Not Quite Good Enough…How Movies Like The Danish Girl Use The Trans Community
It felt like a slap in the face when director Tom Hooper spoke about the trans community in an interview, right before his latest film, The Danish Girl, came out. He made it clear he understood the issue plaguing the trans community when it comes to casting in film, when he stated, “The film industry has a “problem” with transgender actors, with many unable to secure roles despite a “huge pool of talent.” However, despite this knowledge he still cast Eddie Redmayne in the role of transgender woman, Lili Elbe. Hooper said that he felt like Eddie was just right for the role, because of the way he seems to have a connection to his “feminine side.” In turn, he completely ignored everything he said, in favor of keeping with the tradition of further marginalizing the transgender community – a tradition that is so prevalent in Hollywood.
I’ve heard the excuses made in support of the casting, often by other trans individuals who simply do not understand how deep the impact of media representation goes in relation to how the community is treated. Any representation is better than none, they claim, but not when that representation relies on harmful stereotyping and oppressive tropes. The Danish Girl is full of them, particularly since Redmayne never really connects with Elbe, as a trans woman. He acts as a mere shell, mimicking what he sees as the physical characteristics of being a trans person, but never really embodying everything that goes beyond the physical. This is actually very common when non-minority actors play minority characters. The same can be said of Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Most people have no idea of the inaccuracy, and the actors themselves don’t even realize the harm they are causing because they think they are performing the role accurately.
The truth is, most performances by non-trans actors as trans characters aren’t truly accurate representations, especially when written by cisgender writers. They’re actually an idea of what those cisgender writers think it means to be trans. Because the writer has no actual experience as a trans person, all they can rely on is what they know of trans people as an observer – including what they see of trans people in the media. Using such references as a framing point for such characters creates an awful loop of inaccuracies, that continue to influence new stories of trans existence. The benefit of having an actually trans actor mean the actor has first hand experience of life as a trans person, and can point out such inconsistencies. They don’t always, usually because of fear, especially the possibility of losing their job, but when they do, the performance is much stronger overall.
I also find it hard to stomach when people say trans actors have to earn their place, so they cannot and should not expect a leading role. I find this to be rubbish, because there has been many examples of cisgender actors/actresses being discovered and getting a huge break. Sure, many actors work several years to get where they are, but that is not always the case. We do not expect this of cis actors, so expecting it of trans actors is really just a means of making excuses for justifying why trans actors are not cast. It also feeds into the idea that it’s okay to never cast a transgender lead, if you include a few trans actors in small supporting or background roles. This is exactly what Tom Hooper did, to attempt to justify his casting. Really this is just an attempt to silence the criticism of the trans community and appease said critics. Unfortunately and sadly, for some, it works.
This is really what this article is about… placating the trans community into submission. By submitting to the idea any trans inclusion is okay, it avoids the glaring fact trans actors/actresses are apparently only good enough to be in the background and do not deserve a leading role. To be fair, the trans community is not alone in this. Hollywood attempts to placate most minority communities, including the disability community. We saw it in American Horror Story: Freakshow, when the only actually disabled people were relegated to small supporting and background roles, not even important enough to be included in the opening credits, while non-disabled actors played lead disabled characters.
By doing this to already marginalized communities, the communities are often split between the idea any representation is better than none and the idea not including us is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the former sends a message that nothing needs to change, and therefore it continues to be acceptable to exclude said actors in lead and main supporting roles. If we continue to settle for less, we will continue to be given less, but if we expect more, and make it clear anything less is unacceptable, that things will have no choice but to change. If enough people stop supporting films that exclude trans actors in trans roles, these filmmakers will have to do something different to make people want to view their work again. Change would be inevitable.
I also understand the criticism that transgender characters need to be allowed to play cisgender roles, so we should allow cis actors to play trans roles. I get it, I do not agree, and here is part of why. When a trans actor is cast as a cis character, they are not being cast as actual people who existed. We are not seeing trans men playing George Bush or Martin Luther King Jr. or trans women playing Rosa Parks or Marilyn Monroe. We are seeing them playing doctors, lawyers, daughters, lovers, and other generic roles in life. A trans woman can be any of those things so is the role really cisgender? Nothing is ever said to distinguish what such characters are. The role, instead becomes trans. Just like if a cis woman was rewritten in what was supposed to be a male role, the role becomes a female one.
At the same time, we would not see Ben Affleck cast as Jessica Jones or Felicity Huffman as Rocky. I don’t mean the male counterpart, but Affleck dressed up as a female version of Jones or Huffman channeling Stallone to play the male version of Rocky. People would be outraged, especially at the casting of Jones, considering female characters, particularly protagonists, are still far behind the inclusion of their male peers. So, considering most portrayals of trans characters are written as transsexuals (a discussion of inclusion of non-binary trans actors and role creation is for another article) why is it okay to cast cis men as trans women? Transsexual women are women. They see themselves as women, identify as women, and take steps to transition so their female identity matches their physical appearance. The opposite is true of transsexual men, and yet we see harmful portrayals of trans men by cis female actresses like Elle Fanning.
All this does is highlight and maintain the harmful idea that trans women are not actually women or real women. Even a man can play them. Trans men are not really men, so women can play them. What an already hateful and exclusionary society makes up this is that this is in fact true, and then allows for transphobes to continue to discriminate and oppress the trans community. If we want to be treated better, it starts with accurate portrayals in the media, and if we do not demand such portrayals, we must continue to fight against such oppression. We, in turn, contribute to helping maintain the hierarchy the keeps us beneath our oppressors.
I have to say though, that The Danish Girl takes it a step further. To help promote the film, the publicity team for the film reached out to the trans community. On social media, they featured stories a trance people, in their own words, and even utilized a trans photographer to snap pictures, and tell his own story. I don’t blame my community, because we just want to get our stories out there. Unfortunately, to do so we are being exploited by a Hollywood machine content to exclude us. I know it’s hard, but we need to fight back, because submitting to the system only reinforces our mistreatment. This is what they want us to do, and every time we support this film, we say trans actors should not be cast in trans roles, and provide what the filmmakers want of us…we support that system of oppression that have killed so many in our community.
Change is not going to happen overnight, but things can get better. I want to make it clear that I support casting trans actors in roles that have nothing to do with being trans. Right now, we need trans roles because if we are not even allowed to play ourselves, who are we allowed to play? Of course, we need to expand beyond that and also be included in in a variety of roles, though just because they are not written specifically as a transgender story does not make the characters trans themselves. We need such roles to help the world better understand who we as transgender people are.
Ultimately, the trans community needs to say we no longer accept the excuses for not casting us. We support inclusion, and that does not mean relegating us to background roles and publicity mules. For many of us, the issue of trans inclusion of utmost importance. In truth, our lives depend on it.