Why does the Danish Girl have to be a man?

Trans[1] is trending. Films, television series, magazine covers are featuring transgender individuals’ lives and stories more and more. They have captured the attention of society and introduced a delicate subject into the world of several institutions and families. But are these recent characterisations of trans individuals faithful?”?  And if not, does it do more harm than good?

Identification and empathy were fundamental concepts that allowed for the evolution  of Human Rights. Lynn Hunt argues that the rise of the novel made people empathize across social boundaries, creating a shared understanding of the humanity in others. Today, the media has outnumbered novels and has taken over this role . As a member of the LGBT community myself, I would argue that the media representation of LGB characters might have played a role in the advancement of sexual orientation related rights: we  are being increasingly represented and with a fairer, diverse portrayals of characters. All of these probably contributed to scaling back some stigma, raising public awareness and enhancing the public support to issues like same-sex marriage (now legal in more than 20 countries).

The same can not be said about the trans community: they are neglected and forgotten. They face prejudice and hatred inside our own LGBT community[2].  Framing recent accomplishments as relating to the entire LGBT rights movement is extremely misleading. All LGBT individuals defy patriarchy and heterosexual patterns  to a certain extent, but they have very different needs and concerns to be addressed. The same privileges existing outside of a minority still apply inside it: within the LGBT community there is male-privilege, white-privilege, class-privilege and – in this case, specifically – what could be called cis-privilege. Cisgender persons are those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth – as opposed to transgender persons. For example, someone who was born with female physical features and is thus ascribed as a woman – or vice-versa.

Recently, the spotlight has been directed to trans individuals more constantly, but those representations are often not truthful to their experiences.[3] Why? Because people want to talk about these individuals, but refuse to listen to them. In a lot of artistic endeavours that focus on such stories, no trans person is involved with conceiving, writing, directing or even acting in the audiovisual pieces. The problems arise when the very people these films or shows try to portray are excluded from the process of making it.

There are several examples of this and they have raised a lot of backlash from the trans community – oddly enough, these reservations have not been widely reproduced by mainstream media and journalism. Some controversy emerged when Jared Leto played HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club and won an Academy Award for it. Several members of the trans community expressed frustration with the portrayal, citing inaccuracies and even questioning the motives for introducing such character, stating it only aimed at highlighting the protagonist’s homophobia[4] and inducing tear-jerking moments: “Rayon isn’t a person, she’s a function”.

The criticism from the trans community is profound: besides claims that such portrayals are opportunistic, they are also considered, at times, objectifying. Even more recently, Eddie Redmayne was cast to interpret real-life trans woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. He received wide critical acclaim for his work. The director admitted he never considered casting a trans actor for the role; according to him there was a feminine aspect to Redmayne that was worth exploring. But why is the perspective and added value of a cisgender male actor more relevant than the real life experience of a trans actor (about a trans individual)?

First, it needs to be stated that this is a deliberate choice. Film-makers (and maybe watchers) rejoice in observing a male actor’s skills to embody a female persona and often commend their bravery in doing so: after all, they had the audacity to play a woman. Interestingly, the contrary seems to be less exciting: trans men are significantly less represented. Some A-list female actors were even considered to play Lili Elbe (like Gwyneth Paltrow and Charlize Theron ), but watching a male vessel take the role would maybe be more intriguing and appealing to audiences – it feels like a business decision.  One that does very little to change the engendered social order: it reinforces a focus on transgender bodies rather than transgender lives (“Did he have to wax?”, “How much hours of make-up he endures?”, “Did he pluck?”). It is a choice with political and social repercussions, that doesn’t attempt to deconstruct the current assumptions and common misunderstandings the audience has about trans individuals, but actually feeds on them to draw attention.

Some argue that, from a perspective of gender fluidity, the gender of the actor doesn’t really matter. But that takes the situation out of context and ignores the current engendered politics of society: is it imaginable as of today to have trans actors playing cisgender characters in any entertainment piece? The insistence on casting white cisgender male actors to portray trans female characters is, at the very least, a matter of suspicion, that should raise deep concerns. Why aren’t trans actors qualified to play themselves on-screen? Because of such choices and representations, the message that lingers is the belief that transgender women are not women: they are men. Men who are usually struggling with their identity, who are unhappy, who need help. The cinematographic industry sees transgender women as men to be pitied.

Of course, having a trans actor isn’t the only variable under scrutiny. Transparent is a widely recognized webseries telling the story of a trans woman who decides to come out in her 70s and has to deal with the reaction of her dysfunctional family. It builds a dynamic, multifaceted protagonist that is reported to reflect several real-life experiences of trans individuals. The series has invested in thorough research about alike trans women, currently has 25 trans workers in its crew, including writers, directors and several consultants. However, for many, the absence of a trans actor in the leading role still undermines the final outcome of the character portrayal: it’s deemed performative. “It is what cis people imagine trans life is like”.

Other shows like Sense8 and Orange is the new black, although not having a primary focus on such characters, chose actual trans actors to play them. The latter show is rather socially aware, as it approaches the grave difficulties faced by a trans woman in prison and is well-received by critics and the trans community alike. This is a meaningful accomplishment: Jamie Clayton and Laverne Cox (actors in respective shows) are two potential role models for trans persons, who are seen in all their powerfulness and occupy different spaces in society than those currently destined for them. Trans persons can recognize themselves easier, since such characters are played by someone like them. Furthermore, it heightens the empathy factor: the focus is no longer necessarily on the actor’s transformation, but on the character’s struggles. And even if the audience were to focus on the actor, well at least they would actually be trans individuals themselves. After all, is it even possible to promote visibility of a marginalised community without showing their own faces?

The ones handing awards, editing newspapers and websites or financing films are not fully aware of the deep and various forms of prejudice the trans community still faces and that certain displays of trans characters, though maybe well-intentioned, may reinforce misleading assumptions and perpetuate  oppression. No major film or television show led by a transgender actor playing a transgender character has been produced yet. Trans representation in visual media is far from the ideal portrayal: it usually does not illustrate their experiences, bodies or thoughts. In the meanwhile, the trans community is constantly explaining what are the problems with the way media portrays them, outlining the conceptual mistakes and pointing in which direction to go. We should listen.


[1]    Trans will be used as an umbrella term that encompasses all deviants from gender identity nomartivity.

[2]    Recently, a petition has been opened urging lesbians, gays and bisexuals to exclude the T from the acronym.

[3]    A study in the United Kingdom investigating “How Transgender People Experience The Media” found that 78% of the respondents say that media’s trans representation is inaccurate, 70% say it is negative, and 67% say such negative items make them angry, 50% unhappy, 34.5% excluded, 20% frightened, and 60% bad about society. – Trans Media Watch, 2010. Available at: transmediawatch.org

[4]    The director admitted to this fact in this interview.


What are your thoughts on the portrayal of trans people in media? What would you answer on the questions Alex poses: ‘Are these recent characterisations of trans individuals faithful?”?  And if not, does it do more harm than good?’

If you want to let us know or discuss the ideas in this post, please comment below to discuss directly with Alex, or contact us via the contact page.




Disclaimer: Statements expressed on this website are not official statements of EIUC or EMA. They are written under the responsibilities of the individual author.



Alexandre Leal
About Alexandre Leal 1 Article
From Brazil. Graduated in law. Worked for NGOs, private foundations and the Brazilian Government in the Labour Rights field. Recently also acted as a consultant for cultural change in the workplace. Passionate about gender issues in Human Rights, LGBTQI culture and feminism

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