You might have seen some of the fuss from trans advocates and activists about The Danish Girl‘s casting of Eddie Redmayne as trans woman Lili Elbe. I know I did, and it made me realize that even I find it hard to explain why a problem even exists here.
Now, if I’m having trouble putting my unease about it into words you can bet most cis (non-trans) people don’t get it. So I figured I should try, and hope this ends up coherent!
I’ll start by saying that I’ve not seen The Danish Girl myself but this is only because I haven’t had the opportunity. I do intend to watch it when it becomes available through my satellite subscription. My objections are not to the movie itself or to Eddie Redmayne.
No, the problem I (and many others) have is that when casting such roles the default is to cast an actor whose gender matches the assigned gender of the character rather than their identified gender.
For all that acting involves a degree of pretence, the actor becoming another person with different attributes, we as the audience can’t help but see both actor and character, imbuing the portrayal with our knowledge of whoever is playing the part.
So when we see a male actor playing a trans woman we see them, at least in part, as a man. Even if it’s at a subconscious level it reinforces the incorrect idea that a trans woman is a man.
I’m not trying to argue that a man can’t play a woman, or vice versa. Linda Hunt won an well-deserved Oscar for her role as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. My point is that this is very much the exception, whereas with trans characters it’s the rule.
I don’t want anybody excluded from a given role on the grounds of gender (or anything else); what I want is for those casting roles to primarily choose actors who are a close fit for the characters’ gender as much as their race, build and other characteristics.
The current situation with trans characters is equivalent to the days when Native American or Asian characters were almost exclusively played by white actors. This is now rightly seen as discrimatory and unacceptable and I want the same attitude to prevail when it comes to trans roles.