Eddie Redmayne and The Danish Girl: Transwashing or Transparency?


Eddie Redmayne is famous for playing Stephen Hawking, being an Eton-Cambridge graduate and, perhaps less so, for being male. He plays Lili Elbe, the first known transgender woman to undergo gender-realignment surgery, in the recent biopic ‘The Danish Girl’ which was met with outrage on social media. Despite Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition in the past year, the trans-movement remains virtually non-existent in mainstream society and media. The cis people of the world (those whose gender aligns with the sex they were born with) need to wake up and realise this is oppression that we need to tackle. While it may be uncomfortable that a cis man – ‘the oppressor’ – is playing a trans-woman – ‘the oppressed’ – Redmayne, currently the most talked about actor on the planet, will be able to offer the movement exposure that could not be achieved by a trans-actor alone.

The announcement of Redmayne’s casting has ignited fierce debate over cis-perceptions of the transgender community on social media. As terrible as it may sound, ‘The Danish Girl’ or the issue of trans’ rights would not be so hotly discussed in the media without Redmayne. In fact, the casting of Elle Fanning (the little blonde girl in ‘Maleficent’, anyone?) in a transgender role in the 2015 film ‘About Ray’ has received next to no media attention. And why? Because Elle Fanning has not won over 30 awards including a Golden Globe and Academy Award – unlike Redmayne. Fanning’s casting in a transgender role over a trans actor therefore appears more uncomfortable. Fanning is not a house-hold name that cannot and has not brought any media awareness of trans’ rights, arguably taking a role from trans actors who struggle to get roles due to Hollywood’s refusal to cast trans actors in cis roles.

But there is one major issue that separates Redmayne between Fanning. Redmayne has what no other trans actor has; international fame. He is the actor of the moment. Above anything, the trans’ community needs awareness. While it may sit uncomfortably for some that a cis man – ‘the oppressor’ – is playing a trans woman – ‘the oppressed’ – if Redmayne is able to draw in greater numbers of uneducated watchers than a little-known trans actor then this act of ‘trans-washing’ has justification. Whether you like it or not, Redmayne will be able to do this.

Ever heard of ‘Tangerine’? ‘Women in Revolt’? ‘Wild Side’? These were films that, while offering inspiration to the trans-community by featuring trans-actors in trans-roles, are largely unheard of. Hollywood needs a pro-trans film that breaks the mainstream, meaning that trans actors like Hari Nef, Jamie Clayton and Harmony Santana will finally gain the recognition and opportunities they deserve. Without the mainstream appeal, transgender films will continue to be ‘cult’ films, only seen by those already knowledgeable towards the issue. While the ‘Orange is the New Black’ and transgender star Laverne Cox disagreed with the casting of Andrew Garfield as a trans woman in Arcade Fire’s music video for ‘We Exist’, she admitted ‘the Spider-Man guy’ in an Arcade Fire video is going to make headlines and people are going to click on it and talk about it […] if I were asked to do the Arcade Fire video, I don’t know if it would have the same kind of attention’.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a cultural awareness gap between us – the ‘tumblr generation’ – and those brought up in a world without social media. We forget that it is through social media which we learn about trans’ rights, gay rights, feminism, cultural appropriation, #lovewins, #blacklivesmatter. If we distance ourselves from our social media bubble – which is an entirely separate universe from the real world – it becomes apparent that the vast majority of the public are not only ignorant of the issues which we fight for on social media, but are unaware these issues even exist. We take for granted our knowledge, insisting that society follows our informed pace rather than ensuring the education of society as a whole. Yes, the trans’ community need idols (which they would be granted if trans actors played trans roles). But it is no good having idols in a society unwilling to accept them.

There is no correct approach to equality. Tumblr users demand an all or nothing approach to equality, with those against Redmayne’s casting sparking the hashtag #boycottthedanishgirl. The idea that it is acceptable to instantly dismiss the views of others is a dangerous one as it means the discussions surrounding the issues become silenced. They become dismissive of the discussion between the majority and minority groups of society that are vital to achieving social change. While it might be insulting to our minority groups, history has shown that society needs to walk before it can run; despite the suffragette and suffragist movement beginning in the late 19th century, the fight still continues today. Equality, awareness and justice cannot be achieved overnight.

The more prominent issue ‘The Danish Girl’ raises is how society is more interested in the trans’ community as a concept rather than as individuals. Trans actress Hari Nef (who recently appeared in The Drums’ music video for ‘There is Nothing Left’) said in one interview: ‘will there ever come a point where I could play a woman in a realistic, naturalistic drama and have there not be the word “trans” in the script? In terms of trans’ narratives, people really only care about trans people insofar as the moment of revelation, the drama of transition. After she transitions or begins to transition, it’s like, “Where’s the drama?”’ Hollywood does not take the trans’ community seriously – nor does society or the mainstream media. Perhaps the most transphobic aspect of Hollywood – rather ‘The Danish Girl’ casting a cis actor which ultimately aims to promote trans’ awareness – is the lack of opportunity for the trans’ community as a whole.

This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable topic because it highlights the extent of transphobia present in society. But the revolution for shunning such rigid gender stereotypes has only just begun, and if Redmayne is able to successfully raise awareness around the topic in the same way Benedict Cumberbatch campaigned to get the criminal convictions lifted of the 49,000 men imprisoned for homosexuality throughout the 20th century (which has since raised over 600,000 signatures), then this ‘trans-washing’ casting will be beneficial to the movement in the long run. It may feel uncomfortable to defend a cis-actor playing such an oppressed socio-group but, ultimately, we need to distance ourselves from our cultural awareness developed through social media. If Redmayne is able to attract viewers more than an unknown trans-actor could and is therefore able to raise awareness to those ignorant of the issues, we must see this as a win for not the trans’ movement, but equality. While it may only be a small victory in a battle that has only just begun, it is a win nonetheless. ‘The Danish Girl’ has the potential to open the door for greater opportunities and hope for the trans’ community, shunning their invisibility to the past. And this must be seen as a step in the right direction of the transparency of society’s shunned minority group.

Words by Juliette Rowsell


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