Born This Way – The Neurological Basis of Transsexuality

Given that an impulse to identify with and adopt the signs and symbols of the opposite sex requires exposure to (and imitation of) those signs and symbols, it is tempting to assume that transgenderism is socially conditioned. It is an interesting thought experiment to consider whether someone who was born on a desert island, who grew up with no knowledge of their mother (let’s assume she disappeared immediately after the birth), and who never encountered, read about nor saw pictures of another human being throughout their entire life, could grow up transgender. With no exposure whatsoever to anyone other than themselves (including, obviously, members of the opposite sex), would it be possible for that person to want to change from male to female (or vice versa)? To be (or become) transgender, does one need to experience what the opposite sex looks like, and how it dresses and behaves, in order to identify with it and desire to emulate it? Is concrete experience of something necessary in order for desire of it to flourish? Maybe not, as I found out when I read ‘We Are Our Brains’ by Dick Swaab. Not only is this book chock-full of eye-popping scientific tid-bits you can trot out to impress (or annoy) at dinner parties, it contains a chapter on the neurological bases of transsexualism that may prove that the poet, philosopher and ambulant camel-toe Lady Gaga was absolutely right when she observed, “Whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased/ Rejoice and love yourself today, ’cause baby, you were born this way.”

 

Dick Swaab’s book, ‘We Are Our Brains’ (Penguin, 2014), contains the startling assertion that transsexuality is something we are born with: it is as much a product of our development in the womb as the colour of our eyes or the shape of our feet, and is, crucially, not something that can be changed, ‘treated’ via aversion therapy, or socially conditioned. Swaab was a founding member of the Netherlands Brain Bank – a repository for donor brains that has facilitated work on the mapping and cataloguing of grey matter from a diverse and revealing cross-section of society. Through post-mortem studies of donated brain tissue, Swaab established that, while the differentiation of a foetus’ sex organs occurs in the first half of pregnancy, the development of sex differences in the brain does not take place until towards the end of the second trimester. Because the physical and the neurological development of sexuality occurs at different times in the womb, Swaab thought it was possible for them to happen independently of one another.

In 1995, Swaab’s team published a report in ‘Nature’ of findings that confirmed this hypothesis. The bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (or BST for short – an area of the brain involved in many aspects of sexual behaviour) is twice as large in women than it is in men. Even taking the effects of hormones taken by adult transsexuals into account, Swaab found that the BST of male-to-female transsexuals had a female structure, whilst female-to-male transsexuals had a ‘male’ BST.

Brain
The bed nucleus of the stria terminalis: it’s in there somewhere

In 2008, a group of Stockholm neuro-scientists led by Ivanka Savic were able to study the functioning brain scans of living male-to-female transsexuals who had neither had surgery nor started hormone treatment. During Savic’s experiments, subjects were given male and female pheromones in order to measure the resulting stimulation in their hypothalami. The hypothalamus (amongst other things) regulates the response of the body’s endocrine system to stimuli from the nervous system. (It instructs the pituitary gland to release hormones, in other words.) The effects of pheromones on the brain differs markedly between men and women, and the responses of Savic’s transsexual patients were found to fall between those of non-transgender subjects of both sexes.

The implication of Swaab’s and Savic’s research is that the basis of an individual’s gender identity is neurological, not social. It can be argued, therefore, that our personal sense of our own gender is developmental; that the origins of transgenderism are down to nature rather than nurture, and the role played by environment is in our subsequent construal and enactment of that identity. Swaab further speculates that the neural body map of male-to-female transsexuals lacks a penis, whilst that of female-to-male transsexuals lacks breasts. It is this neural map that gives us a sense of our physical presence and a concept of our physical integrity. Body Identity Integrity Disorder is a syndrome whereby patients become convinced that a part of their body does not belong to them (even though it may function perfectly normally), and they become desperate to get rid of it. In cases of transsexuality, it is possible that, instead of an arm or a leg, subjects do not recognise their penis or breasts as their own, and look for a surgeon willing to remove them.

We Are Our Brains
‘We Are Our Brians’: a coherent and convincing argument for the genetic causes of dyslexia

Coming out is the landmark act of making sure the world around you knows something crucial about you that has heretofore remained secret – or, at the very least, unconfirmed; what TS Eliot might have meant when he wrote “this dedication is for others to read:/ These are private words addressed to you in public.” Coming out isn’t just a rite of passage, though: it is a test of society at large; of the love and understanding of your colleagues, friends and family; of the ability of the world to shift to accommodate you; and of your capacity for finding your own place in communities that might reject you. Coming out requires courage, resilience, patience, and an unerring capacity not to worry what other people think. It increases many people’s affection and respect for you; it alarms and alienates others. It can necessitate enormous sacrifice, but, ultimately, it is the best favour you can ever do yourself.

If you fear that you may be the victim of prejudice at work because someone suspects you have a secret you haven’t told them yet, then coming out is the wisest thing you can do in Europe to gain legal protection from discrimination on the grounds of gender orientation. Under European law, a person becomes transgender when they declare their intention to identify as such, and redress against iniquity is thus enshrined even before an individual has started taking hormones, changed their name on their passport, or begun living full-time in their preferred gender role. A declaration of intent (taken with full appreciation of the consequences of such a declaration) is all it takes for the legal mechanisms of Article 21 of the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to safeguard the individual from discrimination by their government and institutions within their country, seizure of their assets and property, and ill-treatment at work, on the grounds of their gender orientation. In order to ensure legal protection in Europe from gender discrimination, therefore, the decision to come out should be made as soon as you’re ready.

If you accept Dick Swaab’s claims about the development of gender identity in the brain, then the act of coming out as transgender is more than a public and ceremonial declaration of self-identification: it’s a diagnosis. It isn’t a transformation as such (although it may feel that way for people who knew the old you): it’s a confirmation and affirmation of a truth that has existed, if Swaab is right, since before you were born.

Further Thoughts on Transgender Casting in Hollywood

On October 18th, I was inspired by Rebecca Root’s performance in the BBC sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’ to write a blog posting about transgender characters in contemporary film and television. There is evidently an appetite for stories about societal outsiders. The 2015 film ‘The Danish Girl’ (about Lili Elbe, who, in 1930, was one of the first people to undergo sex-change surgery), for example, will attract the curious as well as those seeking a morbid thrill, but will not feature a transgender actor in the title role. Instead, Eddie Redmayne will don the twinset and pearls: transgender characters, it seems, are very much à la mode, but producers and directors remain frustratingly constipated regarding the casting of transgender actors to play them. In my previous posting, I drew a parallel between the casting of cisgender actors in this way and the Hollywood traditions of casting white actors in black and Asian roles, and of auditioning able-bodied actors to play disabled characters. (The first tradition is now extinct; the latter is still very much with us.) I have been induced to write a second posting on this topic by the suspicion that I haven’t yet got to the heart of why gender casting in film and television is so lazily conservative.

 

It can’t be easy being an out-of-work actor. Spending half your life being told you’re not good enough must slowly erode your soul, and it must be even more galling to spend the other half having your nose rubbed in images of the handful of your peers who were in the right place at the right time every time you open a magazine or switch on the television. For every actor that becomes a household name, a hundred others wallow in the relative obscurity of playing a corpse in an episode of ‘Casualty’, or with their face completely hidden by a Cyberman’s helmet. As the old joke reminds us: I met an actor once. I said to her, “Two pints of lager and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, please.”

In the 1976 thriller ‘Marathon Man’, Dustin Hoffman plays Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy – a postgraduate history student and keen amateur runner living in New York. When Hoffman’s character starts seeing his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel, he has no idea of her connection with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In the film’s most notorious scene, Levy is kidnapped and tortured by Dr Christian Szell – another fugitive of the Third Reich whose contribution to the Final Solution included the torture of Jewish prisoners. Levy is strapped to a chair whilst Dr Szell (played by Lawrence Olivier) picks away at his cavities with a dental probe in order to extract information from him about Else’s part in the distribution of a cache of stolen diamonds. Levy is completely ignorant of any plot to steal the precious stones, but Szell continues torturing him anyway – with evident increasing relish. In order to prepare for this scene and lend his character an appropriate air of terror and exhaustion, Hoffman forced himself to go without sleep for seventy-two hours. Reflecting on their work together, Olivier is reputed to have asked Hoffman how he thought the week’s filming had gone. Hoffman had then described his gruelling regime of preparation to Olivier, who is reported to have been stunned by Hoffman’s revelation that he had stayed awake for three days in order to make his performance more convincing. “Don’t you prepare for your roles like that?” Hoffman is supposed to have asked. “Heavens, no,” Olivier replied. When Hoffman then asked the English actor how else he was supposed to add realism to his characterisation, Olivier is reputed to have said, “It’s called acting, dear boy.”

The Producers
For virile, dyed-in-the-wool, straight-as-a-die masculine actors, learning the craft of playing transgender women can take years of training

This apocryphal story illustrates quite neatly what it is that actors are paid to do. The job is, by its very nature, concerned with pretending; with convincing audiences that actors are someone they are not; with making us believe they are actually in situations that, in truth, have merely been evoked through the power of dialogue, sets, costumes, lighting, special effects and music; and with adding verisimilitude to faked emotions in order to trick us into thinking they are real. When acting is done well, it fools us into making an emotional investment in the trials and tribulations of a person who doesn’t exist, and, furthermore, it makes us wilfully ignorant of the very fact that we are being fooled (or at least to stop minding that we are).

Accordingly, an able-bodied actor is capable of training themselves to imitate the symptoms of an illness or disability so skilfully that, as an audience, we buy into the fiction completely. When we hear that Daniel Day Lewis’ preparations (for instance) to play writer, artist and cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’ (1989) were so thorough and immersive that he spent the duration of the shoot in a wheelchair (not leaving it even during breaks), fractured one of his own ribs under the physical exertion of the part, and insisted on pushed around by the other actors and taking his meals through a feeding tube, we are encouraged to view even the regimen of the method actor as involving a level of dedication and personal sacrifice that borders on the heroic.

The result is undeniably impressive – well done, Daniel for pretending to have cerebral palsy; good for you, Eddie Redmayne for being able to ape the effects of motor neurone disease in 2014’s ‘The Theory of Everything’ – but is it ethically proper for an able-bodied actor to be cast in a role that an actor who actually has cerebral palsy or motor neurone disease could have played? The answer to that moral conundrum, for my money, depends on the answer to its obverse: Would an actor confined to a wheelchair ever have been in the running for any of Daniel Day Lewis’ other roles (like Abraham Lincoln, or John Proctor in ‘The Crucible’), or for the parts that comprise Eddie Redmayne’s CV (like Marius Pontmercy in 2012’s ‘Les Misérables’, or art-deco era transsexual Lili Elbe)? I don’t have any more sympathy for an out-of-work actor than I do for an unemployed miner or down-at-heel encyclopaedia salesman, but it must be both baffling and infuriating to be a disabled actor and witness roles that (surely) were written for you going to actors who could land any able-bodied role they wanted.

The important distinction here is that the traffic only flows one way: a non-disabled actor can learn to pretend to be wheelchair bound; a disabled actor can never pretend not to be. Similarly, a cisgender actor can learn the mannerisms, verbal tics and inflections, posture and body language of a transgender man or woman, but transgender actors are years away from being cast as biological males or females. The probable reasons for that require a little unpacking.

Film and television play a vital role in shaping who is generally considered to be beautiful, desirable, titillating or sexually alluring. The media have yet to educate the viewing public to find transgender beauty appealing in any conventional sense, so norms are very firmly entrenched that determine that only a certain type of woman (or man), of a particular age and with a specifically prescribed body shape, can be said to possess mainstream sex appeal. Only actors who conform to the accepted cultural template will be marketed as ‘sexy’. With his preppy, English good looks, prominent cheekbones, boyishly tousled ginger hair and cheeky smile, Eddie Redmayne cuts an attractive figure. His fan-base is not in the least bit shy of admitting that they have posters of him on their bedroom walls and his calendar on their kitchen noticeboard; he is a poster-boy for Burberry, for heaven’s sake! Put him in Lili Elbe’s clothes and he doesn’t lose his allure one bit – which is important, because it is via reliance on the loyalty of his fan-base that Focus Features hope to fill theatres with people to see ‘The Danish Girl’ when it opens next month.

There are, of course, plenty of male actors who don’t lose one iota of their charisma by dragging up, and Eddie Redmayne is certainly one of them. There are also a great many male-to-female transsexuals and transvestites who make very attractive women. Indeed, when positive attention is given to transgender women in the media, it is almost always in terms of how surprisingly sexy they are. For the Daily Mail, Laverne Cox is “a shimmering beauty” and “every inch the glamorous television star that she is” (October 21st, 2015); for Marie Claire, Caitlyn Jenner’s choice of “classic, form-fitting silhouettes” leaves her “looking utterly gorgeous” (October 15th, 2015); whilst even The Times is not above describing 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst as having “killer cheekbones” and “eyelashes you could land a helicopter on” (October 20th, 2015).

The danger of setting transgender women up as sex-objects – with passing them off as attractive biological females – however, is that men and women tend to feel angry when they find out they have been cheated. In February 2004, Sky TV aired a reality show called ‘There’s Something about Miriam’, in which six British men (who were all professionals aged between 22 and 28) competed for a £10,000 prize and a date with twenty-one year old Mexican model, Miriam Rivera. The key to winning the prize was to secure Miriam’s affections, and the men set about wooing her with alacrity. Twenty-three year old lifeguard and skiing-instructor Tom Rooke won the prize money and an all-expenses paid romantic holiday for two with Miriam, but, in the show’s finale, Tom’s sultry dream date was revealed to be a pre-operative transsexual. When the contestants learned of the deception that had been perpetrated against them, they filed a law-suit against Endemol for defamation, personal injury, and conspiracy to commit sexual assault. All six of them settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but the moral of the story is obvious: if a gang of red-blooded heterosexuals find out that the woman they all fancy was once a man, they are going to be pretty vexed about it. Miriam is lucky she had the social mores of a television studio to protect her: if the same thing had happened in a nightclub, there is a good chance she would have been beaten to a pulp.

The ethical fallout of this fascinating anecdote finds its fictional parallel in the 1992 movie ‘The Crying Game’. The film’s marketing department made the unsavoury decision to sell the IRA thriller on the basis of a twist regarding one of its main characters – the cabaret singer Dil. When Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) finally finds himself on the brink of hopping into bed with Dil (Jaye Davidson), Dil lets her gown slip to the floor and the camera pans slowly down her body to reveal… a healthy and tuberous set of man-bits. Fergus’ initial reaction, predictably, is horror at what he was about to do, but, after a period of soul-searching, he accepts that he had started to fall in love with Dil and that he could, in all likelihood, learn to live with her certain little extra something. For the audience, though, it’s too late by that point: they can’t un-see the parts of Dil they have been shown (largely because of the tawdry, shock-horror way in which they have been shown them), and any work the film tries to do to cultivate respect and understanding for the transgender community has already been irreparably undone by this cheap and sensational peep show.

The Crying Game
There’s something about ‘The Crying Game’: Stephen Rea contemplates what he has just learned about cabaret singer Dil

So: Hollywood doesn’t cast transgender actors as biological men or women because producers cannot guarantee their appeal in a market that expects to be able to fall in lust with its leading lights. As if that weren’t cruel enough, film and television makers fear casting transgender actors in transgender roles for the exactly the same reason: in order for a transgender character to be palatable, audiences need to be able to find them conventionally attractive.

I have not included the casting of heterosexual actors as homosexuals (and vice versa) in my discussion, and I’d like to end this posting by explaining why. A disabled actor cannot pretend to be able-bodied, and transgender actors have so far been denied the opportunity to pass themselves off as biologically male or female. For able-bodied cisgender actors, however, such restrictions do not apply: with a bit of make-up, voice training and physical coaching, a performer can give a convincing imitation of pretty much any disability or point on the transgender spectrum. If it’s necessary for the plot, a spot of CGI can even remove an arm or a leg. This – simply and self-evidently – is not fair. Finding work is already difficult for able-bodied cisgender actors who don’t enjoy the right connections. For their disabled and transgender colleagues, the barriers to obtaining employment are even more intractable: to be denied even the opportunity to play characters with roots in their own social and demographic communities must be absolutely soul-destroying. In the case of characters whose primary narrative function is their sexuality, however, the door swings both ways. A straight actor is no more capable of learning to pretend to be gay than a gay actor is of acquiring the idiosyncrasies, nervous habits and peccadilloes needed in order to pretend to be straight. Heterosexual actors enjoy no advantage here, and gay actors have been playing straight since the time of Thespis. Given that heterosexual roles in film and television outnumber homosexual ones by an estimated nineteen to one, that’s probably just as well.

‘Boy Meets Girl’ – Some Thoughts on Transgender Casting

This is my first blog posting, and I wanted to open with an innocuous, impersonal piece by way of testing both my ability to write engagingly in the blogging register, and whether or not there is an audience for what I have to say. The first episode of the BBC2 sitcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’ first aired on UK television shortly after the nine o’clock watershed on Thursday, 3rd September, 2015. I initially thought I could offer a review of this series opener as my first blog posting, but it now feels as if – with ‘Boy Meets Girl’ having completed its six episode run on October 10th – I have missed the cultural moment a bit with that objective. Instead, what follows are some of my thoughts on the one aspect of the programme that made it so notable: namely, the casting of a transgender actor in a transgender role.

 [To save you a trip to Wikipedia: ‘Boy Meets Girl’ told the story of the relationship between a 26 year-old biological male called Leo (played by Harry Hepple), and 40 year-old male-to-female transsexual, Judy (played by Rebecca Root). The pilot episode (written by Elliot Kerrigan and filmed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was the product of a competition held by the BBC in 2012-3, which invited writers to submit scripts containing positive portrayals of transgender characters.]

 

The main conceptual stumbling block of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ was that it tried to achieve two contradictory things simultaneously; seeking both normalise the notion of transgender at the same time as problematizing it. Leo’s reaction to Judy’s revelation (with which the show chose to open) that she “used to have a penis” was the very epitome of open-minded acceptance. Leo, truly, was a paragon of laissez-faire magnanimity. He couldn’t have been any more tolerant: his wide-eyed, artless smile practically a facial shrug that allowed Judy’s confession to roll off it with a dismissive so what? And Leo wasn’t the only character to have accommodated transsexualism so comfortably into his worldview – to have the rare gift of being able to treat someone’s gender history as casually as the colour of their hair. Judy’s mother and sister were equally at ease with her lifestyle choices, as was almost everyone touched by the natural ebb and flow of Leo and Judy’s social interactions (like the Italian waiter who was the other witness to Judy’s neat summary of her penile antiquity). After a bit of half-hearted humming and hawing in later episodes, Leo’s brother and northern everyman father were similarly unfazed by Leo’s choice of partner, and treated Leo to nuggets of platitudinous wisdom to the effect that they had no issue with whomever his girlfriend might be, as long as she was decent, and he loved her.

Which is, of course, how things should be. But for a story to have any impetus, something within in has to constitute an obstacle that must be overcome; and for a story to have any thematic relevance, it needs to subject an issue to some sort of scrutiny. A television programme that trumpets itself on having cast a transgender actor in a transgender role, moreover, would be guilty of dishonesty if the very fact that one of its characters had transitioned form one gender to another wasn’t – at least in part – the issue that gave the drama its… well, drama. For ‘Boy Meets Girl’ to have any edge at all, it needed to be about transgenderism as well as having transgenderism form part of its makeup, and so the liberal broadmindedness shown by Leo needed tempering with a glance at society’s dark underbelly. In episode four, there is a scene that takes place in a bowling alley: on a date with Leo, Judy has abuse hurled at her by two spotty teenagers. From the adjacent lane, these pasty, instantly forgettable shibboleths of transphobia shout the word freak, and demand to know, with the befuddled and incongruous logic of the bigoted, what Judy is, exactly. (“She’s your girlfriend?” one of them demands of Leo. “How can that be?”) The angry youths, however, have all the savagery of a sleeping puppy; no-one swears or threatens violence; and there is no sense at all of the terrifying and irrational aggression that can lead, say, to the June 2015 murder of Mississippi transgender teenager Mercedes Williamson.

Leo and Judy’s struggles to come to terms with their own relationship (and the response to it of the world around them) are low-key and prosaic. As ‘Boy Meets Girl’ strives to remind us every time it appears as if the transgender ‘issue’ seems in even the slightest danger of overwhelming the show’s otherwise cosy ambience, Leo and Judy are just an everyday couple who face the same petty trials and tribulations as everyone else, and Judy’s gender history isn’t the only threat to the ordinariness of their relationship. There is also the fourteen year age gap between them, which, whilst being hardly a romantic deal-breaker, is wide enough for Leo to be operating within a framework of completely different pop-culture references and assumptions. It is difficult to tell whether use of this age gap as a structural springboard for exploring transgender issues is a deliberate trope of ‘Boy Meets Girl’, but it makes it possible for the writers to turn Leo into a student, with Judy as his teacher. Into Leo’s mouth, therefore, are placed the questions that the passingly curious might have about gender transition (Why do you need to take hormones? When did you start the change? Can you still have sex?), and, true to form, Leo takes all the answers in his stride. His questions, though, would be equally applicable if his girlfriend was (merely) a menopausal cougar, and not also a transgender menopausal cougar.

‘Boy Meets Girl’: Leo takes yet another of his girlfriend’s harrowing revelations on the chin
‘Boy Meets Girl’: Leo takes yet another of his girlfriend’s harrowing revelations on the chin

What exactly is ‘Boy Meets Girl’ about, then? Is it about what it is like to have a transgender girlfriend? Is it about what it is like to be someone’s transgender girlfriend? Is it about being in a relationship with an age difference? Making an original sitcom can’t be easy when the genre has been so refined and subverted. (Take, for instance, Vic Reeves’ and Bob Mortimer’s 2014 ‘House of Fools’, which distils the sitcom genre so insightfully down to its essence that each episode only makes any sense in the context of its own internal logic.) The sitcom is a tired format, and ‘Boy Meets Girl’ needed to be about something new in order to constitute more than just another wheeze of a dying and anaemic televisual beast.

There are other things about ‘Boy Meets Girl’ that niggle me. It isn’t very funny, for one, and I’m troubled by the implied whiff of failure that hangs around the fact that Judy – who is 40 years old – lives with her mum. This simple domestic detail (and if any aspect of transgenderism deserves deeper exploration through the medium of comedy, it is this) speaks volumes about the lifestyle options of transsexuals. Here is the tacit but chilling suggestion that, unless you have the safety net of immense wealth and inexplicable celebrity (unless you are, in other words, Caitlyn Jenner) to cushion you once you transition, an appalling consequence of the decision to bring an end to a lifetime of depression by changing your gender can be unemployment, friendlessness, and penury so severe that you are left with no option other than to move back into the parental home.

But, but, but… For all its faults, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ has taken the heretofore unthought-of step of casting a transgender actor in a transgender role, and Rebecca Root is exceptionally good. She is authentic, sincere, and delivers some of the clichés of the transgender condition (“It’s like being born in a prison and never having a release date”) with a straightforward conviction that is genuinely heartbreaking.

(At the start of 2014, I had a series of coaching sessions with Rebecca Root in order to help me lift my voice to a more feminine pitch. I was a lazy student, and must have been an unrewarding project for Rebecca, but I enjoyed the lessons – and Rebecca’s company – a great deal. Each hour began with a physical warm up that reminded me of the sorts of self-conscious drama lessons I didn’t relish as a teenager, followed by exercises aimed at helping me visualise the rises and falls in my voice – like a sine wave – as I attacked the first consonants of words, and then formed them into sentences with the appropriate cadences and uncertain hesitations that typify societal expectations of women’s speech. After six classes, though, I never progressed further than the initial M sounds of words and a recitation of ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, although the blame for my sense of being permanently stuck in ‘lesson one’ can in no way be attributed to Rebecca.)

It is staggering to think that, considering the relatively high exposure transgender people receive in fiction and the popular media, Rebecca Root is the first transgender actor to be cast in this way. Not even the great ‘Coronation Street’ (which can, in all sincerity, claim to be the only truly feminist soap opera on British television) had the courage to cast a transgender actor when it introduced the first mainstream transgender character ever – Hayley Cropper, née Patterson – in 1998. In November this year, Focus Features will release ‘The Danish Girl’: the story of Lili Elbe, who became a transgender pioneer by undergoing, in 1930, one of the first surgical procedures of sex-reassignment. Transsexualism was a nascent science at this time, and the surgery was both experimental and dangerous. I hope I’m not spoiling the ending of the film by pausing to note that it is likely that the fourth operation Lili underwent – which sought to create a vagina – led to her death at the age of 48. The film is also the story of Lili’s relationship with her Danish wife, the painter Gerde Gottlieb, and, whilst I’m sure their relationship was far more complex – and will generate a great deal more drama – than the one portrayed between Leo and Judy in ‘Boy Meets Girl’, it seems distasteful that the role of Lili should have been given to Oscar-darling Eddie Redmayne, rather than to a transgender actor.

The reasons for Redmayne’s casting in the role of Lili Elbe are, depressingly, as obvious as they are frustrating. Redmayne’s name on the poster guarantees the film a great deal of exposure; without him, the studio would probably never have stumped up the cash to get the film made in the first place; and his presence, crucially, pretty much ensures that ‘The Danish Girl’ will make a tidy profit for its financial backers. Redmayne isn’t the first dashing, young, attractive, heterosexual, middle-of-the-road non-transgender actor to play a transgender character, of course. This list of mainstream movies featuring (or headlined by) a transgender character who was played by a cisgender actor is quite a long one. To name but three: Jared Leto was handed an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon in ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ (2013); Gael García Bernal played transgender actor Ángel in 2004’s ‘La Mala Educación’; and Hilary Swank landed the role of transman Brandon Teena in 1999’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.

More unsavoury still are the decisions to cast women as male-to-female transsexuals. ABC’s comedy series ‘Ugly Betty’, which ran from 2006-10, starred Rebecca Romjin as fashion magazine editor Daniel Meade’s transsexual sister, Alexis; Felicity Huffman’s preparation for 2005’s ‘TransAmerica’ included coaching in how to look and sound more masculine; and – spoiler alert – the villain played by Sean Young in the postmodern satirical masterpiece ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ (1994) is revealed in the film’s denouement to be a transgender woman.

There are two possible reasons for these lazy and cowardly casting decisions, and neither of them are particularly pleasant. The first is that film and television producers assume that audiences find transgender characters who cannot be deemed sexy in any conventional sense unpalatable. The second is that the principal motive for the production of any of these movies is the generation of profit, and putting a familiar face in the transgender role (whatever that actor’s personal gender history) is a way for film and television studios to hedge their bets because they know that devotees of a particular performer will purchase cinema tickets or buy the DVD for whatever they’re in. And if financial gain is the real reason these movies get made (rather than, as was surely especially true in the case of ‘Ace Ventura’, because someone at the studio believes that these are important stories that need to be told), then the whole notion, concept, culture and community of transgenderism is being exploited. Storytelling, raising public awareness, or whatever noble aims they ascribe themselves for this exploitation, are not the producers’ priorities when they commission any film containing transgender characters or exploring transgender themes: their goals are nothing more elevated than getting bums on seats and putting cash in the bank.

Western popular culture has (almost) moved on from the exploitation of ethnic groups for cheap laughs, and the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is now something we look back on with a mixture of shame and bemused embarrassment. ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ last appeared on British television in 1978 (although its official live tour endured, jaw-droppingly, until as late as 1987). It is testimony to changes in attitudes that it is now unthinkable for an actor to black-up to play Othello (as Lawrence Olivier did in 1965, when the National Theatre’s version of the play was committed to celluloid), and we are able to recognise Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr Yunioshi in 1961’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as the film-wrecking anathema that it is.

Mickey Rooney: a subtle and nuanced portrait of the condition of the Japanese expat living in post-war New York
Mickey Rooney: a subtle and nuanced portrait of the condition of the Japanese expat living in post-war New York

Whilst attitudes towards cross-racial casting may have improved considerably over the last two decades (by which I am not referring to the whitewashing of characters so that a Korean American, for example, becomes a blonde European, or a Muslim character is rewritten as black), the propensity for Hollywood to cast cisgender actors in transgender roles remains the norm rather than the exception. The same appears to be true in the casting of disabled characters. Eddie Redmayne (him again) won the 2015 Oscar for best actor for his impersonation of cosmologist and brainbox Stephen Hawking, whilst Daniel Day Lewis was similarly lauded for his portrayal of writer and artist Christy Brown in 1989’s ‘My Left Foot’. I had always been a grudging fan of the Fox Network show ‘Glee’ (2009-15): something about the achievement of solidarity and shared understanding by a group of high-school misfits through the power of song appealed to me, until I found out that the character of Artie Abrams – a cipher used to explore issues relating to paraplegia – was played by an actor perfectly capable of springing out of his wheelchair and moonwalking to cover versions of Michael Jackson hits. That actor Kevin McHale wasn’t in the least bit disabled was a casting stroke of such dishonesty that it undermined the sole redeeming message of ‘Glee’: that it is okay to be different (as long as you’re only pretending to be).

A man would never play the role of a biological woman in a Hollywood movie; a woman would never play a biological male; a white actor would balk at the idea of painting their face to portray a black character; and the days are gone when any self-respecting Equity member would sellotape down their eyelids to take on a Korean, Chinese or Japanese role. With these simple truths in mind, why is it still considered acceptable for an able-bodied actor to be cast as someone with motor-neurone disease or cerebral palsy? And why, for that matter, are we not outraged when cisgender actors play transgender roles? Because no-one else could play them? That would be a lie.

I can only think of one possible reason why casting directors aren’t brave enough to dip into the transgender and disability talent-pool when the right part comes along, and it is founded on the erroneous assumption that, unlike ethnicity (which is something you’re born with and cannot change), disability, sexuality or gender identity is something you acquire, choose, or – with a great deal of effort and the right treatment – can reverse. With this logic, it remains a norm of popular culture that it is okay to patronise certain groups in our society by hijacking their right to tell their own story, and to make money whilst doing so. For this reason, the casting of Rebecca Root – and the optimistic agenda of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ – do represent a significant milestone in the way the makeup of society is represented in film and television. However: until all trans-characters are played by transgender actors, the story being told about the transgender experience can never be the whole story.