Cis Actors As Trans Characters – Why The Fuss?

Cis Actors As Trans Characters – Why The Fuss?

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.

5 thoughts on “Cis Actors As Trans Characters – Why The Fuss?

  1. I don’t know. As a Speech and Theater minor in college, we were taught that a good actor/actress was able to make the audience believe they were the character they were portraying. A classic example was Patty Duke when she played Helen Keller on stage so well that when a heavy lighting bar fell on the set, she did not flinch or break character. Dustin Hoffman gave a stellar performance as the autistic Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. Hoffman also played Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie”. Then there was the unforgettable Robin Williams who portrayed “Mrs. Doubtfire”. Both Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire had movie plots that hinged on the male actors being believable females not just to the other characters but to the audience, who were in their own way – in on the “deception”. That’s a pretty tall order.

    To me, the major test of someone’s acting ability would be not whether the person was straight/gay/bi/or what have you in real life, but whether or not they could be someone who they are not. Choosing a gay actor to portray a gay character is no guarantee that the character will be believable.

    I remember an interview with Laurence Fishburne about his role as Morphus in The Matrix. He said that when he was making the movie, he felt like he wasn’t getting the character across like he should have. However, once he saw the completed movie from start to finish, he said Morphus scared the living daylights out of him. Right on! Later, Fishburne joined the cast of the popular show, CSI as the head of the Crime Lab. Although he was adequate in the role, he opted not to renew after his contract ended. It just wasn’t a good fit. I hope you can understand what I’m trying to convey.


    1. I don’t disagree with your points here, but my argument is that when casting a role that is, say, a trans woman they should be looking for a female actor (preferably trans, but I have no problem with cis). By almost always casting male actors for these roles they reinforce the myth that trans women are not women.


      1. Uhmmm, okay, I think. Are there that many trans women out there in the community who would have the skills to do it? I guess I’m much more familiar with the male pretending to be female concept (Kabuki Theater & numerous plays, etc.) than I would be a transwoman portraying a male who becomes a trans woman. Years ago, my spouse and I walked out of Victor/Victoria because the plot was too confusing (a woman (Julie Andrews, no less) pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman with a few side detours thrown in). If they did a bio pic about Caitlyn Jenner’s life, I could easily see Caitlyn playing the part of Caitlyn, but wonder if she would be able to play the part of Bruce. I suppose it would be possible, but think it would be a mega challenge.


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