Why The Danish Girl’s Oscar loss is a satisfying win for trans women

YES! Magazine
danish girl

After his performance as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in "The Danish Girl," Eddie Redmayne seemed well on his way to another Academy Award. Redmayne also racked up BAFTA, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for the same role. But although Redmayne lost out to "The Revenant's" Leonardo Dicaprio, it was a huge win for trans women.

Trans cultural awareness is spreading like wildfire across media, including the entertainment landscape. But as everyone from Hollywood directors to television executives races to cash in on the growing interest in the trans community, the results aren’t always good.

Redmayne’s role in "The Danish Girl" represented a tiresome old trope: Casting a cis man in the role of a trans woman as transparent Oscarbait. The tactic does work: Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for his role in 2013's "Dallas Buyers Club," and Redmayne clearly hoped to do the same with "The Danish Girl." And it’s not just cis men. Hillary Swank also took home an Oscar for her depiction of Brandon Teena — another real-world person — in 1999's "Boys Don’t Cry."

The stream of positive media and awards, such as Robbie Collin’s assessment of the film as “beautiful, humane and moving” in the Telegraph, could be viewed as a slap in the face to transgender women, who are tired of seeing themselves represented by cis men. Casting a cis man as a trans woman is akin to casting a white person in a role written for a person of color or a nondisabled person in a disabled role — both of which happen routinely in Hollywood.

Gender, like race and disability, is a lived experience. Daniel Radcliffe can play a wizard in a film, but perhaps he shouldn’t play a black wizard. Or a female wizard. Or a disabled wizard. Treating lived experience as something that can be acted undermines minorities who are already struggling for both respect and roles. Their lives are devalued when they’re treated as something that a person in a position of power can take on and off like a hat. “Method acting” is often used to excuse these kinds of roles, but it doesn’t fly. No research can possibly replace the experience of centuries of oppression.

By casting cis men in trans roles — like Leto as Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club" or Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in "Transparent" — studios, producers and directors engage in active transphobia, dredge up stereotypes about “real women,” and support the notion that trans women are just men in dresses. To say that cis men understand the trans experience is grossly inaccurate and hurtful. The justifications used to support the notion that it’s acceptable to cast cis actors in trans roles are abhorrent and wildly incorrect.

For "Dallas Buyers Club," director Jean-Mark Vallee said he cast Leto because he hadn’t heard of a transgender actor. "The Danish Girl" director, Tom Hooper, echoed a similar sentiment when he acknowledged the shortage of trans actors but said he cast Redmayne because of his “gender fluidity,” implying that a trans actress suited to the job simply didn’t exist. Casting decisions like these deprive talented women like Candis Cayne, Stephanie Michelini, Jamie Clayton, and Michelle Hendley—among many others—of opportunities. Trans actors do exist, and the way to address a shortage is to hire some and create space for them in Hollywood. British actress Rebecca Root appeared in the film, as did Jake Graf, another transgender performer: Hooper was evidently comfortable casting trans people, but only in fleeting roles.

Hollywood has often said that it’s impossible to cast trans people in roles about their own community because scripts typically document transition, so people need to see what trans people look like “pre-hormones.” This is a dangerous reflection of social attitudes about trans people—not every trans woman opts to use hormones, and some use very low doses. More to the point, any trans actress is perfectly capable of modifying her appearance, just as Redmayne did, to reflect what she looked like at varying stages of her evolution. Media storylines created about trans people by cis people usually focus on these types of “transition narratives,” though transition itself is only a small component of most trans lives.

The real-life Lili Elbe lived and worked at a time when transness was largely unknown. She was a pioneer for surgical transition, with viable hormones not entering the market until decades later. Had she opted out of surgical transition, she would have been a woman nonetheless because transness and gender aren’t about what your body looks like. 

"The Danish Girl" reduced Elbe’s life to a series of surgeries, ending in tragedy. At Vogue, Nathan Heller focused, as did many cis viewers, on the transition from “awkward, goose-necked man to swanlike woman,” lingering over the details of the surgical procedures that ultimately killed Elbe. Tragic trans stories are the norm, and they shouldn’t be. When trans people create their own media, like Tangerine, Her Story, and Sens8, stories can begin to reveal the whole of trans experiences, dating and loving and living while trans. In all three cases, trans characters are played by trans actors telling these stories.

Although cis reviewers raved about the film, the trans community was not enthusiastic. Writer Sally Jane Black noted that "The Danish Girl" relied heavily on cis stereotypes about what it means to be trans, commenting in particular on the exaggerated femininity and the repeated  focus on Elbe’s genitals, further feeding cis fascination with trans anatomy. Writing for Indiewire, Carol Grant raised the same concerns, focusing in particular on a painful scene in which Elbe mimics the movements of a cisgender stripper “as if learning how to sensually caress the back of your hand against your cheek will teach him how to be a ‘real woman.’” This, too, is a common trend in media, with cis people fixating on the notion that trans women need to perform femininity to be authentic and believable.

For some trans viewers, seeing "The Danish Girl" rake in accolades was a painful reminder that the cis community prefers nonthreatening narratives of transness rather than being pushed by stories created by and for trans people.

The film proudly took credit for publicizing Elbe’s story and increasing trans awareness, while it silenced a seething trans community that was well aware of Elbe’s existence and complex, multifaceted life. Trans director and commentator Dominick Evans likened the whole ordeal to scraps thrown to a community that is supposed to be pathetically grateful for them.

On Oscar Sunday, some cis viewers didn’t understand why Redmayne “lost,” but the trans community just smiled. Trans women won that day, and hopefully it will be the first of many victories.

This story was originally published by YES! Magazine, a nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political and environmental challenges.

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