Who you cast is a representation of the story you want to tell. The body personifies how someone speaks, how they move, and the facial expressions they make – all of which becomes the vehicle for conveying the story. So the act of casting is very important, and only gets more important when the story to be told is not just for entertainment. If you are telling the story of an oppressed subset of society, the casting becomes absolutely vital.
When Hollywood casts movies in which race or cultural context is important ,you’d think that they would cast actors that represent those roles best. Anime adaptations, Asian actors; Bible stories, Black and Middle Eastern actors; transgender stories, trans actors. Hollywood, though, has issues, and we all know about those issues: if you’re not straight and white, you are on the sidelines. If you challenge the status quo, you don’t stand much chance of working within the Hollywood system.
This is why we’re stuck with Eddie Redmayne, a talented cis male actor, portraying a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. If you are still questioning why this is a problem, then you don’t understand how all-pervasive transphobia really is. Many different sources of information exist and it would behove you to take a few minutes to read up on what’s happening to your fellow citizens. We’re at the tipping point of acceptance on this issue, as the mainstream is now starting to question why men keep getting cast as trans women.
In a few years time, it will be as unacceptable for cisgender male actors to portray trans women as it is now for white actors to portray black roles. Trans people are at the bottom end of society in so many ways, in terms of life expectancy, employment, income, rights, medical care, societal respect, and positive representation. It would be a great help to trans culture if trans actors were given the chance to perform positive roles in movies. I have nothing against Eddie Redmayne, I don’t know him; but cisgender actors that accept roles featuring transgender characters are at least in part to blame for the cycle of under-representation.
The portrayal of transgender people both in movies and on television tends to be limited to just four different roles. Trans women are seen as the comic relief – though they are not the ones making the joke, but are instead inevitably the punchline. Trans women are seen as sex workers. Trans women are used as a “trap” to capture “unwitting” heterosexual males. Sadly, the last way in which we see trans women is as a dead body. An increase in visibly-positive roles would help transgender youth to see that trans women have a life after transition, that the pain is worth going through. Just see these figures for why it matters that trans people should be shown in a wide number of roles. We’re in the workforce, we contribute to society, we do a wide variety of jobs including CEOs, doctors, experts and parents and most of us, just like the rest of humanity, are happy and fulfilled.
Hollywood believes that transgender women are men to be pitied, and they have an on-going determination to show that belief on screen, regardless of how outright dangerous this lie is towards for transgender women in society. If we want society to change, to be more accepting towards people who are different than the majority, we need to show those people as multifaceted humans. Which, in the case of trans women, would be not just one of the four tropes, or as “a man in a dress.” For trans people to live longer, get jobs, and be both active in and accepted by society, we need the support of the media, politicians and wider cisgender culture.
Don’t get me wrong, acceptance is eventually going to happen anyway, but it would come a lot easier and faster with cis support. Sadly, when I see cis men playing trans women, that support just isn’t there. On Twitter I’ve already had people contact me and be supportive of Redmayne. The volume of excuses people give to justify his portrayal of a trans women is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. As this is not going to be the last time we see a cis actor portraying someone that’s trans (I’m looking at you, Elle Fanning), I want to break down these common justifications.
Cisgender people can play any role, or are you saying only Nazis can play Nazis?
Yes, this is an actual argument levelled at trans representation; okay, it’s from Reddit, the cesspool of the Internet™, but still. This argument is based on false equivalence. Note that we don’t see transgender people playing cis roles, unlike, say, NPH playing Barney. It comes down to opportunity, diversity, and representation – trans people have less of all of those and it’s really important for the trans community to see positive trans representation being accepted by society.
This is probably the most common argument that I hear, and it’s always (and, in my experience, I do mean always) coming from people of privilege who don’t understand the difference between their social position and that of trans people. These are people who believe that trans people are equal in society to cis people, so transgender acting roles should go to the “best actor.” Somehow they still believe this when trans actors don’t even get asked to audition.
One day when trans people are playing cis roles and we regularly see them in movies and on TV, then, and only then, should cis actors be taking on trans roles. If you believe that equality is important, and that cis actors should be able to play trans roles, then you have to support trans equality. That means that, at first, trans actors are going to need to be supported and promoted, they need to be asked to audition, people need to know they exist. Which brings us to (almost like it was planned!):
No trans actors exist
Dallas Buyers Club director Jean Marc Vellee was once asked by the CBC if he ever considered hiring a transgender actor, and he replied “Never.” He went on to ask if trans actors even existed.
How about Jamie Clayton, Alexis Arquette, Stephanie Michelini, Michelle Hendly, or Candis Cayne? All of these fit the age and physical description of Elbe, and if you go outside of those restrictions many more trans actors exist that could portray Elbe and do it well. How many trans actors were auditioned for Eddie Redmayne’s part in The Danish Girl? To my knowledge, the answer is none.
Of course fewer trans actors are around, but they exist, so why not try and hire from that pool of actors first and only if that fails do you move to cisgender actors. Hollywood, if you could prove you even tried, it would be a step in the right direction.
They needed someone that looks “more like” a man/woman
This is, of course, completely justified because although it takes many hours of makeup and careful lighting to make Redmayne look feminine, we all know that it’s impossible for any woman to look male given four hours of makeup, clothing, lighting, and CGI. Oh no, wait, what’s that term I’m looking for? Oh yes, complete twaddle.
Chris Evans can play someone shorter than him and a third of his build for half of Captain America, but we somehow don’t have the technology or skill to change how a trans woman looks for part of a movie? We do; you know it, I know it, so let’s not pretend this is valid in the slightest.
There was no Hormone Replacement Therapy at the time
As TIME points out, Eddie Redmayne has spoken to this:
“There is an incredibly valid discussion for why a trans actress isn’t playing the part, because there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I’m sure there are many who could play this part sensationally.” The issue of hormone therapy was a problem, he said, because it wasn’t available in the early 20th century when Elbe transitioned.
In fact, this doesn’t apply for two reasons. First of all, Lili Elbe was intersex and apparently had very little testosterone, anyway. She was visibly female without any form of HRT. Secondly, although synthetic HRT didn’t exist before the 1960s, as a species we’ve known for many years that diet can have an effect on the body. I won’t list the plants and foods here; if you are considering HRT, go see a doctor.
The other big issue I have with this is the idea is that all trans people must undergo medical procedures. Some people can’t take HRT for medical reasons, and the majority of trans people choose not to have any kind of surgery. It’s perpetuating the idea that to be transgender you must have treatment, you must conform to the standard “gender binary.” This isn’t a healthy conceit to promote; the implication is that you can only be transgender after HRT & surgery. I’ve been on HRT for nearly two years I don’t conform to the gender binary and never will. No one has to, regardless of where they are in the spectrum of transition.
We didn’t look at/consider trans actors
This is not so much of an excuse as a flat out admission of failure. Do not pass Go.
They hired the “best actor for the role”
How do you know that? Were you at the auditions? Are you a casting professional? Were the right people even considered? This argument is based on opinion; it’s a spurious one to make, and equally hard to completely discredit. No one knows who would be best for the role, as not everyone auditioned for the role.
If you’re not even auditioning transgender actors, how do you know they were not the best for the part? Hiring a cis actor for a trans role is inauthentic at best, and, at worst, it’s an insult. Cis actors need research time, and even more time to become comfortable in clothing that’s not their standard. Then they have to practice movement, voice, and body language. All of these are minefields that a transitioned transgender actor will have already tackled.
They hired a “known actor” for business reasons
This just in, there can be no new Hollywood stars ever again. No one new must ever be in any movie and we only have the current set of actors to work with. Hollywood is in a panic and the work on Bruce Lee holograms has just gone up a notch.
This idea that we can never use anyone new in movies is so idiotic that I’m not sure anyone can say this and not automatically be a troll. It’s not like we’ve not already had many movies that have created a star out of someone that was relatively unknown previously. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt, for example. Internationally, he was a little-known actor on a US comedy show that suddenly became famous because James Gunn took a chance on him.
Let’s see, there’s also: Orlando Bloom for Lord of the Rings; Chloe Grace Moretz for Kick-Ass; Dev Patel for Slumdog Millionaire; Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men; Natalie Portman for Leon; literally everyone in Chronicle; Nick Frost and Simon Pegg for Shaun of the Dead; Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone; Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds; and, of course, the original and upcoming Star Wars casts.
Unknown actors are hired all the time, but we forget that as soon as they become famous. The only time a “name” really matters – and this is not a hard and fast rule (see: Star Wars) – is when it’s a blockbuster or personal project. Names can help, but they are no guarantee, and they are certainly not the reason for not giving transgender actors a chance.
Playing tragic characters is awards-bait
Hollywood is enamoured with the idea of “the tragic figure,’ and when you couple this with “the bravery of a male actor portraying a woman,” you get awards bait. Notice that you don’t get the same awards bait when a woman plays a male character; Hollywood’s patriarchy considers that complementary, not brave. This rampant and pervasive Hollywood misogyny was most underlined by Jared Leto’s Oscar win for the horribly-offensive Dallas Buyers Club.
David Oyelowo said that Hollywood awards Black characters only when they are in tragic or subservient roles. As Selma didn’t fit those molds, it wasn’t rewarded. Hollywood loves the tragedy of the underprivileged as long as fits their expectations. This is something that needs shouting from the rooftops, and it needs to stop now.
I’m tired of all the justifications given for why it’s somehow okay for cis males to portray transgender people. We’re not tragic, nor are we to be pitied; we’re normal just like everyone else. Okay, we might not be standard, but who is, really? Some trans people are great, others not so much; some trans people have talent, others write for online websites. Ahem.
So Hollywood – and I’m talking directly to you, now, directors and casting people – at least try and cast transgender people for transgender roles. Prove that you genuinely tried, and LGBT culture will give you way more slack – and may even go see your movie.
If you can think of more of these tired old arguments that people say to justify casting cis people in trans roles please add them in the comments for potential debunking!
(image via Wikimedia Commons)
Marcy (@marcyjcook) is an immigrant trans woman and writer. This includes Transcanuck.com, a website dedicated to informing and helping trans Canadians. She also has a nerd job, too many cats, is a part time volunteer sex educator and has an ongoing sordid love affair with Lego. Those last two are not related… probably.
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