I’ve been asked a few times recently about The Danish Girl, which I’ve been hesitant to speak much about because I’m a cis woman and I don’t feel I have the background or experience required to talk about what’s wrong with it. However, I’m also starting to feel as if I saw a completely different picture from everyone else, so here goes.
First off: this was probably never going to be a movie for me. It left a poor impression from the very beginning by the decision to cast a cisgender man as a transgender woman*. I tried to set that aside when watching it, to limited success. The casting was and is a problem, and Tom Hooper is not an interesting director. The end result is a glossy** but bland award-season movie about a transgender person for people who would not otherwise see anything about a transgender person. That’s the intended audience. It’s the sort of movie I would have liked ten years ago, but now we can do better. Now we know better. Now we deserve better.
The Danish Girl is an adaptation of a novel loosely based on the life of Lili Elbe, which points to a core issue of the film: it’s a biopic at an extra remove, a story about a symbol, not a story about a person. The “Danish Girl” of the title is primarily Gerda (Alicia Vikander, specifically referred to as “the Danish girl” within the film), and she’s the prime mover of the story. She virtually forced Lili’s emergence by making her husband model for her in women’s clothing, she is the inspirational-music-backed ally finally convincing the doctor to perform the gender affirmation surgery, and she is the loyal wife at the bedside at the end (when really, she had remarried & was living in Italy by the time of Lili’s death.)
What this gives us, then, is an easily palatable transgender narrative for cis people. We have our point of view character, the passionate ally overcoming the loss of her husband (and never once enjoying the gaining of a wife, despite the historical Gerde/Grete’s bisexuality & trans-openness, hints of which the film gives us in her art and possibly even the bizarre, It Happened One Night-esque sheet separating their beds later in the film).
We have the brave transition. We have the tragic death. And we don’t have anything of what was actually interesting about Lili Elbe. We don’t have anything of her thoughts or feelings. We’re told she “think[s] Lili’s thoughts”, but not what these thoughts are. We have instead cis people being surprised by Lili’s existence, cis people naming her, cis people mourning the loss of Einar, cis people being disappointed by Lili being transgender woman and not a cross-dressing man, and finally we have cis people surviving her, letting fly her scarf to the wind like the feather in Forrest Gump. We are given a tragedy, a sacrifice, and sentimentality, but not a person.
It’s also maddening because we do see hints of a more interesting story. In addition to erasing Gerda’s sexuality (which is particularly unfortunate because the one true moment Redmayne gives us in the film comes with Lili’s brief joy at being mistaken for a lesbian in Paris), The Danish Girl was a lost opportunity to tell the story of a transition where a couple remained a couple. Though their marriage was annulled and later both were involved with men, there is also evidence that for a time they had a satisfying life together.
In this 1933 Milwaukee Journal article Lili is described as “a playmate for Grete”, and it notes: “Grete felt genuinely attached to this ‘girl friend'”. It also suggests Lili might have been intersex. It’s an interesting piece in general, actually, but that word, “playmate” was striking. It tells us Grete and Lili had fun together, regardless of if that extended to the bedroom (though given Grete’s lesbian erotic art I’d be surprised if it didn’t.)
The Danish Girl wanted to have it both ways: the cisgender heroine standing by her partner, but by god, we better make sure people know everyone is still straight. We can’t expect award season audiences to accept the existence of a bisexual or lesbian trans woman.
To erase all of this ambiguity, the filmmakers provided us with Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans Axgil, an entirely goddamned fictional childhood friend of Lili who shows up in Paris just in time to explain away all of Einar’s art, to create a damaging “she always knew she was trans” backstory, and to force an awkward love triangle. I think it’s best I didn’t know he was invented when I saw the film. As it is now I just sit here fuming, thinking about it.
And that’s a big frustrating thing. Lili’s story is interesting AND SHE HAS TOLD IT. There is a book of her diaries and correspondence! It was published posthumously, but still has got to be more accurate than a novel by a cis dude who decided to exploit a trans woman’s experience to tell his idea of a love story. Lili’s first surgeries were done under the supervision of Magnus Hirschfeld, not that you’d know that from the film, and also not that you’d know anything of his Institute for Sexual Science, which, oh, doesn’t that all sound familiar? Yes it does because Hirschfeld was just played by Bradley Whitford in Transparent, in flashbacks where we got to see the glorious life of said Institute before it was destroyed by the Nazis.
Honestly, if you want to watch something with value about trans women in the early 20th century, you should just watch the second season of Transparent. And when you’re watching that, pay attention to Hari Nef & think about what magic she could have wrought in an accurate film about Lili and the fascinating times she lived in. Think about what magic a trans woman might have wrought in a film that dared to actually be interesting and true about gender and sexuality. Think about a film that honored both of its Danish girls.
Maybe we’ll get it in another ten years.
Meanwhile, if you want to see an actually interesting film about gender starring Alicia Vikander, you should watch Ex Machina. If you want to see an actually interesting film about the relationship between a cisgender woman and a transgender woman, check out The New Girlfriend (or at least read this discussion of Girl vs Girlfriend.) And if you want to see an actually interesting film about transgender women and starring transgender women, allow me to suggest a little Christmas movie called Tangerine.
* I am not interested in discussing the pros and cons of casting a transgender vs a cisgender actor in this space, but those who would like to do homework in that department can start with reading “Hollywood Is Ready For Trans Characters, But Not Trans Actors” on Autostraddle.
** That’s a little unfair. The cinematography is gorgeous; as befits a film about two artists nearly every frame is, as they say, a painting. And Alicia Vikander is terrific, so full of passion and life that’s she’s practically in a different film, especially next to Redmayne, all affectations and no soul.