Lili Elbe was a transgender pioneer. She lived openly as a woman, even though she was born in a man’s body, in 1920s Europe at a time when such a thing was seen as perverted or actually clinically insane; she wrote the memoir Man Into Woman about her transition; and she was one of the first people to receive sex-reassignment surgery, which was then highly experimental; complications from it killed her in 1931. She’s an important person to be telling stories about, especially today, as we are starting to be more aware of the trials transgender people face, both publicly and personally, and as we are starting to be more open in discussing the fact that many, many people simply do not fit into the many, many binary dichotomies our culture has artificially set out and to which we are all meant to conform.
All that said, I’m not sure The Danish Girl does justice to Elbe, to the transgender cause, or even to the notion that there are binaries that need to be smashed. I simply never believed that Copenhagen landscape painter Einar Wegener was harboring the secret that someone who appeared to the outside world to be a he was actually a she. It’s not that Eddie Redmayne (Jupiter Ascending, Les Misérables), who portrays the artist, is too masculine for the role; he’s actually quite pretty as Lili, but I’m not talking about appearances. (Transgender women who are not physically attractive are still women, the same way that unattractive cisgender women are still women.) It’s that there isn’t an inkling of support anywhere in the film for the idea that Einar really is a transgender woman.
Girl appears to suggest that Einar didn’t have a clue that he (I’m deliberately using the male pronoun to reflect the film’s attitude toward Einar) might not be a man until the day when his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ex Machina), also a painter, asks him to fill in for an absent model by wearing a ballerina’s stockings and shoes, so she could work on a portrait. But so what? Lots of nontrans, nongay men would agree that silky stockings — and, as Einar later discovers, satiny lingerie — feel nice against the skin, but wearing such articles of “feminine” clothing do not make a man trans or gay or anything in particular at all. “He’s only ever had eyes for one woman,” a female friend notes of Einar and Gerda’s relationship, and I think that the coy, wishy-washy script intends that as a hint that there’s something a little “off” about Einar. But having eyes for only one women could be said of many perfectly “normal” hetero cis men. Indeed, the film opens on a scene of apparent marital bliss between the couple, suggesting that they have a happy, rambunctious sex life, with absolutely no indication that either is dissatisfied or uncomfortable or harbors even the tiniest doubt about themselves or their relationship.
Of course, the idea of, for lack of a better word, trans-ness didn’t exist in the 1920s, but there isn’t even any attempt to create a sense of Einar struggling to, say, define a feeling that had always been there that s/he didn’t know what to do with. It’s simply as if a light switch is pulled, and suddenly Einar chooses to be a woman. (I feel confident in saying that most transgender people would say they had absolutely no choice in the matter.) And for Einar, and for the movie, womanhood is all about performing femininity, not about actually being a woman. The “birth” of Lili comes about when Einar declines to accompany Gerda to an artists’ ball; he hates those sorts of functions because he feels “as though I’m performing myself.” That could be taken as a hint that Einar is not comfortable in his body… except that when Gerda suggests Einar attend as “Lili,” Lili is no less a performance. Woman-ness for Einar/Lili is about how to dress and how to walk, about keeping his head down and his gaze averted, about asking “Am I pretty enough?” and being pleased with the answer, yet demuring when male suitors approach. (Which they do instantly! The always lovely Ben Whishaw [In the Heart of the Sea, Spectre] plays the first and eventually longest-standing one.)
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, The Damned United) is working from a fictionalized novel about Lili and Gerda anyway — the novel is by David Ebershoff, the script by Lucinda Coxon — so there would have been legitimate room for making larger statements about how femininity is culturally constructed and a separate issue entirely from gender identity. Wouldn’t it have been fun if this fictionalized Einar was performing Lili as an art project, of an instance of cultural hacking, as much as Lili was about honestly held convictions about being born in the wrong body? Couldn’t the film have had some extra kick for today if Einar/Lili was tweaking gender norms instead of embracing them, was challening those around her to notice the unspoken and pointless rules about presenting one’s gender that they are all operating under? Instead, though, like its Lili, Danish Girl mistakes the external signifiers of femininity with actually being a woman.
If it weren’t doing that, The Danish Girl might realize that, in the version of Lili’s story it is presenting, Gerda is by far the more adventurous and defiant woman of the two. If the movie was less afraid to scare off mainstream audiences, it might act like it’s aware that being transgender has nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation, and it might have let us know something — anything — about if or how Gerda’s sexual feelings about her husband and their sex life changed during his transition, instead of pretending that she would meekly accept — as we see onscreen — the switch flipping from rambunctious enthusiasm to, eventually, disgust on his part. (That first scene of the happy marriage bed could have made more sense if we had some idea that Gerda was perhaps a lesbian, or bisexual, or even just a tad adventurous.) But this is a safe, conventional film, one with little room for Gerda as a character or a human being beyond the bland clichéd supportive wife, one that undercuts even a totally justifiable angry outburst by having Gerda apologize for it with — I can’t believe the movie goes here — “I have my period.” This is not a movie that is particularly sympathetic to women. Vikander makes the most she can of what she is given, infusing Gerda with spirit and passion, but there’s not much she can work with, and it leaves us wondering what Gerda’s side of the story would look like.
Perhaps the best indication that The Danish Girl doesn’t really see Einar/Lili as a woman is that — in another conventional, clichéd move — it casts a cisgender, heterosexual man as its trans woman. Redmayne is, I believe, delivering a sincere performance, but this is ultimately yet another role — and one coming immediately after his previous one, as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything — that lets him be “daring,” lets him show off his range and his talent. Not that he doesn’t have both, but this is ultimately a gimmicky performance, no matter how honest it is on his part. It would likely have been very tough to cast a transgender actor in the role, simply because trans people are a tiny percentage of the population. But there are plenty of cisgender women who could have pulled it off beautifully. And it might have gone a ways toward giving the film the air of personal authenticity and integrity it lacks.