“I’m acting” is a dangerous excuse.
Note: This editorial was written by a cisgender male. If I have made any mistakes with regards to transgender terminology or misgendering, please let me know and I will rectify them immediately.
The trailer for The Danish Girl angers me. Not because it makes an incredibly interesting story – that of Lili Elbe, a Danish painter and one of the first known transgender women to receive sexual reassignment surgery – look like any other dreadfully generic award season bait. Not because Tom Hooper’s various camera tics have more than gotten on my nerves by this point. Not because the trailer is this really awkwardly edited mess that gives way too much of the game away and whose ending just kinda comes out of nowhere.
No, the trailer for The Danish Girl angers me because of Eddie Redmayne.
And before anybody assumes, no, it’s not because I don’t like him. I mean, I don’t, but I’ve only seen him in two roles so far – his excellent imitation of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything that completely lacked any soul or anything below the surface imitation, and his AMAZINGLY TERRIBLE work in Jupiter Ascending – and my personal feelings towards the guy and his acting ability are not relevant here. No, I’m angry because he’s playing the role of Lili. Yet again, a cisgender actor is playing a transgender character in a major film about transgenderism.
It’s been a problem for years and years in film, from Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry; to John Lithgow in The World According to Garp; to Terrence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; to one of the most famous recent examples in Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. This, of course, is just a small sampling, but all of those actors and actresses there received awards or nominations come award season time. The reviews of these kinds of performances will always go on about the “transformation” of the actor in question, the subtext being that these people are so brave to pretend to be transgender people – incidentally, that kind of bravery is mainly bestowed on men playing women, presumably down to the subtle ways that the patriarchy and masculinity affect our perceptions of gender.
The issue here is simple: trans representation in film is very low. Times when roles such as Rayon – the Dallas Buyers Club role that went to Jared Leto and which he won an Oscar for – are available are slim. Multi-faceted, well-drawn, three-dimensional transgender roles are incredibly rare in the movie industry, so every single time that a big one of those is taken by a cisgender actor, it’s another slammed-door-in-the-face for every trans actor or actress who wants to make it big in this industry. After all, what other roles can they take? Background extra? Maybe they’ll be lucky and be one of those “hey hot chick no wait it’s a GUY EWWWW!” joke targets in terrible bro-comedies? Or maybe they can be a crazed mentally-ill villain as part of a twist that sets representations of transgender people back several decades? I’m kidding on that last part, that’s a role the studio would hire a cisgender actor for, like they did with Michael Caine (in Dressed To Kill) or Sean Young (in the first Ace Ventura).
I know why this keeps happening. The first reason is that these kinds of stories are still just Oscar Bait to the studios that produce them, constantly putting emphasis on the struggle and suffering that all of these characters go through in the hopes that all of that EMOTION convinces the voting board to shower them in Oscars – of course I’m not saying that these aren’t viable stories worth telling, but it becomes a mighty suspicious thing when they’re the only stories told with trans people. But the main reason, the one that will seemingly always be trotted out is that they need a big name actor or actress in order to sell the film to the public at large. Casting an unknown trans actor is too much of a risk, better to go with a name that everyone knows, especially since you get a tonne of publicity from it.
Except that that’s bullsh*t. You can’t just fall back on established stars out of fear that something won’t sell. If we did that every time that anything slightly new was being created, then we wouldn’t have any new movie stars ever. Would Chris Pratt have become an A-list lovable mega-star if Marvel and James Gunn didn’t take a chance and put him front and center of Guardians of the Galaxy? Perhaps not, but the “What if” doesn’t matter because they took that chance and now he is. And if one needs evidence that putting a real talent in a role that forces the world to sit up and take notice of them works for trans people as well, look at Laverne Cox. Would she be a near-household name if Jenji Kohan and Netflix didn’t take a chance and cast her in Orange is the New Black? Most likely not, because opportunities like this rarely come around for trans actresses, but they took that chance and now she’s a star.
Representation for trans people in film is incredibly lacking, so when a cisgender actor or actress takes a trans role, it’s the equivalent of spitting in the face of nearly every transgender person. Yes, they might be a great actor or actress, but it’s still not a good enough excuse. Elle Fanning will be portraying a transgender man who decides to go through with the transition in About Ray and though she’s a very talented actress, and I do acknowledge that casting in stories that involve a trans person pre-transition are a very complicated area – EDIT: a trans friend of mine who has yet to transition noted to me that they could have tried casting trans actors who have not yet transitioned in the role, since those people do also exist – it still feels like an insult, like nobody involved thought to even attempt to try auditioning trans actors for the role – something that Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée blatantly admitted not doing.
But what really irks me, and the thing that can best surmise the quietly and perhaps unintentionally insidious problem here, is this one quote from Redmayne. When questioned about the criticism of his casting, being a cis male actor playing a trans woman, his response was:
That’s a genuine problem. The idea that a trans person is just acting. That a cis gender man can just throw on a dress, play up some more feminine traits, and just be a convincing trans woman. When a cis gendered person plays a trans person, it is effectively like you are saying that trans people don’t really exist, that they are just men or women in drag. It doesn’t matter how nuanced your performance is, it doesn’t matter how convincing the costume and make-up designs are, and it doesn’t matter if you are trying to be as respectful as possible. The message that gets sent out, especially when visibility for actual trans actors and actresses right now is so small that cis actors pretending to be trans is the main exposure that they get on film, is that trans people are just men or women in drag. This may sound a little strong, but it feels (to me anyway) like the equivalent of white people in blackface.
[FUTURE EDIT: it is absolutely categorically not “the equivalent of white people in blackface” and to say so is both grossly offensive and diminshes the long cultural and prejudicial damage that blackface has had and continues to have on both Black people emotionally and racial perceptions of Black people by non-Black races. I was wrong to say this at the time and especially wrong six years later as my understanding of both Black history and my own transness has grown immensely. I apologise unreservedly for the comparison.]
In plain and simple terms: there is no excuse, in 2015, for shutting out trans roles to trans actors and actresses in favour of cis actors and actresses. To not give them this vital exposure in stories about their own experiences would be like casting Sam Worthington in the main role of 12 Years a Slave and claiming that it’s because he was “the best actor available”. We have an industry and a medium that is seemingly determined to exclude trans people at all costs – even the upcoming Stonewall keeps hinting at removing the involvement of the T in LGBT (and that’s not even mentioning the apparent literal whitewashing that’s going on) – for no acceptable reason. Films like Tangerine and 52 Tuesdays (neither of which I have seen yet but are at the top of my watch-list for when I go back to uni) have managed the apparently impossible feat of casting trans actors and actresses in trans roles for films about trans stories, so there really is no goddamn excuse.
This shit is inexcusable. STOP CASTING CIS PEOPLE IN TRANS ROLES.
For another, much-better-written and more relevant piece on this issue – and which inspired much of the direction of this piece, as well – go and check out Marcy Cook’s outstanding article over at The Mary Sue.
Callie Petch sees a fire out by the lake.