Blockbuster ‘The Danish Girl’ has been praised for taking up trans issues in a major Hollywood production. Unfortunately, this film is just one more in a long line of tragic, stereotypical portrayals of trans experience. Laura Tams wrote a review of the film in Danish for Alt for Damerne. This is Alice Minor's translation.
Are you looking forward seeing ‘The Danish Girl’ in theaters?
If so, I hope you don’t expect to become any wiser about life as a trans person.
The film is in fact written, directed, and produced by cisgender people (people who were assigned the gender they identify with – the opposite of transgender). And extras aside, the total number of trans actors in the film is as many as all trans people ever nominated for an acting Oscar. As in – 0.
The central character, transwoman Lili Elbe, is played by a cisgender man, Eddie Redmayne. By the way – Redmayne is the 7th cisgender person to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a transgender role.
Although the film is marketed as biopic, it fails dismally to stick to Lili Elbe’s life story. ‘The Danish Girl’ is about as closely based on historical facts as cult film ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, a film about the 16th president of the United States as a vampire hunter.
Most notably inaccurate are the circumstances surrounding Lili Elbe’s genital operations. In the film, Lili is so impatient that she insists on having her second operation soon after the first even though the doctor advised more recovery time. Film-Lili therefore dies of impatience or perhaps vanity.
In reality, Lili underwent 4 or 5 operations. The precise number is unknown because Nazi soldiers burnt Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s famous archives, where Lili’s journals were stored. We do know that Lili survived the initial cosmetic surgery on her genitals and didn’t die until the attempted ovary transplant. The necessary immune suppressant medication simply hadn’t yet been discovered.
Even the event that made Lili Elbe historically notable was rewritten in the film. Furthermore, Lili Elbe’s character was imbued with an irresponsibility that she doesn’t deserve.
If you don’t plan to see ‘The Danish Girl’ to gain insight into transgender people’s lives, but rather to learn about the prejudices of rich Hollywood stars – you’re on your way to the right film. Remember your notebook and hip flask with the right spirits.
The people behind the film were kind enough to squeeze every conceivable cliché of trans women they could into a 2-hour slot. Forlorn mirror gazing. A twisted vision of what is female. The notion that one becomes a real woman by dating a creepy dude who can’t take a no for a no. Bonus points if you spot the absurd moment where Lili Elbe is diagnosed with a nose bleed as some form of transgender menstruation!
Lili Elbe is simply an exaggerated trans character. Actual trans women certainly share some traits with Elbe. Still, as far as I’m concerned it would be unlikely to find a real life trans person who embodies as many industry stereotypes as Lili.
I fear that people unfamiliar with transgender issues will accept film-Lili as the embodiment of transwomenhood. The uninitiated might believe transwomen to be weak and without agency, obsessed with their image in the mirror, and fixated on genitals – just like Lili.
Film-Lili is the complete opposite of everything I aspire to be. I know already that in the wake of this film I will have to explain to even more family, colleagues, and friends who aren’t nestled in Copenhagen’s most critical of queer environments that no, not all trans women are like that.
I wish films with a different perspective received the level of media swarm connected to the ‘The Danish Girl’. I wish people saw Her Story instead, a web series that’s free and online. There’s also ‘Something Must Break’ and cult film ‘Dyke Hard’ from Sweden and ‘Tangerine’ from the US. These productions are all written and acted by transwomen. I promise they will show you some kick-ass and multi-dimensional trans women who don’t buy into gendered stereotypes about how to be a woman.
That’s the kind of woman that I aspire to be.
Image: Redmayne never loses enthusiasm because a club of privileged men (not much unlike Winston Churchill!) praise him every year for his "authentic" and "successful" imitations of the lesser privileged.