Can a cisgender play a transgender?

The main criticism moved against “The Danish Girl” is that the film is discriminatory towards transgender people. The criticism is easy to placate, though. There are three reasons why the cisgender Eddie Redmayne represented the best solution to play the transgender Lili Elbe.

Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” was subjected to a strong criticism even before the film was released. The fact that the role of Lili Elbe was given to Eddie Redmayne was seen offensive towards the transgender community. Why? Because Lili is a trans woman; instead, Eddie is a cisgender man, namely a man whose gender agrees with the sex he was assigned at birth.

As a defender of the LGBT community, I am the first to claim that such a criticism is weak. First of all, none of these people, who claim that the film is discriminatory towards the transgender community, seem to understand the core of Lili Elbe’s story. “The Danish Girl” is the story of a real person, and it’s a story in which the physical dimension linked to the transition process is the central point. Therefore, for this film it was necessary to choose someone who physically resembled the real Lili also before the surgery, that is, when she still was Einar Wegener. Secondly, the criticism hides discrimination in itself. Being transgender doesn’t necessarily make an actor capable of playing a transgender person. As a consequence, to want a transsexual actor at all costs just because the character to play is transsexual means to consider transsexuality as the only relevant part of a person. In other words, if you want a transgender person because the character to be played is transgender, then you are discriminating him/her, since you are considering the actor for his/her transsexuality and not for his/her skills. Being a doctor doesn’t make you automatically able to play the role of a doctor, as well as being transgender doesn’t make an actor automatically able to play the role of a transgender character. Moreover, in “The Danish Girl” there are several transgender actors playing minor roles, such as Rebecca Root. Therefore, we cannot talk of discrimination against transgender actors. Lastly, Eddie Redmayne is a famous actor, so using him for the role of Lili made more people watch the movie and get informed about Lili’s story. Furthermore, to see a cisgender man playing a transgender woman was a great way to start eliminating the barriers of discrimination and gender stereotypes in our culture. Consequently, having Lili Elbe played by Eddie Redmayne was an important way to give voice and visibility to transgender people all around the world. Thanks to Hooper’s film people knew Lili’s story and started getting educated about transsexuality. In this way, the movie worked as a powerful way of raising awareness on the transgender cause.

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The actor’s job is to play characters with credibility and passion. His/her own sexual orientation is not relevant. If the actor gets to communicate, then he/she is doing his/her job. Speaking of Eddie Redmayne, he did an impeccable job in representing Lili. Personally, I find Eddie’s work commendable and groundbreaking, as he didn’t ruin the role he played. Actually, he gave dignity and multidimensionality to the character. The Academy Award winner made an extensive research in order to become Lili Elbe. In particular, he spoke with many transsexuals for more than one year in order to do justice to the role. Plus, he worked with the dialect coach Julia Wilson-Dickson and the movement choreographer Alex Reynolds. They both allowed Eddie to focus on the character’s physicality, for instance the hand gestures and the subtle movements. Through his performance, we can realize how much he cared about this role and how meaningful for him the character of Lili was. In fact, the actor handles every detail of his performance carefully and he is capable of impressive perfectionism. The Oscar winner actor powerfully represented the painful dichotomy of a transgender person, born in a stranger’s body. Lili’s true nature, indeed, can be captured in a painting but not in a mirror. In the mirror there is Einar Wegener, while in Gerda’s paintings there is Lili. One of the most powerful scenes of the movie is when Einar is in front of thr mirror of a tailor shop and confronts himself with his own nakedness. His looks addressed to the reflected image and his attempt to conceal the penis reveal all the drama of the hero/protagonist, who is aware of his carnal prison forcing him to live in a body that is not his own. Indeed, at a certain point in the movie, when she cannot repress her true self anymore, Lili claims tearfully: “this is not my body. I have to let it go.”


Eddie Redmayne claimed: “what I found astounding about Lili’s story is her courage.[1] The Academy Award winner adds: “the whole story was new to me and I found it to be a passionate and incredibly unique love story. It was about the lives of two extraordinary women and it moved me profoundly … I hope that in some ways our film continues the discussion, because us learning to be allies to the trans community is so important.”[2] Eddie’s meticulous preparation for such important role is evident in Tom Hooper’s movie. His interpretation is so touching that the choice of casting Redmayne turned out to be the best one. Indeed, the director affirmed: “I still did my homework, thinking about who else I could cast, but my instinct was always Eddie. I felt there was something in him that was drawn to the feminine.”[3] Interestingly enough, it took more than six years to make “The Danish Girl”. As the director explains, “the fact that it’s taken so long is evidence of some of the inherent prejudices against trans stories that people have faced for a long time. So it’s great we got it made.”[4] Of course, directing a story on the first man to have a sex change operation was a huge challenge. Hooper, indeed, said: “what I felt was most important in the end was honoring her role as transgender pioneer or a pioneer of the transgender movement, and communicating her courage. I mean, this is a time before antibiotics, before the invention of penicillin, when the risks of infection were high, and the consequences fatal. The more I worked on the period’s setting, the more I realized not only the risks and the courage, but also the pain she must have been in to be willing to take those risks.”[5] Eventually, the effects were uplifting for both the actors and the director.

Eddie Redmayne specifically claimed he learned a lot from Lili. Interestingly enough, he admitted that when he arrived on the set dressed as Lili for the first time, he felt observed and judged, despite he was in a safe environment. Such a feeling brought him to understand what being transsexual and not conforming to society’s stereotypes really mean. The actor said: “one of the things that I learned while prepping for this film is I sort of, in my ignorance, thought that a trans person had to have gone through some sort of physical transformation, but actually, it entirely has to do with what is in your mind and your soul, and that you can have in no way trying to sort of dress or be. It’s how you are.”[6] For the people criticizing the fact that a cisgender person played the role of a transgender person, the Oscar winner actor replies: “I think it’s a really important discussion. And I think for people to be able to enter into the debate and discussion one needs a certain amount of education and on what trans people have had to go through and the discrimination. You know you can be fired in 31 states for being trans? You know in the past year, there’s been great acceleration in a sense trans issues coming into the mainstream media and my hope is that if this film can just continue that dialogue then that would be a wonderful thing.”[7]



“The Danish Girl” received an unexpected success in Italy. It was applauded enthusiastically at the 2015 Venice Film Festival world premiere. Interestingly enough, the movie, which works as a ‘transgender manifesto’ film, comes at a time of social relevance for what concerns the affirmation of LGTB civil rights in Italy. In other words, Hooper’s film comes out at the best time, in the period in which same-sex civil unions, “DDL Cirinnà” and transgender culture are highly debated. Within the social context of the country, in which there are still strong controversies around the binomial ‘sexual freedom-civil rights’, “The Danish Girl” shows the difficulties of an individual in undertaking a transformation, in accepting the true self, and in challenging the wall of social conventions. Living an authentic life should be every human being’s ambition, and the message of Tom Hooper’s film is clear and positive: accepting yourself and being yourself are really possible, because “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” (F. Nietzsche) The lesson Italy learned is that there is a difference between sexuality and gender, as the two things don’t necessarily go together. For those people saying that the film eventually falls into melodrama, we have to acknowledge the fact that, in a period of huge controversy around transsexuality, at least the film throws a stone into the pond. For this reason, Hooper’s movies had great courage in telling the story of a heroine who fought every single day just to be herself. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” (E. E. Cummings)


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