Please accept my apologies for the lack of a post last week, but the following took a little longer to write because it is longer than usual. It is also a very sensitive subject and I did not want to treat it lightly. With that out of the way, enjoy.
The Stories We Choose To Tell
*Spoilers are to be expected*
“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.”
– Mark Twain
I was hesitant to transcribe my thoughts on The Danish Girl for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, my reference for depictions of trans men and women in the media is largely a single book: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Would I just be regurgitating her opinions and applying them to the film? If that was the case, why should I not just recommend the book and suggest people see the film to find out for themselves whether it fails or succeeds to render an acceptable portrait of Lili Elbe? A quotation from Julian Barnes seems particularly appropriate to this dilemma:
“If all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it’s yours.”
That is a good point: The reading IS mine. Serano does not cover a few of the things that I have concerns about, and I strongly disagree with her solution to the present problem of trans representation: That artists and academics should stop appropriating transsexual identities and experiences until such time as most people are familiar with their work. I dislike the implications of this. Many people have a paucity of experience watching films by women directors. Should that mean male directors should stop casting women at all? The “slippery slope” argument is often misused, but take this to its logical extreme and the only films anyone would make would be those written, acted and directed by only themselves. It would be a considerable hindrance to the advancement of art.
Secondly, have I any right to offer an opinion on how trans people are represented in the media when they can clearly speak for themselves? Well, no, no I don’t. The current onslaught of transphobic sentiment following proposals to remove gender from UK ID, however, make it important for as many people who support the trans community to voice their opinions, to try and stop the malignant spread of misinformation peddled by, and I use this word advisedly, hatemongers. Hopefully it will come across in the ‘respectful, non-exploitative’ way Serano thinks possible when trans people have such a presence in the media that they are unable to be drowned out by cissexual voices.
The Portrayal Of Trans Femaleness As Artificial
“It is their [the media’s] intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses and high heels, thereby giving the audience the impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.”
This is a quotation from Whipping Girl, from The Fascination With “Feminization” section of Serano’s chapter “Skirt Chasers: Why The Media Depicts The Trans Revolution In Lipstick And Heels”. The Danish Girl has several scenes of this nature, including one where Gerda is shown in the act of putting lipstick and eyeliner on Lili, but the one that stands out is when Lili takes the place of Gerda’s model and is shown putting on a pair of stockings, followed by Gerda telling her that she is putting them on the wrong way round. Choosing to show Lili in the act of putting on female clothing and choosing to show Lili’s ignorance at how to put on the stockings gives the impression that her femaleness is fake.
The Danish Girl is full of these clichéd trappings but at one point tries to get around this problem by having Lili stand in front of a full-length mirror, look down at her penis, push it back between her thighs and cross her legs. It is likely this is supposed to suggest an element of disgust at her male organ and therefore be a portrayal of her gender dysphoria. Such a claim is backed up by a scene in which Gerda reaches toward Lili’s genitals and Lili stops her, as if she is upset its existence has been acknowledged. A similar thing happens when Henrik does the same thing. It is apparently quite common for trans women, rather than putting things on to emphasise their femaleness, to take things off in order to conceal their maleness. However, the same problem persists because she is shown in the act of hiding her maleness and therefore showing that her femaleness is artificial. To avoid this problem, it would have been preferable to have shown her with her legs crossed already, not looking down at her penis at all, then she would not be seen in the act.
In an interview with Radio 4, Eddie Redmayne talks about seeing paintings of Lili as a man, wearing “incredibly high starched collars” and “tight tailored suits”, describing them as “a sort of exoskeleton of masculinity”. He continues that “it was about her peeling off these layers as she found herself.” This would have been a great thing to have seen, but it does not come across in the film at all. In fact, the clothing choices had exactly the opposite effect. Casting a trans woman in the role would have made more sense, as it would emphasise the unnaturalness of the gender she was assigned at birth.
After Lili has died, Gerda and Hans go to the bog near where she grew up. Gerda watches Lili’s scarf fly away in the wind and Hans tries to retrieve it. Gerda stops him, telling him to “let it fly.” Why would you choose an article of clothing as a metaphor for Lili’s transcendence if not to suggest that her femaleness was mostly about appearance?
In the afterword to the novel, David Ebershoff writes: “Lili was an artist – her greatest creation was herself.” I find the phrasing of this sentence disagreeable because it suggests Lili “created” herself, when it would be more accurate to describe the process like the attributed quotation of Michelangelo’s: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Lili had herself inside her, and she discovered her.
Part of the problem is the story that has been chosen. It is the story of someone in the act of discovering her inherent femaleness and therefore makes it seem artificial.
The Description Of Trans Femaleness As Natural
One of the oddest parts of this particular portrayal of Lili Elbe is that she is shown to have nosebleeds on a monthly basis accompanied by cramps. This is obviously put in to suggest that Lili’s femaleness is natural. However, although I appreciate its symbolic intent, I think it marginalises members of the actual trans community, who do not suffer these symptoms, and therefore may feel that this manifestation of her femaleness makes her an exceptional case. Most trans women do not get such blatant physical clues and the fact that they do not menstruate has been used to argue that they are not “real” women.
Lili does say a few things to try and get the point that her femaleness is natural across: “When I dream, they’re Lili’s dreams”, “You helped bring Lili to life, but she was always there. She was always waiting”, and “God made me a woman. The doctor was curing me of the sickness that was my disguise”. It is a problem I often have that filmmakers rely too much on dialogue to get their point across, contradicting how something is actually portrayed, and it reared its ugly head again here. Gerda’s words try to convey the same point: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” The line rings false because she had no idea about Lili being a woman until the latter modeled for her.
In The Danish Girl, the only formative experience of Lili Elbe’s childhood we hear about that could be construed as a hint she might be a woman inside is a kiss she shares with her friend Hans while she is wearing her grandmother’s apron. Confusion about sexuality is a common side-effect of gender dysphoria, so there is no harm in including this. Crossdressing is obviously part of the trans experience and is enticing because of what it represents. The harm comes from the exclusion of any hints in her early life about gender dysphoria itself, as if being a trans woman is only a matter of sexuality and clothing, which is plainly wrong.
Laura Jane Grace, the trans lead singer of the punk band Against Me!, said in an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast that one of her earliest memories was when she was four or five years old, watching Madonna in front of the television and feeling a sense of identity. At around five or six, Serano had dreams where somebody would tell her she was a girl and remembers thinking she did not belong in the boys’ bathroom. You will notice that neither of these early signs of gender dysphoria relate to sexuality or clothing.
The book the screenplay has been adapted from, which also contains the kiss between Lili and Hans, contains the protagonist’s memory of being caught in her mother’s wardrobe. This is also problematic because by making it about the clothes it suggests the trans experience is about presentation rather than innateness, artificiality over sincerity.
At a time when many trans men and women are misrepresented, the lie by omission perpetrated by the film is complicit in pushing a false impression, intentionally or not.
The Myth Of Autogynephilia
I may have used some words that you have had to look up. I am sorry for that. In this instance, however, I will save you the trouble, because it is hardly in common usage. Essentially, autogynephilia is the supposed sexual fetish that somebody assigned male at birth has for being a woman. It was based on dubious evidence and has been debunked as an explanation for trans women, yet some people still believe it exists. However, echoes of the idea do slip into trans depictions, and such is the case with The Danish Girl.
When Gerda discovers that Lili is wearing one of her undershirts, the couple suddenly have their most passionate encounter in the whole film. In general, feeling more at ease with yourself and confident would lead you to be more sexually proactive, so again, I do not see any problem in including this. That there is a difference between this and the autogynephilic presentation of their souped-up carnal activity, however, is not made clear until Lili is asked by a doctor whether she and Gerda have regular intercourse and she answers that they have had less since she started dressing as a woman. The misleading scene is therefore corrected, but it would have been simpler for the audience to understand if it had not been included it at all.
Ciswashing History, Ciswashing Geography
One unfortunate side effect of choosing this particular story is that it inadvertently suggests that gender dysphoria, or at least the active pursuit of trying to deal with all that entails, was a phenomenon that began in the twentieth century and is therefore a societal invention. In the whole of Europe, there is only one doctor who is sympathetic to Lili, and he has only met one other person like her before. This minor reference does little to suggest the true extent of trans people in history.
Perhaps as a result of the current prevalence of comic book adaptations, and perhaps because I know the phenomenon of the comic book superhero started around this time, I could not help thinking that it played out like an origin story: “Einar Werdener was just an ordinary man until one day he was asked to model for his wife’s painting. It granted him untold powers of femininity. He found a doctor with the experimental technology to become Lili Elbe, the Tremendous Transsexual!” It is like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, or, more accurately, like Einar Werdener being bitten by the femininity bug. Although there are hints about her inclinations prior to the event, (She picks up an item of Gerda’s clothing, strokes a series of ladies clothes as she walks past a rack, stares longingly at Gerda untying the laces of her boots and corrects Gerda’s lipstick,) it comes across as something that she only discovers about herself when she puts on the clothes to model for her wife, which does not tally with the trans experiences quoted above.
So the problem for the filmmaker becomes, if you are going to tell this atypical trans story, how do you show the loneliness of feeling her situation is unique, the lack of any touchstones to guide her, and at the same time contextualise it?
Perhaps the answer lies in another film about gender politics that was released last year. Before the credits rolled at the end of Suffragette, it showed a list of countries and the year in which that country’s women won the right to vote, up to Saudi Arabia in 2015. It reinforced that feminism is an ongoing project. Obviously with trans men and women there is no such concrete statistic to measure their march toward equality, but there should have been something to show this story was not a new one.
Perhaps a list of people in history going as far back as Eliogabalus, who is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to anyone that could make his male genitals female, or some allusion to other cultures. There are examples of complicated gender identities that precede this particular story from across the globe: Native American two-spirits, third-gendered Polynesians, and the Bugis people of Indonesia, who have five separate genders. These are just suggestions and neither of them are perfect, but I think there needed to be some such acknowledgement that transgender individuals were not created in central Europe in the interwar years.
Doctor, Doctor, I Feel A Little Queer
Over the course of the movie, Lili sees several doctors who variously diagnose her with schizophrenia and homosexuality, or prescribe a lobotomy or radiation treatment, until she finally comes upon one who is willing to believe that she is a woman inside. The reception she gets and the treatments she receives are disheartening to say the least. However, showing these examples of poor treatment for gender dysphoria does have the probably unintended effect of making the audience think that as a society we have made considerable progress, that thankfully such things could never happen again.
Except it ignores the fact that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Surgeries are prohibitively expensive in the US and NHS waiting times are extremely long in the UK. Dr James Barrett, speaking on Victoria Derbyshire’s television program, confirmed it was extremely common for GPs to try and talk their patients out of any procedures and cited one case where a doctor simply told them that the NHS “didn’t do this sort of thing”, which was patently untrue. Choosing the story of Lili Elbe shows that some progress has been made, but parceling the narrative into a feelgood film will not spur people to action.
One mark of Lili’s success the film tries to convey is that she “passes” as a woman. The problem with this is that it puts the onus on the trans person to somehow “prove” their gender, rather than on the cissexual community to accept it. Would you ask someone who was gay to prove their sexuality by affecting exaggerated camp mannerisms? No. Would you say they were not gay if they did not comply? No, because you do not get to choose their sexuality, and you do not get to choose their innate gender. Just because somebody does not conform to your idea of something, it does not mean they are not that thing.
On a couple of occasions, Lili is referred to as “pretty”. When Hans explains kissing her, he says that Lili was wearing her grandmother’s apron and she “was just so pretty, I had to kiss him.” At another stage, after Lili has begun wearing women’s clothes, Gerda asks her “When did you get so pretty?” and she replies “I’ve always been pretty. You’ve just never noticed before.” I found both of these scenes uncomfortable because attractiveness of appearance should not never be a factor in her receiving validation as a woman.
To one person she meets at a soirée, Henrik, she does not “pass”, although it is not revealed until much later in the film that he is a homosexual and was attracted to her because he thought she was a man. He says something like “We’re the same, you and me.” Although that turns out to be completely wrong, so it does not work out.
Hyperfeminisation In The Public Stage
Also in his interview with Radio 4’s The Film Programme, Redmayne talks about the trans women he spoke with for research going through a process of hyperfeminisation early on in their transitions, “perhaps wearing too much make up or clothes that are too feminine.” He points out that in the paintings of her, “Lili’s femininity is very mannered, very stylised, and the makeup is quite extreme, which hopefully, as the film plays out, begins to disappear as she finds herself and becomes more comfortable with who she is.”
This reminded me of a quotation from Whipping Girl. In the Demystifying Femininity and Unlearning Masculinity section of Serano’s chapter, “Crossdressing: Demystifying Femininity and Rethinking Male Privilege”, she states “the public stage of my crossdressing was really the only time in my life when I did go out of my way to emulate how some women looked, walked, talked, moved, and so on. I found that this increased the likelihood that I would be gendered female, which was my overall goal, and also ensured my safety.”
Although Redmayne clearly knew what he was doing, the gradual change from overt femininity to just being herself does not come across in the film. The only time I can recall her acting less feminine is when she dons a sort of suit and short hair as she walks through a park. A couple of Parisian thugs shout the word lesbian at her and then proceed to attack. When she realises she is being called a lesbian, her first reaction is to smirk, because she has been gendered female, but she becomes frightened when she realises this endangers her. Serano notes in the above quotation that her stage of hyperfeminisation “ensured her safety”, and following this incident, Lili reverts back to such a stage.
In the same interview Redmayne speaks of a conversation he had with a trans woman who related this stage to adolescence, a period when people make mistakes and are finding themselves. I know plenty of cis people who are around the age of thirty and still stuck in a perpetual adolescence, still making mistakes and finding themselves. Whether Lili would continue in this vein or not is a matter of her own personality. What irritated me about her reversion to hyperfemininity is probably best summed up by a quotation from Jeff Winger in the pilot episode of Community, when he is talking to Troy about whether he should continue to wear his high school football jacket at college:
“Listen. It doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them. You keep it to piss them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”
Obviously part of it is concern for her own safety, but would someone strong enough to go out into the world dressing for herself really be cowed into dressing for other people by this encounter? It actually comes down to the story they have chosen to tell. It consists of only one trans woman, and she ends up becoming sort of an emblem for an entire diverse community. Having more than one trans woman would have solved this. They could have had one who passed through the stage of hyperfeminisation and one who did not; one who was intimidated by abuse in public and one who fought back; or one who saw it as a reason to try and be accepted as female in public and one who saw it as a reason to continue to dress how she pleased.
The Last Person I Expected To Be Talking About
At the beginning of The Danish Girl, there is a character trying to sell one of Lili’s paintings by saying: “I wouldn’t say he’s the best landscape artist in the Denmark, but he’s in the top one.” He is then swiftly mocked for using such a joke by Lili and Gerda.
You may recognise the quotation as a version of Brian Clough’s “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one” reworded to fit the context. It is so well-known that I wondered why anyone would dare include something so similar.
Was it a knowing wink? Tom Hooper also directed The Damned Utd, which was about Clough’s tenure at Leeds Utd Football Club, so he definitely knew the source. Was it an inside joke for those familiar with that part of his oeuvre? Was it that they thought nobody who knew about Clough would go and see this film, that the Venn diagram of Danish Girl audience members and football supporters had no overlapping circles? That surely could not be true, it would be so cynical. Was it the worst of both worlds: Was the presumption that wives would drag their husbands to see the film and it was thrown in to appease them? Because of the sheer absurdity of these two options, I hope it was the first one.
Have You Seem My Penis?
“I am rather disturbed by the fact that so many people – who are neither medical professionals nor trans themselves – would want to hear all of the gory details regarding transsexual physical transformations, or would feel they have the right to ask us about the state of our genitals. It is offensive that so many people feel it is okay to publicly refer to transsexuals as being “pre-op” or “post-op” when it would so clearly be degrading and demeaning to regularly describe all boys and men as being either “circumcised” or “uncircumcised.”
Serano again, from the chapter “Coming To Terms With Transgenderism And Transsexuality”. At least The Danish Girl does not delve too deeply into, and I apologise in advance for the following phrasing, the ins and outs of her medical procedure, but her ignorance about whether she will be able to have children after the first surgery does seem out of place. You would think that would be one of the things she would have asked.
Choosing to have her surgery as the climax of the film feels inappropriate. The sensationalist biography of Lile Elbe has her beginning her surgeries half way through the book. You could argue that having it as the turning point is worse. I prefer it, however, because it does not treat her operation as if it were the pinnacle of her journey and because it allows us to see how she has not really changed, how she was always the same woman. Making the operations the climactic event is like staging a nativity play that culminates with the circumcision of Christ because he could not be the true messiah with a foreskin.
I am now going to seemingly contradict myself and focus on the surgeries, but only because the filmmakers saw fit to make a change to what actually happened. In the film, Lili gets a fever and dies after her second operation. In reality, she died because of complications from her third operation, which was the insertion of a uterus so that she could have children. I know that this was not the same operation because Lili asks the doctor whether she will be able to have children, and he replies that they need to take it one step at a time. It is an interesting change to make and I can see why they did it: Removing the third operation makes her story closer to that of trans people nowadays. Blurring the truth, however, trivialises how much she misunderstood her condition.
Passport To Womanhood
When Lili is on her way to Dresden, she looks down at her passport with a picture of her as Einar and his name written underneath it. I can only assume there is a missing scene because in reality, Denmark issued Lili Elbe a new passport with her new name and her true gender. This does not get mentioned in the film, not even in the text at the end. I think the omission of this fact was a mistake, especially given recent debates about ID. The Danish King also annulled their marriage so Gerda could marry again. This does not get mentioned either. The text of the epilogue only states that Gerda would continue to paint pictures of Lili for the rest of her life. The film completely ignores her second marriage and as a result, it comes across as a love story when it was really a friendship. This is the other problem with the line Gerda says that was quoted above: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” In reality, it was not.
In the Capitalizing on Transsexuality and Intersexuality section of the chapter “Ungendering in Art and Academia of Whipping Girl, Serano criticises Jane Anderson, writer and director of the HBO film Normal for using a trans woman as a plot device and then relying on her imagination to portray the character. With The Danish Girl, at least we know Eddie Redmayne did his research, even if it did not come across, but there is also the uncomfortable problem of Lili’s transition being used as a sort of plot device to play out the drama of a married couple overcoming adversity and becoming friends.
Know Your Role
“After twenty years of exploration and experimentation, I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.”
From Serano’s chapter, “Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement”. I have used the above quotation specifically because of a scene in The Danish Girl in which Lili explicitly takes on the socially expected role of a woman for the period, when she starts working at the perfume counter of a department store. Questioned by Gerda as to why she would want to take such a job instead of painting as she did when she went under the name Einar, she replies: “I want to be a woman, not a painter.” It is an adaptation of a line from the Dusk section of Man Into Woman: “For I do not want to be an artist, but a woman.” The idea that she ‘wants’ to be a woman does not fit with other lines as much as if she had said, “I am a woman, not a painter”. In the film, Gerda is clearly annoyed by such a statement, and replies “People have been known to do both.” The problem is that Lili’s interpretation of what it means to be a woman is different from Gerda’s, and it includes conforming to the traditional gender role defined by the society she is living in. This is not to devalue her interpretation, as all cis women probably have differing views on what it means to be female, but is perhaps a mark of the period in which it is set, before the great surge of feminist writings later on in the twentieth century.
The other role it is apparent that Lili wants is that of a mother. In a conversation with Hans she encourages him to marry and have children because it is so important to her. That she is unable to fulfil this role is a tragic aspect of her character.
True Story, Biased Biography, Fictional Novel, Adapted Screenplay
One of the most interesting problems The Danish Girl has is that it feels behind the times. There are obvious reasons for this: The story is old, it has been reinterpreted through a biased biography and the novel came out in 2000. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon started working on an adaptation in 2004 and had a completed script in a couple of years. Whipping Girl, the book I have quoted from extensively, came out in 2007.
The most interesting problem, and one that I think will become more and more common with the speed of communication possible in the modern era, is that the length of its time in development made its representation of the trans experience passé by the time it was released. 2015 was a banner year for trans visibility, if not necessarily for comprehension, prompted most prominently by Caitlyn Jenner coming out in the April. Filming of The Danish Girl began in February 2015. By the end of 2015, Jenner was named as a TIME Person of the Year runner-up, Collins English Dictionary had named transgender as one of its words of the year and Rush Limbaugh has been fooled into thinking tampons for trans women that simulated menstruation were a real thing. I thought The Danish Girl would have a synchronicity with the zeitgeist, a modern outlook on the trans experience, even though it was set in the past, but it did not. It just felt staid.
The Stories We Choose To Tell
There are so many variations on trans perceptions and experiences that choosing to tell only one story will almost necessarily alienate some part of the community. Choose to tell the story of a trans woman, you sideline the experiences of trans men. Choose to tell the story of a heterosexual trans woman, you may fail to evoke empathy from trans lesbians. Choose to tell the story of someone who has sex reassignment surgery, you risk failing to connect with someone who does not intend to undergo such a procedure. Choose to tell the story of a transgender pioneer from history, there will be some part of it that people going through the contemporary trans experience will be unable to relate to.
There are many stories that need to be told about trans people, but I do not believe this was one of them.