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.”
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.
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.