The web is filled with wonder at the news that Eddie Redmayne is to follow up his Oscar-winning turn playing a disabled man (in The Theory of Everything) by playing a trans woman in the forthcoming The Danish Girl. Many sources have got very hot under the collar at the thought of the pretty young fellow dragging up (which is what it is – Redmayne is a man playing a woman, after all). The Huffington Post went so far as to declare him ‘unrecognisable‘ in his make-up for the part.
Like, we get it, HuffPo, seeing Eddie made up like that turns you on, and that’s okay – but do you have to sound like such a chaser about it?
Predictably, however, the main buzz about this has come from trans people pointing out that, you know, TRANS ACTORS DO EXIST, so why not CAST ONE? And of course the answering chorus of cis people saying surely it doesn’t matter who plays the part as long as they’re a good actor, and what about hormones and blah-blah yadda-yadda must we? We know how this argument goes.
And that’s why I’m not going to make it here. I’m less concerned with who they’ve cast in this story than whose story they’re telling. And that story is the story of Lili Elbe.
And why would Hollywood pick Lili Elbe, of all the historical trans people they could have chosen? Because of how she died. You can’t make a Hollywood movie about a trans person without there being a tragic, Oscar-baiting finish, after all. And forget Brandon Teena being beaten to death, The Danish Girl has an even better tragic trans ending. Poor Lili died of transplant rejection, after a uterine transplant.
Isn’t it just too perfect, people? She tried so hard to be a real girl but she died in the process, because her body rejected the womb. It isn’t hard to work out the subtext in telling that story, is it? That Lili could never be ‘real’. That all trans people can achieve is artificial, a fantasy brought to a crashing end on the harsh blocks of ‘biological reality’. Never mind that a cis woman would also have died after uterine transplant surgery given the technology they had back then; never mind that such technology was only properly developed recently: we all know what the takeaway from this movie is. They’re not telling it as the story of a woman. They’re telling it as the story of a man trying to be a woman, and ultimately failing. You can tell that because all of the publicity stuff refers to Lili by her dead name, Einar Wegener. You can tell it from the way Redmayne uses that dead name to refer to Lili even as he patronisingly says how ‘brave’ she was.
TV has featured trans women playing trans women in Orange is the New Black, Cucumber, the BBC’s forthcoming Boy Meets Girl and perhaps even, according to producers, Eastenders. But Hollywood seems to prefer to remain conservative: trans women in the movies are still men trying to be women, not women ourselves. We’re still Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne giving themselves a bad make-up job (gotta get that mirror shot in, natch) and dying tragic deaths offscreen like the cautionary tales that we are. But the sacrifice isn’t in vain because, by God, playing us can win these young men Oscars.
Well, fuck that. I’ll watch a Hollywood film about a trans woman when they cast a trans woman, and tell a story where she doesn’t die at the end. Because, HELLO, we are already dying out here, in numbers. The last thing I want to see at the cinema is a movie telling me I’ll have a tragic end when the news does that just fine already, thanks. Give me a story where the hero survives.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.