of which, it should be noted, the clerks at any of the Hallmark stores in and around Ann Arbor, Mich., seemed aware of or could locate. And then, of course, some other cards that can, as they say, go both ways.

Ersting did the company no favors by pointing me to Hallmark.com’s LGBT page, which was, like the rest of Hallmark’s efforts in this regard, as coded and unclear as possible. The top three cards there were ones you can customize – Hallmark’s way of saying, ‘Ah, do it yourself, give us your money and leave us alone’ — but the examples and the images provided were all of and for opposite-sex couples. For some reason, two of the mere 14 options were cards that invited you to write your name on the unsightly business end of an elephant’s behind.

Meanwhile, there were at least 10 different versions of birthday cards for 90-year-olds at one brick-and-mortar Hallmark in Ann Arbor. Which is more common for most people: that they’ll need a wedding or anniversary card for a same-sex couple or for a 90-year-old’s birthday? And, anyhow, what are the odds you’d ever need more than one at a time? Or, on the off chance you know a gang of 90-year-olds all hitting the milestone at once, how likely is it that they’ll be at each other’s houses snarking, “Oh, you got that one from Emily, too, huh?”

A few other occasions for which Hallmark feels there’s a bigger market than the gays include a priest’s anniversary, a thank-you note from a pet or for a day-care provider, and congratulations on potty training, the loss of teeth, a new cat, or a gold award from the Girl Scouts. I did spot a Valentine’s card under the banner “Daughter & ‘Son’” – but it’s unclear whether this is a passive-aggressive way of questioning an in-law’s validity in the family or acknowledging his gender transition.

Gay people have won so many victories in such a short period of time that many figure it’s all over but the mopping-up. But the mopping-up includes small things like this that illustrate inclusion and respect as well as acceptance.

These are the things that make it real. It’s when you check into a hotel with your boyfriend and the clerk doesn’t automatically assume you want two beds. It’s when the bakery doesn’t force you to sue for your right to perch two brides upon the buttercream.

And, indeed, it’s when you trudge out on a snowy afternoon early in February to the store – any store – and find what you’re looking for. Yes, the Internet makes it easier, and if you’re fortunate enough to have a nearby LGBT bookstore, they can certainly use the business.

But we’ll know we’ve made it, too, when we can roll down to the Piggly Wiggly to find an encouraging card for that nephew who just came out or for that couple whose teenager is asking for gender reassignment surgery.

Or, in our case, something with a pair of adoring and adorable boy bunnies pledging their Valentine’s affections. If straight people buy it without noticing, all the better. They can always draw a skirt on one of them if they really must.

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

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