I knew before watching The Danish Girl that the Academy Award winning historical drama set in Copenhagen was loosely based on the life of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery, but that didn’t prepare me. The Danish Girl totally drew me in and wrung out my heart like a tattered dishcloth. For 119 minutes, I took my first step into a world I was totally unfamiliar with.
The film follows the life of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne,The Theory of Everything), who begins the story as painter Einar Wegener and her wife artist Gerda who’s also an artist (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina). In the opening scenes, Gerda dresses Einar in women’s clothing to paint him. Through the process, Lili awakens.
For a while, Einar continues life as before, with occasional forays into the world as Lili. Eventually however, Einar can’t bear to express as anyone other than the woman she knows she is.
While watching the film, I felt discomfort from Lili’s distress, but that doesn’t account for all of my discomfort. I was also uncomfortable because this was the first time I had spent any length of time thinking about how it might feel to identify with a different gender to the one I was assigned at birth. I’m a cisgender woman, and I haven’t had much exposure to this experience. This was the first time I really recognized my ignorance and that made me squirm. Still. Watching Lili emerge in an unaccepting world was humbling and relevant.
I’m a teacher, and I was talking with a student the other day about how to explain connections between a text and self. She pointed out that the text she was studying was about an African American man exploring his sexuality in the States. “We don’t have anything in common,” she said. She meant that she’s not a man, or African American, or questioning. “Really?” I asked. “You’ve never felt out of place, or unsure about the person you’re growing up to be?”
For the length of The Danish Girl, I was an aspiring transgender artist and her dysphoria and the aftershocks of walking around in her shoes, stuck with me. After returning to my own life, the commonality between our two lives emerged. A part of me identified with Lili so much – the part of me that has to manage people’s expectations and please the ones she loves, but especially the part that understands that ultimately life is not worth living if you can’t live your identity. It hit me like a tonne of bricks how much we owe those who live as their true selves despite the disapproval of society.
Carol Grant wrote an article published in Indiewire explaining her experience of watching The Danish Girl as a transgender woman. Through Grant’s lens, I can see how problematic the film is. Women in The Danish Girl are sexualized and stereotyped. It leaves the impression that all of Lili’s womanhood is tied up in her choice to fit sexualized gender norms. That’s not helpful, or realistic. It would have been more meaningful to see Lili’s individuality outside of her desire to wear women’s clothes and work as a beauty counter shop girl. Hopefully, the success of The Danish Girl will help pave the way for more complex representations of trans people in the future.
While The Danish Girl is absorbing and compassionate, it’s also hugely confronting for someone like me who’s becoming aware of their lack of knowledge of the trans experience. I can’t escape the realization that the way we treat each other has massive ramifications – not just for our friends, but to strangers, too. And I can’t ignore the example Lili sets, that throwing herself into the arms of her true self is the only way one can live.