One only has to hear Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne passionately discuss the research they did in preparation for The Danish Girl to realize that they fully intended to make a film that would legitimize the struggles of transgendered people. They read scores of literature on the subject, and spent time with many trans men and women, listening to the stories of their experience. As such, they attempt to portray a transgender icon and pioneer in a loving way, but, ultimately, they end up sending disconcerting messages about what it means to be trans*.
The Danish Girl focuses on Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener, a Danish painter of landscapes, and one of the first person to undergo a gender reassignment surgery during the early 1930s) and her relationship with her wife, Gerda (in the context of the film, also a fellow painter). One day, filling in for Gerda’s absent muse, Einar models a pair of stockings and slippers, with a dress laid across his chest.
Having enjoyed the feeling, Einar begins to question if he has been a woman, all along. Before long, he is throwing on a wig and a dress, and accompanying Gerda to social settings in the persona of “Lili,” catching the eye of every gentleman who crosses her path. Once she realizes that this is not just a game for Lili, Gerda has to accept that the husband she thought she was married to may be an altogether different person, and the two embark on a journey of both self-discovery and evaluation their relationship’s significance.
In The Danish Girl‘s third act, Lili and Gerda visit a doctor with an interest in cases of biological men who identify as women, and he informs them of a possible set of surgeries by which Lili’s body could be transformed into the one she dreams of. The first includes the removal of her male genitalia; the second aims to construct a vagina. This is the news Lili has been longing to hear.
The surgeries are not without risk: such a procedure has never before been attempted, and there is a very real, and, frankly, likely chance that if she undergoes these operations, Lili will be prone to infections that could prove to be terminal. Lili is willing to take this risk.
After the first procedure, Lili is weak, and needs to recover from her surgery, before she can advance to the second stage of her anatomical reconstruction. Before she has fully recuperated, she convinces her doctor to proceed with the final installment in her transition. Gerda pleads with Lili not to rush into the surgery, aware of the fact that Lili is not fully healed, and apprehensive of the potentially fatal cost of this decision, but Lili is resolved to go through with it, calling it her “only chance.” Consequently, Lili dies from complications related to her surgeries.
This film sends a very dangerous message.
One of the most troubling things about The Danish Girl is its fixation on gender reassignment as being the key to Lili’s validation. It does more than state a fact that “this is what Lili Elbe did:” the tone of the film seems to praise her for the bravery to go through with this operation, and position her as a martyr because her anatomical transition was worth dying for.
Like any member of any community, each trans* person has different opinions and experiences. It’s not wrong for a transgendered person to want have a gender reassignment, and for some people this desire is perfectly natural. If body and gender dysphoria is the source of life-threatening depression, and gender reassignment is suitable in the reconciliation of their own gender identity, one probably should have this surgery, if they are psychologically assessed to be of a sound mind.
The sad reality is that many transgendered people will be unlikely to be able to afford a gender reassignment surgery. In certain communities, unemployment rates for transgendered people are high, and they can be up to twice as likely to live below the poverty line. Other trans* people, who may not fall into a gender binary, may be unable to ever have a physical body that will ever completely represent their identity. In The Danish Girl, once Lili has her final round of surgery, she says, “I am entirely myself.” A more positive message for these people who gender reassignment is inaccessible to would be to let them know that they are already complete people, who were entirely themselves, all along, and their bodies do not define who they are. Of course, it should be stressed that the feeling of seeing a body that matches their identity can be monumentally gratifying, but something that just reaffirms who they already were, to begin with.
Trans* people are already among one of the most likely demographics at risk of suicide attempts: over forty percent of transgendered and gender non-conforming persons attempt suicide. They don’t need another voice telling them that jeopardizing their lives in an attempt to make peace with themselves is a virtuous thing. After all, Lili Elbe herself, was unable to enjoy a life living in a correct physically gendered body: the pursuit of an unsafe solution cost her that life. Instead, transgendered people need to be hearing that life matters.
[author title=”About the Author” image=”https://scontent-lax3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xaf1/v/t1.0-9/480895_10151462730045981_1761013921_n.jpg?oh=ec50ec414b7d1c9da635d28281ffb0a1&oe=5661826D”]David Acacia lives in Toronto, Canada, posts regularly on AwardsWatch forums, and is the self-appointed High Priest of the Church of Meryl Streep. He is also a member of the International Cinephile Society where he writes for film festivals and film reviews.[/author]