Author: Clara Paternostro
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Rebecca Lee
Course: LING 2400: Language, Gender, & Sexuality
Semester: Spring 2022
At the 2014 Academy Awards, Jared Leto won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, marking the third time а cisgender actor has won an Oscar for portraying a transgender character. Audiences and awards shows alike often praise these actors for the dramatic physical transformations they make when portraying trans women, including how they use their vocal performances to index femininity and queer identity, such as increasing their overall pitch or center of gravity. Center of gravity (COG) refers to the average frequency of fricatives (such as /s/ or /z/). A higher COG often has cultural associations with femininity and queer identity, as seen in the stereotype of “the gay lisp” (Calder, 2019). While many have praised performances such as Leto’s for being emotional and empathetic portrayals of trans characters, trans people within the entertainment industry have spoken up about how casting cis actors in these roles can cause real harm to the public perception of trans people.
In my final paper for Ling 2400, Language, Gender, & Sexuality, I primarily focused on analyzing the differences in the center of gravity of the voiceless fricative /s/ (in words such as “sister” or “sad”) between the actors’ performances where they portrayed trans women and the interviews they gave while presenting as cis men. For this paper, I analyzed three performances: Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (2015), and Cillian Murphy as Kitten Braden in Breakfast on Pluto (2005).
Mean center of gravity (Hz) of Cisgender Actors.
Within this group, Leto’s performance as Rayon stands out as having the greatest difference in COG between the film and the interview I looked at. Looking at specific lines from Dallas Buyers Club and an interview with W Magazine, we can see these differences in COG:
Clip from Dallas Buyers Club (mean center of gravity: 7100.69 Hz):
Let’s ju:st do this quickly so I ca:n, get the fuck out. You got enough for twe:nty of us?
/lɛts dʒʌ:st du ðɪs kwɪkli soʊ aɪ kæ:n, gɛt ðə fʌk aʊt. ju gɑt ɪnʌf fɚr twɛ:ni ʌv ʌs?/
8099.55 Hz 6665.84 Hz
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Clip from Screen Tests, interview with W Magazine (mean center of gravity: 5790.74 Hz):
My first professional job, it’s a toss up if it was, selling weed or working at a barbeque restaurant as a dish washer.
/maɪ fɚst pɹəfɛʃɪnəl dʒɑb, ɪts ə tɑs ʌp ɪf ɪt wʌz, sɛlɪŋ wɪd ɔɹ wɚkɪŋ æt ə bɑɹbəkju ɹɛstəɹɑnt æz ə dɪʃ wɑʃɚ/
6231.31 Hz 6042.15 Hz 5354.32 Hz
Jared Leto in Screen Tests, an interview series from W Magazine (2014)
As seen above, there is a clear distinction between how Leto usually produces /s/ in everyday speech, and how he uses it to purposefully emphasize the identity of Rayon’s character.
It’s evident that cis actors are making purposeful changes in how they use their voices to portray trans women, but the question remains: how does this hurt trans people?
Judith Butler (1990) describes the idea of gender as performance as something that is based on previous conventions of gender that are then reinforced as people conform to them. When actors portray trans characters in media, they may make acting choices informed by preexisting cultural ideas about how trans women speak and present, such as the use of a higher COG, thus reinforcing the same ideas on screen. When audiences see trans actors in trans roles, they don’t experience a vast difference between how the actor performs gender on-screen and how they perform gender in their daily lives. However, when cis actors take these roles, it can create a strong dissonance for viewers who witness these actors easily shed the voice and look of a trans person once they are attending interviews and award shows for their films. Writer and actress Jen Richards discusses this contrast in the documentary Disclosure (2020), saying:
“...that’s part of this larger narrative. The public thinks of trans women as men with really good hair, and makeup in costume. And that’s reinforced every time we’ve seen a man who’s played a trans woman off screen.”
“...when you see these women (trans actresses) off screen still as women, it completely deflates this idea that they’re somehow men in disguise.”.
(Feder, 2020, 1:00:18-1:02:44)
When audiences hear an actor who usually conforms to cultural ideas about men’s language (lower pitch and COG) in interviews, the contrast to how they have changed their voice for a film can feel artificial, leading to false ideas about the inauthenticity of trans people’s voices to form in audiences viewing these films. The distinction between hearing the characters of Lilli, Kitten, and Rayon speak juxtaposed against the real voices of the actors who play them can create audience perceptions about trans people similar to what is described by Jen Richards. Actors like Leto are able to take off the ‘trans’ voice they employ for these roles in the same way they take off costumes and makeup, further feeding into public ideas of trans identity as a facade or costume. As movie-going audiences gain more exposure to trans actors getting to play trans roles, we can start to deconstruct some of these harmful perceptions through authentic representations of trans lives in films, interviews, and on the red carpet.
- Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble : feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.
- Calder, J. (2019). From Sissy to Sickening: The Indexical Landscape of /s/ in SoMa, San Francisco. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 29(3), 332–358.
- Feder, S. (Producer, Director). (2020). Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen [Film]. Netflix.