The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne

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.


About Author

Wynternight is the nom de plume of an Alaskan woman who loves the long, cold, and dark Alaska Winters. She's a fan of movies, music of all kinds and by all kinds she means metal, and various TV shows. She writes fantasy, sci-fi, and horror fiction of dubious quality and hopes to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up. Right now she works as a nurse, which she enjoys, but would much rather make a living as a black metal vocalist and guitar player.


  1. Jessica Alexander on

    Considering that Eli never had the benefits of HRT or any other medical intervention, I don’t see a problem with an Incredible actor like Eddie Redmayne playing the part. It does bother me though to see modern transwoman played by a man who does nothing but put on a wig and makeup.

    Now, if a cis male actor wants to take full blown HRT for a few years and get his beard removed…… I would say he paid his dues. But until then, I find it offensive.

  2. *

    Allow me to write that Vanessa Redgrave did a great performance as Renee Richards in the TV movie ‘Second Serve’ (1986?). She portrayed Richards as both male and female. I understand that the production employed actual transsexuals in various scenes.

    Suffice that as long as the roles go to the best performer, I generally do not care who plays that part – whether cis or trans* – as long as they are the best for the job, same as any other selection.

    I do take humour about Jessica’s mandate that a male actor undergo transition to portray a M-F. Of course it would be quite a performance, far exceeding, for example, when Robert DeNiro put on the pounds for his role as Jake LaMotta.

    ‘Soaps’ have had transsexual cast members and characters. Currently, CBS’s ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ has Karla Mosley (cis) playing current prime character Maya Avant (M-F). Scott Turner Schofield (F-M) portrays Nick, Maya’s transition mentor.

    Transsexuals on soaps have come quite a long way. I proposed a transitioning transsexual character to the ‘Young and the Restless’ story-line in 1977 (played by me, who else, during my transition). Of course, I was severely derided for my proposed character. I received a written reply that I cherish for its own value.


  3. I saw this film last night and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I do hae some criticisms (particularly the last act) but it honestly felt very relatable to me.

    I dont see how people I know call this ‘erasure’ when Lili didnt have access to HRT. In fact Someone was either going to have to transition during the film, or a trans actor was going to have to detransition one way or another, which wouldnt be fair on them, and it’s called acting for a reason. Must we only get gay actors for gay roles now as well?

  4. Mikki Megan Lisowsky on

    Suddenly or slowly you learn,accept or discover that your place of peace is in a different gender of your birth certificate is so disgustingly far from being gay by association intellectually.

  5. I found the film focuses too much on surface observations and it even toes the line of focusing on fetishistic in some parts. I’m not sure it helps more than hurts in some ways. It doesn’t feel like there’s much real transgender insight woven into it which has less to do with clothing than to do with a knowing of the deeper self.

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