Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months you would have heard about Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne’s casting as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. Born Einar Wegener, Lili was the first recorded person to have male to female sex reassignment surgery so she could live her life as Lili Elbe.
In recent years the portrayals of trans characters have shifted into the mainstream and films like The Danish Girl and TV shows like Transparent have brought more attention to the cause. We now see trans actresses like Laverne Cox gracing red carpets and our TV screens without so much as a bat of an eyelash. So why would a cis gendered Eddie Redmayne be the person chosen to portray the inspirational Lili Elbe?
According to the director, Tom Hooper, “There’s something in Eddie that is drawn to the feminine; he’s played women before, most notably Viola in Twelfth Night. In our film, Lili is presented as a man for two-thirds of the movie, and her transition happens quite late on, so that played a part in coming to a decision.” In this case then, there could be something quite unsettling about “remasculising” a person who has already transitioned to play a man for more than two-thirds of the film. In some ways it feels like it is undermining the journey they have experienced.
Alternatively, to take a philosophical view on our concepts of gender you can easily argue that by casting a cis actor in the role of Lili demonstrates the meaninglessness of physical gender. As Hooper points out about Redmayne, there is something feminine in his presence and he has a natural gender fluidity that lends itself to the role. If we can accept gender is a construct of society then we can accept that physical gender is meaningless and far more open to interpretation than we would like to think. Therefore the role should be cast purely on talent, of which Eddie Redmayne has in droves. He brings sincerity and understanding of the pain Lili went through, in preparation for the role he got involved with trans groups to get to know the community and understand the process so he didn’t take the role lightly.
What we really need to see is trans people in roles of all types and not limit them purely to playing post transition roles
This film has shone a light on the lack of parts for trans actors in the film industry and Hooper has said himself that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Many of the supporting roles of The Danish Girl were filled by trans actors which does show a move towards the acceptance of the community in the film industry. What we really need to see is trans people in roles of all types and not limit them purely to playing post transition roles. The film industry is wildly discriminatory and a movement towards casting people of all backgrounds irrespective of gender in all roles would be a fantastic move forward.
Nicole Stewart Rushworth
The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, is a film inspired by the life of Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. This beautifully filmed and performed costume drama has been celebrated by many reviewers, including some from the BBC and The New York Times, for capturing the zeitgeist of our time. In recent years, notable figures, such as athlete Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox from the TV series Orange Is The New Black, have been raising awareness about trans people. The Danish Girl could hardly have been released at a more opportune time. However, Hooper’s too delicate treatment of the content ultimately results in a missed opportunity for the transgender movement. The world is ready for a bolder representation of transsexuality than the one The Danish Girl offers.
Given recent blacklashes against the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles, such as Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, it is hardly surprising that Hooper has received open criticism for casting Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe. That is not to detract from the quality of Redmayne’s performance; his moving interpretation of Lili Elbe has rightly stirred Oscar buzz for the actor. Prominent trans activist Paris Lees even spoke out that if any cisgender person is “going to do [transgender representation] justice then I‘m happy it‘s Eddie.” However, for all his talent and the “gender fluidity” which Hooper identifies in Redmayne, the actor remains cisgender. An interpretation of Lili Elbe by a transgender actor would have been immeasurably more moving, authentic and deep.
The world is ready for a bolder representation of transsexuality than the one The Danish Girl offers
There was also hope that the casting of a transgender actor as Lili Elbe would open doors for the trans community. There is a pool of talented transgender performers, yet so far it has been largely neglected in Hollywood. Furthermore, in 31 US states, a person can be fired on the basis of transsexuality. Perhaps to compensate his lead role casting decision, Hooper cast 20-30 trans actors in supporting cisgender roles. This is a remarkable action, but still not enough.
Just as Hooper played it safe casting Redmayne as Lili, he was too cautious in his direction. The film downplays the hardships of being transgender. Too much emphasis is placed on Gerda and Lili’s marriage and friendship, while too little attention is paid to the turmoil Lili surely experienced in her social life during and after her transition. In the film, a few doctors perceive transsexuality as a mental illness and only in one scene does Lili suffer physical and verbal abuse. The support she receives from friends and acquaintances almost makes her transition seem uncontroversial. Overall, the storyline fails to pack a proper punch in order to contribute to a deeper understanding of what it means to be transgender: if only Hooper had been bolder in his casting and direction.
Images courtesy of Focus Features