Body Modification as Gendered Spectacle in Dallas Buyers Club
Let's start with a series of irrefutable facts.
- Fifty per cent of those who went to Marilyn Monroe's movies did so to see her tits -- and the other half, her mole.
- Moviegoers flocked to gaze, gape and gawk at the jagged slabs of Rock Hudson's torso as if at the Grand Canyon.
- People bought tickets and stared like acid trippers into the, like, totally infinite abyss comprised in Bette Davis's eyes.
And, yes, Dallas Buyers Club's (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013) success hinged, at least a little, on Matthew McConaughey's ability to shed fat from his menacing flanks of muscle -- and on Jared Leto's miraculous metamorphosis from cis-man to manic pixie trans-girl. McConaughey and Leto's bodies are the sites of spectacle in the film, the celebrity skin-ny in the centrefold. They are, also, to state it as plainly as possible, two white straight able-bodied cis-men who play AIDs sufferers in the 1980s (because what better way to universalise the experience of illness than by filtering it through cis-man bods?) Their masculine prowess is amplified through flirting with abjection. Their altered bodies are the ultimate product of a macho program predicated on self-denial, adversity: they appropriate the queer, the terminally ill, the "me-that-is-not-me" into their otherwise normative flesh; they fail to assimilate food. Buyers is also, arguably, the zenith of the "McConnaissance" -- a term coined to refer to the actor's recent reassertion of his relevance, emerging triumphantly from the mire of middling rom coms to the delight of Oscar voters everywhere ('cause I mean, what kind of self-respecting actor would want to be notorious in a genre preferred by women?) This evolution was also somewhat centred on taking his ample mass and reiterating its humanity by making it frail, skeletal, dainty -- by making it almost feminine.
The body and face we see in Buyers is familiar and unfamiliar, canny and uncanny, and well, trademark McConaughey. His standard Southern drawl rolls out of his square jaw, but stripped of musculature it looks flimsy. His face is made-up with greys and shadows so it looks like the fat has been lip0suctioned out; his mouth flaps like he's a creepy skeleton puppet. But there is a fine line between abjection and pathos and McConaughey's transformation seems to straddle it -- much like the bull-riding renegade he portrays. The opening credits deliver the first reveal of his transformation, as his character Ron Woodroof fucks an unseen someone furiously, ominously, beneath rodeo bleachers. His sunken face dives breathlessly in and out of shadow. His eyes are horror-movie hollow. The whole thing makes it seem like we're watching a murderer at work, what with the searing soundtrack of sharpening knives, except we know this guy's face (almost), and by all narrative logic we know we're obliged to root for him. Later, when Ron's illness is revealed, we see him hospitalised. His gown is thin as soaked tissue paper is bunched up to expose his tighty-whities. The camera sinks in on his over-projected hipbones, which look just about ready to puncture his fragile, bruised groin. His legs are propped, thin as matchsticks, on the bed. He shamefully pulls down his gown to avert the gaze, to shield his brittle hips. A shadow of his former self, he is almost feminine, abject. He is almost and yet, not quite. He is master of his own body, commanding in his ability to deny himself sustenance. He is a poor-thing for his wilful dodging of his patriarchal duty to command authority through pure bodaciousness: he is a hero for his self-denial, for braving austere conditions. Says McConaughey of the shoot: "I had an amazing amount of energy from the head up."1 He also insists that he had only to sleep three hours a night while at this weight. In press interviews he stresses the hunger he experienced, and the skinniness he endured, not as a frivolous pursuit but as a burst of unbounded, purposeful virility. He and the character/real man Ron are "starving baby eagle(s)"; and the image swells with the mythology of American heroism2. They are patriotic signifiers, with bellies filled not with food but with a burning something. Something which women who diet to shrink their bodies must essentially -- and symbolically -- lack.
Jared Leto's cisgender-man-to-transgender-woman transformation was also accompanied by dramatic weight loss. Towards the end of the film, and at the later stages of his character Rayon's rapidly progressing illness, we see Leto staring blankly into the mirror. Wearing only briefs, the androgyny of his body is stark: his ribs are protuberant, his chest plainly flat. He delicately dapples his sunken cheeks with pressed powder which floats ethereally through the air, as he speaks in a soft pixie voice: "God, when I meet you I'm going to be pretty, if it's the last thing I do, I'll be a beautiful angel." His hands find his barely powdered face, his sunken eyes, and he begins to weep. He is both ugly and beautiful to us, Leto as we both do and do not know him. He and his character are so thin, we are asked to relish the ache of it: we are meant to go, "Oh wow, what a performance, what commitment, what chutzpah, cajones.." 'cause audacity is always about balls.
It's super maddening to think that Leto's own commentary on his alteration was decidedly misogynistic, and mocked the adversity of the trans experience, that he joked about the difficulty of wearing heels and tights; commiserating with condescension: "I feel your pain, ladies."3 It's similarly saddening to think that maybe the reason they chose Leto is because a cis-man rather than a trans-woman is considered box-office safe.
There is a tensile margin between the abject and the sympathetic and these men seem able to stick to the more favourable side of the split. The media coverage surrounding the film horns in on the shocking nature of the two leads' weight loss, the astounding austerity of the diets used, the extreme nature of the lengths gone to, as though it was a categorically remarkable act of empathy, or a kind of adversity, to be a cis able-bodied het dude and then pretend to not to be one. We see this this in the way we gather to see Christian Bale's films as much for his commanding, holy-shit-I-can't-believe-this-guy-is-British acting chops as we do to see which incarnation of his bod will be Now Showing. If it'll be adorned with a belly as saggy as his toupee as in American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013), or agonisingly undernourished like in The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004), or ridiculously ripped à la Batman whichever, where the incredible hulk of his body is normalised in contrast to the skinny one (as there's no way such an Adonis would steroids to get that way). Conversely, we scrutinise Renee Zellweger's frame each time it gets padded for an instalment of Bridget Jones, and each contraction it goes through afterward. We applauded Charlize Theron in Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003) for her bravery, as though transcending sex-object territory was revolutionarily uncouth. We lauded her bravery for rejecting man-made standards of beauty, for eschewing to-be-looked-at-ness, for embracing her feminine abjection. But we also punish women for changing their faces to be more acceptably beautiful. For reconstructing their noses to fit standards we punish them for not fitting in the first place (see Jennifer Grey), or for possibly getting facelifts, like Zellweger maybe did.
There is a certain pleasure to spectating the suffering of stars on both sides of the gender binary and in between. We've for so long twisted their flesh and blood up with that magic stuff of idols, martyrs -- gods, goddesses, whichever gendered term you'd prefer.
Hollywood's ideals used to be clear, too; actors were to fit a certain mould, pay certain dues. They had to be a blonde bombshell like Monroe, or a hardened, wizened cowboy like Hudson, or a melodramatic dame like Davis, or you know, white, like the majority of Hollywood stars. They had to play to type.
But body modification is now so standard, so gendered, so it makes sense that now what we want is to watch them bleed, or, at the very least, to see these bodies work. If you're a cis-man like Leto and McConaughey you might be worshipped for dropping a few pounds and a tad of your masculinity, for embracing the other side of the binary. But if you're not a cis-man, you're gonna have to struggle to universalise your experience, working against a line that cuts into you, dissects you with its gaze, whichever way you turn. If you're not a white man you've got your work cut out for you, and that's an irrefutable fact.