The Danish Girl: not transgender enough

Guy Birchall

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Some trans activists are upset about the casting of Eddie Redmayne in the upcoming film The Danish Girl. The film tells the story of Danish transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery.

You might imagine that trans-activist circles would be thrilled to hear that Elbe’s story is being given such a platform, making more people aware of her struggles. But you would be wrong. Trans activists are in uproar because Redmayne is a ‘cis-male’ and the character he portrays is a ‘trans-woman’. We’re still waiting to hear what the Danes think of him not actually being Danish, but I’m sure they’re fuming, too.

This reaction demonstrates a total misunderstanding of what acting is – that is, portraying someone or something you are not. This is the essence of the profession. What’s more, you’ll notice there is never this kind of outrage when a ‘cis-man’ plays a ‘cis-woman’. It is only when the character in question is transgender that there is any kind of outcry. I don’t recall any offence-taking when Rupert Everett played Miss Fritton in St Trinian’s (even though there should have been offence taken at how bad that movie was).

Redmayne and the film’s director, Tom Hooper, have been as politically correct as possible in their comments to the press. In an interview with the Telegraph, a gushing Redmayne said, ‘there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I’m sure there are many who could play this part sensationally’. However, you can’t help but think what Redmayne was really thinking was ‘this could get me an Oscar, so sod them’.

Regardless of what he says or believes, the fact that Redmayne is not transgender does not mean he cannot portray a transgender person, any more than the fact that he is not gay would prevent him from portraying a gay person. What matters is how well he can play the role and how good the film is – not how well it fits in with the latest political fashion.

Having watched the trailer, the film looks like it adequately complies with the compulsory view of transgenderism in the post-‘Call Me Caitlyn’ world. All the focus looks to be on how brave Lili Elbe was, and I’m sure the film will damningly portray all critics of her fatal surgery as evil (which would have been most of the planet in the 1930s).

Increasingly, critics seem to put the identity politics of a film, and its casting, before the quality of the film itself. The obsession with Redmayne’s gender is not dissimilar to the accusations of racism levelled at anyone who suggests Idris Elba shouldn’t be the next James Bond. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that the job of a film is to entertain its audience, not ensure the latest political fashion is adequately reflected on screen.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in Stoke.

Watch the trailer for The Danish Girl:

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