This week, the first images of Eddie Redmayne were revealed from his upcoming film, the Danish Girl. Redmayne will be playing the role of Lili Elbe, a transgender pioneer. The Danish Girl is the latest in a long series of Hollywood misgendering in casting, where instead of finding a transgender actress they find a man and put a wig on him.
This isn’t a jibe towards Redmayne, who is a talented actor, both in his high-camp performance in Jupiter Ascending, as well as his Oscar winning role as Stephen Hawking in the Theory of Everything. The issue with this casting is two-fold: the exclusion of trans actresses from a role that they were literally born to play and the media coverage of the film itself.
Take the Daily Mail coverage which uses phrases describing Elbe’s “transition into a woman” or describes Elbe herself as “a man who became a woman.” “Oh Eddie, you do make a wonderful woman,” the headline reads. But Eddie isn’t a woman. He isn’t a trans woman. He’s a straight man, and this colors coverage of the film. They repeatedly deadname Elbe as Einar Wegener, and they ignore her gender — something that she literally died for, repeatedly referring to her as a man.
Redmayne talks about the role being his most “sensitive,” yet sensitivity is something Redmayne’s casting lacks. Coverage becomes a discussion of Redmayne’s alteration, the same way someone would discuss Charlize Theron’s missing eyebrows for Monster or Christian Bale’s weight loss for Machinist. Gender is an article of clothing that they can take on and put off, a sacrifice for their artistic vision, but ultimately these sacrifices are disconnected from who they are.
Gender though, especially in an age where people are committing suicide or being murdered in relation to it, is a fundamental aspect of personhood. Lili Elbe was a woman, the first known person to get gender reassignment surgery, who wanted so much to be a mother that she underwent surgery to be transplanted with another woman’s ovaries. But we aren’t talking about her struggle. Instead, discussion is about how pretty Redmayne is as a woman and how “brave” he is for undertaking the role.
The other primary issue is inclusion. The argument has been “can you name a trans actress of the caliber of Eddie Redmayne?” But this is a false argument. Four years ago, I couldn’t have told you that Laverne Cox existed, but that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t there. It’s also the same argument used to explain why Native American roles aren’t being given to Native Americans, a conceit proven more ridiculous by the fact that the Twilight sequel, New Moon managed to cast an entire wolf pack of Native lineage actors. That means a teenage romance managed more sensitive casting than a clear Oscar bait title.
Casting like this is erasure. It whispers insidiously in your ear that “there just wasn’t the right trans actress for the role. “C’mon,” it cajoles, “Can you even name a white trans actress?” Instead we replace the roles designed for trans women with straight men, replace their experience with a touch of make-up and a wig. Ultimately it replaces the image of trans women, opting for imitation rather than representation.
On Twitter, Ijeoma Oluo wrote it best:
“Right now there are trans women and men risking their lives every day to simply be who they are. Suffering abuse, discrimination, imprisonment, poverty, invisibility. So if you can’t understand why seeing your “likeness” portrayed by someone with the sexual assignment you risked your life to be free from by people who not once have felt the pain and fear u do. By people who look just like those kicking the shit out of u on the street. And to see that person be lauded as “so brave, so talented” that he would don a wig and impersonate such an exotic creature. And he removes his wig, accepts his Oscar. Tearfully dedicates it to your murdered brothers and sisters who he now fully understands. And returns to his mansion, to his safety, his financial security, his civil rights, his fully represented and accepted life.”
In covering Jared Leto’s turn as transgendered character Rayon in the Dallas Buyers Club, Time writer Steve Freiss writes: “’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.” While Leto played a fictionalized woman in what was otherwise a biopic, the same will undoubtedly be true for Redmayne. Whether a measured performance or a caricature of the human experience (as Leto’s Rayon is often criticized to be), Redmayne’s Lili is tarnished by the casting decisions made long before the performance was captured on film. It turns the trans experience into something exotic and foreign, something as alien to the performer as a space-faring prince, and with a story as potentially powerful as Lili Elbe’s this is perhaps the greatest failing.
Amanda Wallace is an amazing associate editor for Gameskinny.com, and runs her own websites Storycade andWasabi Crunk that look at niche aspects of the gaming world (interactive fiction and indie games respectively). The best way to follow her work is via twitter, @barelyconcealed, where you’ll find great articles and witty banter.