No More Cisgender Actors Playing Transgender Roles: Or Why The Danish Girl Is A Mess


The Oscar nominees come out and in the see of men’s faces there is Eddie Redmayne, dressed as a woman, nominated for his role in “The Danish Girl.” I cringe. It’s a crystal clear picture of everything that is wrong with the portrayal of transgender people in most popular movies. It sends a message: Transgender women are really men.

I comment about it on Twitter and someone says, “Of course he’s nominated for best actor, he’s a man!” As if I don’t know that, as if that contradiction isn’t exactly what I am pointing out with my comments. The fact that Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender man, got cast to play a transgender woman and then was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of that woman, is a mess.

Even setting aside the fact that there are scores of transgender people able to play transgender roles (and also, transgender people able to play non-transgender roles, but that’s a different essay), the fact that transgender people are usually played by cisgender actors who are not the same gender as the transgender person is not okay. Not just problematic, not just kind of weird, not just a problem to overcome; fundamentally not okay. On any level.

If (and this is a massive if, seeing as there are lots and lots of extremely talented transgender actors) a transgender actor can’t be found to play a transgender person, then producers and directors should at least be hiring people who identify as the gender of the transgender person. As far as I know that has been done only once; Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. In every other film and tv show that I have seen transgender people are played by cisgender actors who do not share the same gender identity. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Daniela Sea in The L Word, Elle Fanning in Ray, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, Tom Wilkinson in Normal; the list goes on and on and… well it doesn’t go on forever because there are still so few movies and tv shows about transgender people.

And see, that’s the whole problem: an extremely marginalized community who suffers intense discrimination and violence, a community that is wildly misunderstood (even by other sexual minorities), a community that is often hated and made fun of, has virtually no positive representation in media. And then, even when there is representation, it’s done poorly and the actors chosen highlight harmful ideas about the community.

If the general conception about transgender people is that, deep down, and no matter what they do, they are really the sex they were assigned at birth, can you see how casting someone who doesn’t share the same gender identity helps to perpetuate that narrative? As writers, producers, directors, everyone involved with making media about marginalized groups, you have a responsibility to do right by those groups. It’s serious because when you get it wrong, people literally die.

I hear the excuses already, “It’s just a movie!” or “At least your stories are getting told!” (stay tuned, I’m writing a whole essay about that one), or “It’s called acting!” None of these excuses hold up. We’ve seen the power of movies to shape consciousness, to change public opinion, and to educate. So every time a movie is done wrong, it is shaping the wrong kind of consciousness, warping public opinion, and holding up bad information.

As for the acting comment. Yes. A talented actor can do a lot of things. They can become another person, they can make you believe. A professional actor will also do their homework, interviewing people, learning about the person they represent. But even the best actor can never truly be someone they are not. When it comes to the experience of being transgender, no amount of homework or interviews or playing around will allow that actor to truly know what it’s like. Which means that there will always be a hint of falsity to their role. And even a hint is too much for an already underrepresented community.

Even if you want to hold on to the acting card, why are cisgender women not cast to play transgender women? And cisgender men cast to play transgender men? Your answer to that question tells me what you really think of transgender people. The fact that it never seems to even occur to casting directors and producers tells me that the people who are telling our stories don’t have our best interests in mind.

So, no. I won’t applaud Eddie Redmayne and the folks who made The Danish Girl. Even if it is a well done film. I won’t applaud because it’s not done right. And I am tired of films not being done right. I also won’t applaud Redmayne getting called “courageous” for playing a transgender woman. I won’t applaud attention lauded on him while transgender actors and actresses keep getting passed over for parts, while studios keep refusing to let us tell our own stories, while the funding goes to cisgender people who speak for us and over us.

It’s time for transgender people to tell our own stories. It’s time for us to play our own characters. It’s time for us to show the world what we’re really made of.

Do you want to be a part of making it possible for a transgender themed play to happen? Make a tax deductible contribution to Uprising Theatre Company’s next production Who Has Eyes To See.

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