Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies

When transgender and transsexual persons’ experience has finally started to present a point of interest to the audience that is willing – either sincerely or pursuing some personal interest – to understand them, the representation of trans community on the screen can be seen. However, what the mainstream broadcast mostly offers is stories of trans people as envisioned by cis directors, written by cis scriptwriters, and played by cis actors.

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Such discrepancy has caused debates in the web space, with some of the audience marveling at cis actors’ courage and others accusing the directors of heinous hypocrisy. The precedents of cisgender actors starring as transsexual or transgender persons are numerous: Hilary Swank, Jared Leto, Daniela Sea, Jeffrey Tambor etc., playing the parts of persons whose gender they do not identify with, off the screen. At the same time, there is a pitifully small amount of first-hand experience, the best source of which would obviously be the transgender people themselves.

The following paper is not aimed at discussing movies devoted to transgender experience in terms of filming characteristics and their artistic value. Rather, the aim of this discussion is to outline the implications of transgender and transsexual experience from the outside (as presented by the cisgender film crew) and from within (as presented by transgender and transsexual persons themselves), particularly how they are represented, what issues are aroused by such representation, and how the public sees it.

Among the movies that somehow or other services as a representation of gender non-conforming experience, we have chosen “The Danish Girl” directed by Tom Hooper1 and “Her Story” directed by Sydney Freeland2. Tom Hooper’s work is a movie telling the story of Lili Elbe, a transgender woman and one of the first people to ever go under sex reassignment surgery. Born and brought up as a male, Einar Wegener, and married to Gerda Gottlieb, Lili struggles with her identity and eventually agrees to undergo an underdeveloped sex-changing technique. The movie depicts the life-long identity search and the perception of it from outside by those who support and disapprove.

Lili dies due to complications from the surgery, and the “flying scarf” scene at the end is used to illustrate the freedom from the bodily boundaries. The movie was exposed to both appraisals, mainly celebrating the leading actor’s talent and courage and critique linked to the fact that a cisgender male was assigned a transgender role. As far as it is known, Tom Hooper and Lucinda Coxon (the screenwriter) are both cisgender as well3.

“Her Story,” on the other hand, is a web-show consisting of short episodes written, produced, and starred by gender-nonconforming women. The series is devoted to transgender and transsexual women pursuing their career and personal happiness. The film crew almost totally consists of women and/or LGBTQ+ persons, which is a proactive manifesto in itself. The project has just been launched, but the message is overpowering. Involving persons like Jen Richards, Laura Zak, Angelica Ross whose experience served as a baseline for the script facilitates the facets of their in-depth multisided experience to be formed into visual material, with the queer, transgender and transsexual parts explored, acted, and voiced first-handedly4.

The issue of media representation of transsexual and transgender experience correlates primarily with the way the cis-society sees them and what it wants to see of them5. The general misconception that the cis-society fosters is that deep down inside, transgender and transsexual persons belong to the sex they were born with. At that, no sex reassignment surgery is deemed “enough.” It can be argued that the mainstream cis-produced and cis-oriented movies nurture these misconceptions further still. This is done – either conscientiously or not – primarily by casting cisgender male actors for the parts of transgender and transsexual women. “The Danish Girl” has received the most critique on the side of LGBTQ+ and particularly trans-activist community, for that matter.

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The person acting the role is the embodiment of that role; that a cisgender male should be filmed as the highly problematic historical character that Lily Elbe was is practically illogical, apart from the fact that it is a harmful idea by nature. “Her Story,” on the other hand, does not concern historical or fictional figures. It is an experience-based view on the problem of transgender and transsexual people, their interactions with queer and cis people, their gender identity search, and how they are perceived and misperceived by the cisgender and even queer people. Trans women who are either disclosing their stories or protecting what is deeply personal to them are depicted.

For that matter, the issues of disclosure as opposed to non-disclosure and “passing” for cis persons, as well as who is privileged to know the story, are only a few ones in a multitude of issues discussed in the series6. Firstly, “Her Story” shows that the trans experience, particularly the trans women’s experience, is not so simple a subject as it is depicted in the cisgender-produced movies and shows. More importantly, still, the series has an underlying message reflecting upon the supposition that no transition can change birth-assigned biological sex once and for all. The series explores femininity and womanhood, and from what the viewer sees, it is possible to concede that, rather than presenting a mockery of these notions, trans women empower them.

Thus, as exemplified by “Her Story” and “The Danish Girl,” the cisgender-made movies are quite likely to misrepresent transgender and transsexual women at the very base of the notion, depriving them of their femininity and oversimplifying the problematics. Considering the power of the mainstream, such misrepresentation further exacerbates the society’s ideas of the community that is marginalized, misinterpreted, and misunderstood enough as it is.

Another aspect that makes the movies of cisgender production a deviation from what transgender and transsexual issues consist of is densely intertwined with the original misconception that trans women are, after all, and apart from all, men. Keeping in mind that this misconception is nurtured by cisgender male actors filmed as trans women, such movies further deepen the misogyny that trans women are also exposed to7.

Firstly, filming a cisgender male as a trans woman character undergoing surgery is likely to be understood incorrectly. Given that the audience tends to closely associate the actor and the role, it is possible that an impression of a trans woman being basically a man who wants to chop their penis off is taken as a given by the audience. The main component of such an idea is phallocentricism as if the presence or the absence of a penis was the building block of gender; the confusion of sex and gender is, thus, further facilitated.

Lastly, the bodily component has a spare place in “The Danish Girl,” for instance; although dialogs are present to convey the character’s inner battle, the discussion of surgery and body presentation are prone to reduce the character to their body parts. In contrast to “The Danish Girl,” the “Her Story” series is more focused on trans women’s experience within and outside their community. The series is devoted to the psychic battles trans women have to live through.

Every single occasion might become the battlefield, depending on how successful the woman passing for a cisgender is, or how openly trans. The issue of disclosure is pressed, for example, in an episode with Paige (an African American civil rights attorney) dating a cisgender man and struggling to make the right decision. Another important issue raised in the series, aside from the perception of trans women by cis people, is how queer people think of them and in what respect.

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The message is that trans women are particularly vulnerable to both cis-sexism and oppositional sexism, which is best illustrated by a lesbian character lambasting a trans woman. Lisa speaks off the phallocentric ideas that surround trans women, denying their right to femininity and the very presence of femininity in them8. Consequently, the trans issues, as seen by cisgender film-makers, do not quite comply with what trans people themselves regard as issues.

Mainstream movies such as “The Danish Girl” do their part in raising public awareness on the subject, but the ideas that are subsumed by cis impersonation of trans people can be quite misleading and potentially dangerous. The first-hand experience provided by trans and queer persons themselves not only speaks in terms of feelings rather than body issues but also gets the viewers acquainted with the multiplicity of opinions.

To their credit, cisgender-directed, -produced, and -starred movies do make their attempts to represent transgender and transsexual issues. The ultimate problem with this representation is that, while creating a movie about trans experience, there are not trans persons to be seen in the staff. Such a problem raises multiple questions as to what the actual message of such movies is. “The Danish Girl,” for one, is written, directed, produced, and starred by those who, as far as we know, solely identify themselves as cis.

Despite the fact that attempts are being made to favor trans people in their creations, there are discrepancies between the cis perception and the trans perception, as well as the faulty representation and objectification. A problematic character such as Lily embodied by a cisgender Eddie Redmayne calls for an association with black characters being portrayed by white actors made up in blackface. One can only wonder if the real message behind “The Danish Girl” is the cis supremacy.

There are several arguments in favor of cis representation of transsexual and transgender people. Firstly, there is an opinion that well-known actors are hired for better sales, which, in turn, means that trans people are mostly denied access to the media. As a consequence, it is the cisgender people who have the authority over such issues9. From this, the second argument can be derived: not seeing many trans persons in the TV and web series, the public has come to think there are very few talented trans people at all10.

The “Her Story” series successfully contradict both these arguments. They beat the business approach by broadcasting the series for free so that they are available for everyone to watch. Such approach has proven effective for raising awareness: the project has only just been launched but the news has already famed it afar. What is more, the crew and the cast are almost entirely consistent with trans and queer women. Considering the project’s success, the idea of the lack of talent is contravened and busted. Considering that the experience is utterly personal, the authenticity of the series is appealing. Also, in a show produced and starred by trans and LGBTQ+ persons, it is highly improbable that the idea of supremacy of some and inferiority of the others is promoted.

To crown it all, one can suppose that the way transgender ad transsexual issues are brought up in movies by cis persons are quite contradictory to the trans and queer communities’ best interests. The implications of transgender and transsexual experience as presented by cisgender filmmakers by transgender and transsexual persons themselves is quite different. In cis-made movies, there is a strong tendency to cast cis actors for transsexual and transgender roles.

In turn, that produces a misleading image, focusing the public mainly on their bodies and surgery and simultaneously convincing that no surgery can alter manhood. Also, such movies as “The Danish Girl” create the impression of the lack of talent on the trans people’s side. In contrast to that, trans community takes a different approach which draws attention to the issues as they are and tries to oppose the idea of supremacy that is possibly hinted at by letting mainstream cisgender-oriented media speak for the trans rights.

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Bibliography

Cook, Marcy. “Eddie Redmayne and Hollywood’s Cis Problem.The Mary Sue. Web.

Fisher, Katherine. “Her Story.Indiegogo. Web.

Namaste, Viviane. Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism. Toronto, Ontario: Women’s Press, 2005.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman On Sexism and The Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009.

Synopsis for ‘The Danish Girl’.” IMDb. Web.

Footnotes

  1. “Synopsis for ‘The Danish Girl’,” IMDb. Web.
  2. Katherine Fisher, “Her Story,” Indiegogo. Web.
  3. Marcy Cook, “Eddie Redmayne and Hollywood’s Cis Problem,” The Mary Sue. Web.
  4. Katherine Fisher, “Her Story,” Indiegogo. Web.
  5. Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism. (Toronto, Ontario: Women’s Press, 2005), 42.
  6. Katherine Fisher, “Her Story,” Indiegogo. Web.
  7. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman On Sexism And The Scapegoating of Femininity, (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009), 15.
  8. Katherine Fisher, “Her Story,” Indiegogo. Web.
  9. Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism. (Toronto, Ontario: Women’s Press, 2005), 45.
  10. Marcy Cook, “Eddie Redmayne and Hollywood’s Cis Problem,” The Mary Sue. Web.
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StudyCorgi. (2020, November 12). Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/transgender-issues-in-cis-and-trans-made-movies/

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"Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies." StudyCorgi, 12 Nov. 2020, studycorgi.com/transgender-issues-in-cis-and-trans-made-movies/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies." November 12, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/transgender-issues-in-cis-and-trans-made-movies/.


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StudyCorgi. "Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies." November 12, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/transgender-issues-in-cis-and-trans-made-movies/.

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StudyCorgi. 2020. "Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies." November 12, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/transgender-issues-in-cis-and-trans-made-movies/.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Transgender Issues in Cis- and Trans-Made Movies'. 12 November.

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