The casting of Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in the role of transwoman Lili Elbe in Tom Hooper’s film The Danish Girl has caused quite an outrage in the transgender community.
It has been argued that in this day and age it’s a scandal to cast a cisgender man in the role. He could never understand or portray what transgender people are going through, say the opponents. Lili should be played by a woman, preferably a transgender one. Nicole Kidman was the first choice to play Lili and the transgender community seemed to be satisfied with that choice. But why would a cisgender woman have a better understanding of what a transgender person experiences than a cisgender man? That question has not been raised.
In a perfect world, I agree, we would not even have to consider this question, no one would dream of casting a cisgender person in a transgender role. It would be as unthinkable as casting a white person to play a black person. But, alas, the world is not perfect, least of all the Hollywood world, and transgender actors/actresses are not yet an obvious choice for a mayor movie, so we have to lay that vision aside – for a while. So let’s go back to the question of what Kidman (or any other cisgender actress) could bring to the portrayal of Lili that Eddie can not.
Yes, she knows, we must assume, what it’s like to be a woman but if we take into account the fact that for the largest part of her life Lili Elbe had to endure living her life as the male Danish painter Einar Wegener I must admit that the choice of Kidman seems even further from a realistic casting than the choice of Redmayne. Has she experienced what it feels like to act as a man for most of her life? Has she been happily married to a woman for years? Has she experienced the torment that Einar must have gone through when she realized that she was in fact a woman and not a man? What nuances could she bring to the role that would be impossible for a cisgender man to do? Are not both male and female cisgender persons incapable of understanding any of it? And why, oh why, would it be less of an offence to transgender people to have a cisgender woman playing Lili? I have to confess that I fail to see the logic in that argument.
“I must admit that the choice of Kidman seems even further from a realistic casting than the choice of Redmayne.”
Please don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying that it is an obvious choice to cast a cisgender male in Lili’s role, far from it, I’m only wondering on what grounds it would be better to have a cisgender woman play her.
And when one of the strongest argument for opposing the choice of Redmayne for the role is that transgender people are sick and tired – understandably – of having straight white males being the only one telling their stories it would be really helpful to hear why it would be preferable to have straight white females tell it. What understanding have they of the transgender experience that the males have not?
Besides it is not really the actor/actress that is telling the story, is it? The film is based on the novel The Danish Girl by American writer David Ebershoff, who is not, by any standards, a transgender woman. Neither is the director Tom Hooper. Would it not make more sense to oppose them telling that story than the actor? He will only do what the director tells him, no? And he/she is trained to do just that; to portray something he/she does not know from own experience, in other words to act.
Movies are not a portrayal of real life, at least not Hollywood movies, and if the people making them could only do a good job showing us something that they themselves have gone through we would not have many interesting choices when going to the cinema, would we? What a dreary old world that would be.