Eddie Redmayne recently came out to say that playing a trans role in The Danish Girl was “a mistake” which begs the question, should all trans roles be played by trans actors?
First and foremost, this is not a transphobic article that will echo the complaints about the trans community found in certain sections of the internet. This will simply be a discussion around the responsibility of actors, and Hollywood in general, as it pertains to their representation of the trans community.
Also, as people will wonder, I am not trans, I am a straight white male – the most basic, white-bread version of all sexual orientations – just trying to understand the discussion as best I can.
Some context first.
Redmayne played the role of a trans woman in The Danish Girl (2015). The film is based on the true story of Lile Elbe, one of the first people in the world to have gender reassignment surgery. Redmayne was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but the film did garner some criticism that was mainly aimed at the casting of Redmayne as Elbe. Many stated that they felt a trans actor should have been cast instead.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Redmayne was asked if he would take the role today and he responded with,
Redmayne brought up the bigger issue not being said here, “The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.”
The Bigger Issue
The way trans roles are often portrayed in Hollywood still tends to be negative. And I’m not just talking about film portrayals from the 20th century, like Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) Buffalo Bill, which are (mostly) victims of popular attitudes of the time. It’s the portrayals of more more recent films like Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Jared Leto’s portrayal of the transwoman, Rayon.
Time went so far as to call Leto’s portrayal a misguided representation of trans people similar to the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind which was similarly misguided in its portrayal of African-Americans. Both moments heralded, according to Time, the realisation when “liberals in Hollywood… showed how little they understood or empathised with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honouring.”
My first reaction was to say, “Hey, at least it’s a positive representation of a trans woman that you really get to sympathise with!” But then I thought, “Is it really?” Leto’s Rayon is a depressed, clothes loving, flirty, transgender, drug addict prostitute. It’s a representation based around how men think they have to act to pretend to be a woman rather than someone who really feels like a woman at their very core, whatever that may mean to them.
I stumbled on a discussion between friends on Glamour and found some interesting perspectives on the issue. The writer recorded a conversation between their two friends, Caleb (gender queer) and Jensen (trans man). They discussed Leto’s role in Dallas Buyers Club.
Jensen thought it was perfectly fine that Leto got the role as long as he was the best actor who auditioned. Given that Leto’s acting performance itself was not poor by any means this could possibly be the case.
Caleb didn’t like the casting at all. To Caleb, they felt the film “went out of [its] way to make her [Rayon] look bad and trashy in most scenes and almost leaned into the ‘man in a wig’ narrative.”
Now, Caleb’s issues don’t seem to be simply related to Leto’s casting, but the wider issue at hand: there simply aren’t many different stories about trans people in Hollywood. It’s exactly what Redmayne was saying, “there must be a levelling.”
It’s not that straight actors can’t play trans roles, but that it will always be a controversial decision for them to do so until trans identities become normalised within mainstream narratives.
But how can a straight actor know what it is really like to play a trans person? After all, they don’t have the experience to understand properly. Would it be too dismissive or simplistic to say that actors don’t know what it’s like to be a drug kingpin or a king in Ancient Greece? How do they overcome this hurdle? Research.
The problem is that we are not at that stage yet and we may never reach it. Trans people are still fighting for the right to their own identities, and they don’t need people thinking that their community is at all similar to what Hollywood portrays onscreen.
So What Do We Do?
The trans charity Gendered Intelligence responded to Redmayne’s latest comments saying that trans representation onscreen had “come on leaps and bounds” since The Danish Girl and that since then a “consensus is being reached that trans actors for trans roles should be de rigueur.”
They continued, “Not only does this help abate the possibility of telling our stories in unnecessarily denigrating ways, but the authenticity of trans actors playing trans parts means stories are being told in a more meaningful way for actors and viewers alike.”
So, this is where I, a straight white man, think we’re currently at: right now, trans people should play trans roles, but in the future, it shouldn’t be so exclusive.
If we arrive at a future where trans narratives in Hollywood become normalised, then this seems like less of an issue. They are actors after all, but right now the possibility of misrepresentation, even by accident, is too high. When it does go wrong it causes more harm than good and in our current climate, it comes at too high a cost for the trans community.
What if we never reach that utopian future where trans narratives are the norm? Who can know for sure? All we can do is provide our support to the trans community.
What do you think?