The Danish Girl is an upcoming film about the life of Lili Elbe, born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, one of the first known recipients of Gender Reassignment Surgery. Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne stars as the titular character and the film, as expected, drawn controversy for having a cisgender actor portray a transgender character.
This is not the first movie to have a cis actor or actress portray a transgender character and it is not likely to be the last. This is also not the only upcoming movie doing just this. Ellie Fanning plays a teenager in transition from female to male in the film About Ray.
As in the Danish Girl, About Ray has touched off nerves in the trans* community in regards to cisgender actors playing trans roles. The argument is always the same, “why can’t the role go to a trans actor?” and, whilst it has merit, it’s remarkably myopic and really only touches on part of the issue.
The transgender community has a habit of cutting off its own nose to spite its face and a disturbing tendency to miss the forest for the trees, being our own worst enemy in the process. There’s also a general lack of critical thinking on display here. The point behind these two films is the transition process, not the end result. Viewed in that light, having a cisgender actor portray the character makes sense. Moreover, it shows, hopefully tastefully and accurately, what someone has to undergo to transition. Showing more of these characters makes it more familiar and thus, make us less “other.”
Going into an uproar every time another trans-related film comes out that doesn’t follow exactly the narrative we want puts us in a negative light. The public sees, but does not understand, the narrative. I would much rather see a film with a sympathetic and well done transgender character played by a cisgender actor than I would want a bad movie with an unsympathetic character played by a trans actor.
This is not to say that there have been movies where, quite frankly, there was no excuse for not having a transgender actor as the lead. Transamerica is a notable example. Bree Osbourne, played by Felicity Huffman, could have gone to a transgender actress.
There are current programmes and films which feature trans* people playing trans* characters. Sense8 has transgender actress Jamie Clayton playing a very large part in the series. Boy Meets Girl (2014) starred transgender actress Michelle Hendley in the lead role.
Transgender people are becoming more and more visible which means more chances for trans* actors to get roles but we, as a community, should support any movie that shows a genuine portrayal of a transgender character without going into a rage if the role is played by a cisgender actor. The issue is bigger than the actor.