Prannay Pathak

Ron Woodrof: From ‘Homophobic Asshole’ to ‘Someone Kind’

“And a small town don’t like it when somebody falls between sexes.
No, a small town don’t like it when a cowboy has feelings for men.”

I can’t shake off the idea that Ned Sublette’s 1981 song, Cowboys are Secretly, Frequently Fond of Each Other, has inspired the blinding, poignant Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is much more than just a movie about a smart, plucky man in Texas who survives for 7 years after discovering he has AIDS and he has 30 days to ‘put his affairs in order’. Ron Woodrof (Matthew McConaughey) staggers first, and then gets aggressive, abusing the doctors who break the news to him, flinging away the reports as he leaves in a huff. Ron gets offended because he supposes the doctors are calling him a homosexual, a ‘faggot’. Even though it is a casual night of unprotected sex that has most probably landed him here, but the insecurity, the typical cowboy insecurity’, gets to him. The film is the story of a man who has the heart to transcend gender prejudices, but who must go through a terminal illness before he achieves that. Much worse, an illness that brings bad publicity for a ‘macho male’.

The moment of the movie is when Ron first requests, and then orders, a former friend, T. J., to shake hands with Rayon (Jared Leto), now his transgendered business partner. Rayon first mocks Ron lovingly, and then settles for his hard exterior. It is clear now that Ron isn’t taking any more jokes on what is just another form of identity. The rough-rodeo cowboy in him has given way to an adroit businessman, and more importantly, a sympathetic fellow human being.

Ron has seen a lot of life in the 50 days that he has been operating the Dallas Buyers Club with Rayon. He has gone from being a hormonal electrician who frequently has sex with unknown women, and drinks and gambles, to an ostracized, has-been, a man grappling with drug addiction and HIV infection. Soon after his diagnosis, he is bullied in a bar he frequently visits, with his own friends calling him a ‘faggot’ and refusing to touch him, and the whole place turns against him. Ron shows them the middle finger and leaves. Fast forward to the incident in the shopping store; Ron asks one of the men from the bar that day, to respond to Rayon’s handshake. He grabs his neck and makes sure he is heard. In his own way of employment of physical force, albeit not acceptable, he is realizing the need to drive, strangle, and wrench homophobia out of the society.

But I’ve always had a problem with the condescending ways of the ascendant group. In this case, it is the male rodeo, the macho individual of Texas, the countryside, and hence the one entitled to being chauvinistically male. Being a transgender has not been a choice for Rayon, as she tells her father. But then, does it mean she does not revel in it? Is it a deviant hobby, taboo as it sounds? The question gets answered most of the times with the argument that Rayon’s society is hostile towards those whose sexuality deviates from heteronormativity, with their capabilities being doubted, and their bodies being treated harshly. Another argument is that Rayon is sorry for her illness, and not for her sexuality or gender.

Brokeback Mountain (2005), was another film that dealt with the oppressed, ‘feminine’ side of the apparently rugged, tough, western-states cowboy. It turned the turtle inside-out, handing sensitivity and compassion, ‘feminine’ virtues in the layman’s language, their due position in the gender binary. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), one of the best known films about the subject, probably depicts the straight-homosexual friendship even better than the apparently central struggle of society coming to terms with the homosexual’s choices. Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is a rather conservative, even homophobic, family guy, who experiences both, being approached by Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who reveals he is homosexual, and the birth of his child, at the same time. AIDS is a scarring reality in the US at this point of time, but homosexuality compounded with that, is even bigger, and Miller is evidently intimidated by the prospect of standing up, both professionally and in companionship, of which a certain degree is indispensable, for a rival lawyer who has just beaten him at a case and who is at the centre of all societal hostility. However, Miller is very different from Ron Woodrof, and as it turns out, it takes little time for him to shed the stigma. Not only does he take up Beckett’s case, but goes on to befriend him and defend him with a politically incorrect, but charming, sentimentality in the court.

Back to Dallas Buyers’ Club, Ron’s reformation can also be held merely as the demand of a transactional relationship he has with Rayon. He has discovered earlier that Rayon secretly hates her scorn of gay people, and he decides that assaulting TJ can easily kill two birds with one stone, as he is desperate to avenge his insult of the earlier day. Rayon develops a soft corner for Ron, and is the picture of contentment. However, this is not to undermine Ron’s sensitized new self, (his concern for his partner’s health is genuine) since every relationship, essentially can be made to be seen as ‘transactional’. Ron has found society. Society that is much less hypocritical. Their warm hug after Rayon gets him money, an act of unconditional, selfless love, makes for an endearing high.

Article by Prannay Pathak

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