The (Danish) Girl Everyone’s Talking About

Oh me, oh my! Oh good heavens! Is it possible- could there- might there be- TWO big budget trans films at TIFF this year?

My heart leaped at the prospect. I was like a fresh faced singer in the twenties- I’d believe whatever you told me. In retrospect it was naive for me to think that a progressive depiction of a trans character could come out of a major Hollywood studio. All of my activist friends warned me I was in for disappointment. But I threw myself back into the arms of those sweet Beverly Hills executives, my heart all aflutter. They won’t hurt me this time! I told everyone. They wouldn’t let me down. This is a world where Laverne and Caitlin reign supreme. They wouldn’t dare upset Laverne- she’s a goddess. 

I’m a Tom Hooper fan, so even though I knew upfront there were some obvious problems (like casting a cisgendered actor as a transgender character) I had faith. I was ready to believe. Take me Tom. Take me now.

The Danish girl is based on the real life story of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to survive sex reassignment surgery and her wife Gerda. Redmayne clearly has his huge doe eyes set on two Oscars in as many years, and he just might get them. Mostly because the academy is clearly no match for his  trembly lips.

Here’s the thing about the Danish girl- it’s not as clear cut and easy to hate as About Ray or even the new Swedish film Girls Lost. There are some things that TDG does right that the other ones don’t like treating the trans character as a person. So let’s look at some things that I liked

  • The chemistry between Vikander and Redmayne is electric. And they portray the relationship with a certain nuance that excited me. I loved the way that Hooper made it clear that this decision to transition was something that Lili struggled with- you see her try and comport herself as a man for Gerda and it just doesn’t work. This is who she is and she can’t fight against it. Showing transition as a series of small choices rather than just one big one is a significant step for trans cinema, and I’m glad that big budget studios are beginning to take note. I think it shows complexity that the film shows this part of Lili’s experience rather than streamlining the process.
  • If you liked The King’s Speech, you will like this film. It is truly beautiful. Every single frame looks like a Vermeer painting.

But let’s look at some of the major problems with the film OTHER than the casting choices:

  • First of all, it’s told from the perspective of Gerda, Lili’s wife. People have argued that this is an appeal to a cisgendered audience to increase sympathy for the trans character. Which is bullshit because people are people no matter how gendered, and a cisgender person loving a transgender person should be neither news nor rewarded.
  • There are some major deviations from what actually happened (Gerda abandoned Lili in life but not in the film)
  • They were polyamorous in life. And because mainstream, monogamous, love-the-one-you’re-with-until-you’re-dead-or-bored society can’t fathom it, that gets eliminated.
  • Lili is a victim.

My last point is the most controversial so let me deal with it directly. While she isn’t victimized in the same way as say, Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, Lili lacks agency. From the film’s perspective, it is Gerda that makes her a woman, and Gerda that has to carry her through the whole transition. It is Gerda who teaches Lili how to be a woman, coaching her through the appropriate behavior and teaching her how to dress. She takes her to the doctors and holds her hand through both surgeries. It is Gerda who is the most hurt by this transition and yet still she stands stoically by her woman. It is Gerda who is all but forced into the arms of another, and it is Gerda who constantly puts her beloved Lili above all others even at the expense of herself.

…NOPE.

In reality Gerda ditched the bitch and Lili had to go through THREE of the surgeries by herself. Gerda divorced her and married somebody else. According to Lili’s diaries, neither of them harbored any ill will, but Gerda was by no means the devoted, Dolly-Parton-slinging wife that she’s made out to be in the film. Critics might read this as nit-picking on my part but think about it- Lili gave up her ENTIRE life in order to transition and she went through all that surgery by herself. The way Redmayne plays her, she is this fragile, delicate, waifish flower who would get toppled by a light breeze and that is NOT who her diaries show her to be. It’s additionally disappointing because is that really the only option? That someone who wants to be a woman can only be this frivolous, shopping crazy fool? Gerda is made out to be an emotionally strong powerhouse, while Lili is a damsel in distress which is a discredit not only to trans women, but self-identifying women everywhere.

My last and final point is WHY THE HELL IS AMBER HEARD IN THIS MOVIE?! Genuinely this both baffles and upsets me. She gets third billing and says maybe four words in the entire film. And for the record- the words she says aren’t that great. I’m betting she really wanted to be invited to the Oscars or something. Or maybe Johnny really wanted to go and was hedging his bets before Black Mass came out so he talked her into it.

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