Actor Eddie Redmayne will be playing the trans woman title character of the novel The Danish Girl in an upcoming film adaptation. The novel is a semi-fictionalised account of the life of Lili Elbe, who might be the first recorded transgender woman to have had sex reassignment surgery as it is known today. Not surprisingly, there are already problems.
Redmayne, a cisgender man, considers himself a method actor, and that's great. He says he's speaking to trans women, some from as far back as the 50s and 60s, according E! Online. That's great, too. He should definitely be learning from these women, especially the oldest in our community. However, some of his comments are troubling.
Even though it is period and under completely different circumstances than today, I'm meeting many women from the trans community and hearing their experiences. I have put on dresses and wigs and makeup. I'm beginning to embark on that and trying to find out who she is.
Sigh. Here we go again. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie, see… If you've been speaking to trans women, and by that I mean, listening to them, you should know that binary trans women are not defined as women by overt markers of culturally defined femininity. Trans women, and even Elbe who appears from sources to have been pretty overtly femme, are not women because they put on dresses, wigs, and make up. Trans women are women because sociocultural experiences and neurological/biological forces have intertwined organically to create gendered individuals who see their identity at odds with their assignment at birth.
There are very femme trans women. There are also butch trans women. Then there are trans women in the middle, like myself. I'm roughly just femme of center. I identify myself as a tomboy femme. I sometimes wear a bit of make up, but not too much. I'm more likely to be found in oxford cloth button downs and slacks than dresses. If I wear a skirt, it's often under a blazer and tie. Yet I wear my hair in an overtly feminine, even juvenile, 80s inspired side pony tail (better for comfort in the Recaro racing seats I have in my car). I have never worn a wig (when I've had short hair, I presented as a woman with short hair), and I've worn a fancy dress like… twice in my entire life. I don't even own a dress at the moment. I have a wedding coming up, and I'm trying to figure out the balance of appropriate and comfortable, and I'm actually concerned about the likelihood I'll end up in the wedding party! Poofy? Frilly? Gaaaah.
In the case of Elbe herself, whatever her choice of gender expression, there is strong evidence she was non-dimorphic, and probably therefore intersex. She was often mistaken for a young woman dressing as a man, even though she had been assigned male at birth. Some reports even claim that at her autopsy, the presence of a mix of reproductive organs were found beyond what had been accomplished or attempted by surgery (ovary transplant, uterus transplant).
Doctors consulted in her early adulthood declared her to be a normal male in spite of the feminine figure and hypogonadism. Hormonal assays taken just before her first surgery indicated more female than male hormones present. It is likely that she had XXY sex chromosome karyotype (Klinefelter's Syndrome) a condition not medically recognized until 1942.
The point here is that Elbe was pretty feminine due to her own natural physicality, and so she tended to not only pass well when overtly femme, but even when she was wearing masculine clothing. This means that Elbe's lived experiences being taken as a woman are far, far more complex than it seems Redmayne thinks they are. And that's the crux of the issue when transgender characters are played by cisgender actors.
Although the transgender population is relatively small compared to the population as a whole, taken altogether, there are actually an awful lot of us. Indeed, there are a great many transgender individuals within the creative arts—including acting. If it seems like complaints from trans people about media portrayals routinely center around transgender characters being played by cisgender actors, there's a good reason for those complaints. Representation. Transgender actors and actresses don't even get enough roles in general, let alone transgender roles. Our complaints have naught to do with thinking cisgender actors can't accurately play transgender characters. No, our complaints come from concerns that have been repeatedly born out: that cisgender actors won't accurately play transgender characters. Won't look past the external physicality and trappings. Won't consider how womanhood is lived from a trans woman's perspective. It's not about ability. It's about respect.
Trans women, even those with purely binary identities, wholly found in the "woman" and/or "female" box, are all over the gender expression map. Putting on a dress, a wig, and some make up isn't going to help a cisgender actor figure out what it means to live as a trans woman all of the time. I am a woman when I wake up, roll out of bed, and stumble out the door to dump my trash in the corner bin, and I am seen as such by my neighbors. I'm a woman after three days of little sleep and no showers traveling around some exotic locale. I'm still a woman at my hygiene related worst. I do not put on womanhood as an act or an affectation, it is not applied in the morning and removed before I go to bed. And given my own passing ability (a privilege, I acknowledge, not granted to many others) walking around in a t-shirt, bra, and shorts, I don't often worry too much about being incorrectly gendered anymore. When it does happen, it's actually kind of a shock.
So when the first comment about method acting that pops out of a cisgender actor's mouth is, "I put on a dress, a wig, and make up so I can understand what it's like to be a trans woman," that's when I start thinking the casting director should have hired a trans actress. Or hired and publicised the hiring of transgender consultants. While I am sure that Redmayne is a wonderful actor, he's going to need a lot of help to portray Elbe's lived experiences.
A dress, a wig, and some make up just isn't going to do it.
Top image via Getty, other images via Gerda Gottlieb/Public Domain.