Eddie Redmayne’s post-Oscars career glow is continuing with the announcement of his role as 1930s Danish artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. In true Oscars fashion, he’s playing a role that will require a complete transformation of himself. We’ve already seen he can inhabit the life of Stephen Hawking, but now we’ll see him inhabit the life of Elbe (formerly named Einar Wegener), one of the first people to have sex-reassignment surgery. The above picture is the first look at Redmayne in character.
If I’m speaking shallowly, Redmayne makes a very gorgeous woman. But I’m sure there are also intense concerns that having a cisgender male play a transgender woman will take the performance more into the realm of “drag queen” than a faithful representation of a transgender experience. Of course, I’m not saying anything’s wrong with drag queens, but drag queens and men who dress as women who may not identify themselves as “drag queens” but do identify themselves with their gender are not transgender women.
A case could be said for Redmayne’s casting if he’s playing Elbe as both Elbe and Wegener. I think the main argument Hollywood has with casting men in transgender roles is the thought of “versatility.” A man can easily play both the male and female parts of the character, the thought process goes. But couldn’t a transgender woman easily play both parts, too? In fact, getting a transgender actor would make the whole film and the experiences of the character a lot more authentic.
Redmayne will certainly do his best to identify with Elbe, I’m sure, but there’s a level of understanding that cisgender folks just won’t be able to understand, just like how there’s a level of understanding many minority Westerners (i.e. living in the academically-called “Western” society) have about the world that the white Westerners won’t be able to really get at. Conversely, minority Westerners aren’t really able to grasp what it might be like to live in a society that actually caters to you, like white Westerners get to experience. The people who live certain experiences, like the transgender experience, should be able to tell their stories themselves, without the story being presented first in the form of an “acceptable” actor.
I’m not knocking Redmayne by saying this. He seems like a fine actor, and he seems like a good person. I’m just discussing the Hollywood politics that surround the film. Once again, Hollywood is portraying itself to be “liberal” and “free-thinking” by making this film, but they’re also showing themselves to be conservative by hiring a cis actor. With the exception of trailblazers like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Carmen Carrera, Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to handle the idea of transgender actors. There still need to be more trans actors considered for roles like Lili Elbe.
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