Why the transgender community hated The Danish Girl

the-danish-girlWARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you wish to view The Danish Girl and haven’t done so, you might wish to avoid reading this article to the end!

The broad review

Tackling a review of The Danish Girl, coming from someone like me who identifies with the vast spectrum of transgenderity, is immediately biased and prone to raise some eyebrows or some direct disagreement. To make things more interestingly, I will even review the movie from different perspectives, and give my own views on what I have actually learned with it.

Critics, in general, have received the movie favourably. In general, they point out two important points about the movie: that it is not a movie about transgender activism, and that the role of Gerda Wegener (wife to Einar Wegener), played by Alicia Vikander, is as important as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe played by Eddie Redmayne; a few critics are even so daring is to cast Vikander’s role as being more important than the one played by the Oscar-awarded British actor. The movie is essentially a story about love; it is not a documentary for transgender activism; it’s not even historically accurate (according to Lili’s own biography), but a romanticised fantasy based loosely on Lili’s life, with many real characters left out, some invented ones making an appearance, and several plot arcs without any resemblance to reality, or oversimplified for the sake of the overall argument.

This movie is cinema as an art form; it’s not educational, promotional, or even historical (in the sense of portraying a certain reality). Within that context, Tom Hooper has directed a truly wonderful movie, an example of the best that cinema as an art form can produce, and which might be a very serious contestant at the many award ceremonies; Redmayne may very well get his second Oscar, although I would place my bets on Vikander as well – she most definitely is not merely ‘supporting actress’ to the ‘giant’ Redmayne, but stands on her own. It could not be otherwise, for reasons that should shortly become obvious. This is not a movie about Lili’s life as a transgender person in the 1920s; it’s a movie about her relationship (mostly with Gerda), and those expecting the focus to be solely on Lili will be sorely disappointed – I haven’t measured with a stopwatch, but I’m almost sure that the total amount of time spent on scenes just with Gerda is almost as much as with Lili, if not more.

The film poster should actually give us a clue to what the movie is about. Note how both Redmayne and Vikander are portrayed at almost the same level; Vikander is pictured in a deliberately androgynous way, while Vikander is all female. Therefore, does the title The Danish Girl apply to Redmayne or Vikander? The ambiguity is the whole clue to the movie.

Mainstream criticism

I cannot claim to have read all the critics, of course. However, there are, broadly speaking, three different (main) visions of the movie. The first is a very superficial kind of review: it focuses on the beauty of the picture, the excellent performance of the actors, and the suffering of a transgender person in the 1920s, as well as the extraordinary courage of Lili to go through transition in an age and era where the fight for civil rights did not yet begin.

The second level of criticism goes much more deeper. It recognises the many ambiguities of the movie itself, and the important role played by Vikander. Such critics argue, very correctly, that the movie is not really about transgenderism at all, but about love. It raises some interesting questions (which I will address later) which the unsuspecting viewer might not easily catch. The movie goes much deeper than showing the sentimental relationship about two human beings, or about portraying the suffering of a transgender person. Such elements are pillars upon which a story is built, but it also reflects much more about what a true romantic relationship ought to be – transgenderism here is merely a metaphor, or image, of the sort of very complex issues that can arise inside a relationship, and how it affects it – but also how a very strong bond can keep the relation alive. As such, the movie is not addressing a historical reality; it is using a historical setting about a message that is universal. It’s not even portraying the difficult situation of a transgender person, but goes well beyond that. Therefore, critics conclude that the movie is much more meaningful than merely considering it ‘a historical perspective on transgenderism’, and they all applaud the role cast by Vikander and how well she performs next to Redmayne’s impeccable acting.

The third group of critics are the disappointed ones. The movie generated a lot of expectations, and critics had conjured their own picture about what the movie ought to be about. Hooper, however, cleverly eludes their expectations by presenting something completely different. As a result, those critics left the movie theatre confused. What was the movie all about, after all? As a consequence, they don’t give raving reviews to a movie – they assume that it either is too hard to understand, or that it somehow missed the point, or keeps aiming at a certain point it wishes to make but never actually reaches there.

I think that I can sympathise with those critics. I believe the movie has a lot of deep meanings which are not immediately obvious to the casual viewer. It also sends subtle messages to the transgender community, which are not understandable by the general audience – but such hints might also apply in different contexts to every romantic relationship. As a consequence, Hooper is not really an unbiased, distant observer, picturing a historical reality; he is deliberately pushing certain messages and ideas, twisting the historical reality to make his point come across. But this is made with subtlety, which can definitely confuse the audience, and therefore many critics might not think that he was entirely successful with his approach.

Maybe. It’s arguable. But let’s turn to those who completely missed the whole point of the movie: the transgender community.

Transgender criticism

Being a movie about two women in love with each other – even if one of them has been born with male genitalia – it´s not surprising that some feminist critics have reviewed the movie favourably. It’s not so clear why the transgender community, in general, has absolutely rejected the movie (even if they are often consensual about the superb directing skills of Tom Hooper and the delightful pictures he presents).

Due to the high degree of expectations, the transgender community was expecting The Danish Girl, as a mainstream (albeit intellectual) movie, to promote their cause further. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of movies about transgender persons (their suffering and their relationships) which reached the commercial circles; few, however, were able to reach the status of truly becoming ‘mainstream’. They are mostly cult movies for the community and for those who are supportive of the community; the general audience would be quickly bored by them or not even attempt to watch a movie which talks about experiences beyond their immediate knowledge.

The Danish Girl is different. Directed by Tom Hooper, it immediately becomes mainstream, and it has Oscar-grade quality; as such, there is no question that it will attract attention from not only the critics and the intellectuals, but by the whole population in general. Even those who have no interest in the movie whatsoever are aware that The Danish Girl is about a transgender person in the 1920s (I have noticed how in my circle of acquaintances, which includes a lot of absolutely intolerant fundamentalist Christians and atheists, the two-line pitch of the plot is known to them, and ‘going Danish’, in my country, is slowly becoming an expression meaning ‘transition’). Therefore, it’s not surprising that the transgender community seriously hoped that this movie would represent the community faithfully and become an educational tool for the masses – driving them to a better understanding, thanks to the magic of good movies, able to evoke strong emotions in the audience, even among those who might not ever have thought about the tough lives endured (and suffered) by transgender people.

Even before the movie was launched, two things immediately started to grate on the transgender community’s nerves. The first, of course, is that Lili Elbe is played by a cisgender actor, which was almost universally accused as discrimination. There are plenty of struggling transgender actors and actresses around, hoping for opportunities, but the heteronormative cisgender movie industry thought that a cisgender actor would be a best choice. To make matters even worse, a few transgender critics of the movie pointed out that one of the actresses cast as a nurse in a secondary role (Rebecca Root) is actually transgender. So we have a movie with a transgender character played by a cisgender actor, and a role of a cisgender nurse played by a transgender actress. Transgender critics went absolutely haywire with this, claiming that Hooper’s bigotism lead him to do the casting in precisely the opposite way it ought to have been.

At some stage in the movie, we see Lili trying to find information about her condition in a public library, and among other books, she picks up something about ‘human hermaphroditism’ (what we call today intersex conditions). The whole scene lasts but a few seconds, but the transgender community sees there the implication that Hooper doesn’t truly believe in ‘transgenderism’ except if it is accompanied by physical evidence (e.g. anomalies in the external genitalia). Moreover, there is no evidence that the historical Lili Elba manifested any intersex condition. However, such an explanation is far-fetched: Hooper merely wishes to convey the extreme difficulty, in the 1920s, of getting access to information on the subject; and it merely recreates the attempt of every transgender person to search for explanations about their condition.

I have seen other details, like the progression path from ‘crossdressing’ to fully assume the transgender condition, being crticised for lack of rigour and merely reflecting what Hooper thinks about the subject, not what ‘true transgender people’ really feel or do. Such criticism is also imbued with the same kind of bias: Lili’s depicted path is just one of many possible ones (after all, the movie focuses on Lili’s life, not on somebody else’s), and such critics, who allegedly may have progressed along different paths than the one taken by Lili, are also not exactly representative of ‘everybody in the transgender community’. There is no single, ‘right’ path to cross in one’s self-discovery of gender dysphoria and transgenderity; there are many possibilities, each case being individual and unique, and no one is supposed to claim that ‘their’ path is ‘better’ (or ‘more true’) than the path taken by others. From a medical and scientific perspective, there are many paths, and each self-exploration is different and may produce different outcomes. Certainly we can aggregate such paths in common categories and labels; however, such categorisation is not meant to represent a qualitative hierarchy of types, some being ‘better’, others representing ‘false transgenderity’ to be discarded. As such, Hooper’s choice just depicts one possible soluition, without inferring that it is the only ‘correct’ one. In fact, later in the plot, when Lili is talking with a surgeon who is available to do her surgeries, he tells her about a similar (but different) case than hers, and there are hints in the plot that this particular surgeon had been studying ‘many different but similar cases’. As a consequence, one ought not to discredit Lili’s path choice and progression towards transition. Fictional or not, it merely represents a possibility, a potential choice. It echoes deeply with many transgender people, and maybe that’s the reason for Hooper’s choice. But it will not echo with those who are very vocal in discrediting the plot based on their own experience.

The issue about Hooper’s casting choices are also fundamentally misguided. As a mainstream movie director, Hooper wants the best possible actors for his movie. Choosing Oscar-awarded Redmayne was just a choice that reveals his deep understanding of Redmayne’s abilities and skills as an actor. A good actor can be cast in any role, and will perform admirably well in it (if Redmayne ‘came out’ as transgender after the movie was produced, nobody would really be surprised – he definitely performs the role incredibly convincingly, and admitted on a BBC interview that he learned a lot about gender being non-binary but a spectrum). There is no intent on ‘discriminating’ the transgender community. In fact, Hooper has no qualms in casting a transgender actress (in a cisgender role!), because he finds that her performance is adequate for such a role. Hooper definitely recognises the existing talent in the transgender actor community. But he’s also quite clever in not typecasting them. Good transgender actors and actresses, like their cisgender counterparts, ought to be able to play any role – not be eternally waiting for Hollywood to find a minor transgender role for them to fill. Typecasting generally shows that an actor or actress is not ‘good enough’ to be suitable for playing different roles. Top-level actors and actresses have no such limitations. Certainly Redmayne has none. But Rebecca, a transgender actress playing a cisgender role, also shows that Hooper recognises fully her talents and does not typecast her. He actually is doing a favour to the transgender community, by showing how transgender artists are as good as cisgender ones, and that he has no issue in hiring transgender actresses to play whatever role is required. This is actually a recognition of the existing talent in the transgender community.

I'm Famous in LuxembourgBut we need to be honest and critical about the issue. You need thousands of bad actors to have one emerging that is above average; and another thousand of average actors to get one that is superb and an Oscar-grade performer. It is no surprise that most of the best actors in the world come from countries like the US, where millions of actors search for jobs every day — a few of them eventually rising to stardom — while there are very few word-class actors from, say, Luxembourg (a tiny European country squeezed between Belgium, France, and Germany with a population of about 520,000). Even if  the transgender community is 0,1% of the overall population (a percentage that is highly questionable, since official numbers are much lower than that — but they do not reflect those that have not ‘come out’, of course, which might be many more), that would still mean that cisgender people would be a thousand times more numerous than transgender people — and the same ratio would obviously apply to talented actors as well. In short: it’s not likely that we’ll suddenly get an influx of millions of transgender actors and actresses, of which thousands would average or above average, to get a handful of transgender actors/actresses which might have a chance at winning an Oscar with their performances. The numbers simply work against the transgender population, and, unlike what so many transgender activists (or optimists!) claim, the likelihood of getting mainstream movies featuring transgender actors or actresses is very, very low.

Also, good actors will play any role. Typecasting is the bane of Hollywood: actors or actresses that spend their whole lives playing just one single type of role, because they cannot do better than that (Schwarzenegger being probably one of the best examples). Pushing for transgender roles to be only performed by transgender actors is admitting that they cannot do better than that. That’s quite unfair. Rebecca Root, for instance, has definitely no issue of not having been ‘typecast’ in Hooper’s movie, but, rather, show the director that she can play any role required of her — and not just typecasted roles of transgender women. That just shows how Rebecca is really doing an effort to rise above the average, and just get whatever role that is available for her, thanks to her skills in performing, and not because she is transgender. Remember, positive discrimination — just hiring a transgender artists because they are a minority — is a form of discrimination as well. Rather, good artists and performers should be hired based on their skill and talent.

We should never forget that Shakespeare did not have coloured actors playing Othello, nor women on stage playing the female characters in his plays. That didn’t mean that Shakespeare’s plays (and productions) were ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. He simply didn’t have such actors available (for social/moral reasons). Thankfully, from the 20th century onwards at least, we have plenty of excellent coloured actors and female actresses to perform Shakespeare’s plays (even though the movie from 1965 still features Laurence Olivier as Othello, who most certainly hadn’t any African ancestry, he just happened to perform well) — and that means that they can be hired to perform based on their skill, not because of their race, ethnicity, or gender.

Critics of the above argumentation tend to say that we ought to do positive discrimination on transgender actors/actresses now — while there are still comparatively few of them — or they will never get a chance (based on merely their skills and talents) to get a good role on a mainstream movie, but be ‘typecasted’ as transvestites or drag queens in comedies and TV series, or just get transgender roles on low-cost productions and/or documentaries. That might be true in general, but I would also claim that the entertainment industry is very unforgiving and anything but politically correct in that regard: they exist for making millions (or, more recently, billions) out of their insanely high production costs, and that means hiring the best performers that they can afford. It will be very hard to ‘force’ high-end productions to accept to give a transgender actor/actress an important role on a mainstream movie, if their performance is not up to the level required for that role. Rather, people like Rebecca Root point the way that is much more acceptable. Yes, she just plays a very minor role — but it’s a minor role in a mainstream movie that will be candidate to an Oscar or two, and that is a very important milestone in her career as an actress. On top of that, she got a role that wasn’t typecast, meaning that she has no qualms in accepting such roles and doing her best. I believe it will be highly likely that in the future she will get many more job offers where she will play roles of cisgender women — the main reason, of course, is that transgender characters are not that frequent in most movie/series.

To put it bluntly: no matter what arguments we might raise against Hooper’s choice, the simple fact is that there are no transgender actors or actresses able to win an Oscar with their performance. And that’s an undeniable fact. ‘Giving a transgender actress the chance’ would be simply losing the impact of the whole movie in terms of performance quality, and Hooper didn’t want that. And it’s not just a question of subjectivity — I’m sure that many people will easily claim that there are transgender actors and actresses that are ‘as good as any cisgender actor/actress’, based on their own subjective feelings about the issue. The fact is that Redmayne’s performance is outstanding, no matter how we look at it (and no matter where in the gender spectrum Redmayne is located — he has been very enigmatic, answering evasively to the BBC interviewer when he asked where Redmayne would place himself in the spectrum…).

To summarise: critics in the transgender community were expecting a documentary or at least an accurate historical description of Lili’s biography, which could be used as a promotional piece to advance the transgender cause. Hooper, by contrast, is merely presenting an object of art to be appreciated by the mainstream audience, which might have several problems in understanding the subject and empathising with Lili’s suffering, since it lies beyond their realm of experience. Hooper is more clever than that and produces a different type of movie. This has defrauded expectations from the transgender community, and they voice it out in frustration.

The real reason for transgender people to hate the movie…

But that’s not all. In fact, I’m pretty much convinced that the real reason for disliking the movie is not really the choice of actors for the leading role; nor even the plot, which does not focus exclusively on transgender issues and adds some artistic licensing regarding the accuracy of the historical Lili.

No, I believe that the big issue is the reaction of Gerda to Lili, in at least two or three points in the plot. For someone watching the movie who has never lived with a transgender person, Gerda’s reactions might not be unusual — the points she makes might not really be understandable outside the context.

You might have missed it if you watched the movie and not paid close attention to the subtle details of the dialogue. At one point, with Lili already spending most of her time at home dressed as a woman, they have a slight discussion (their discussions are never very strong — it reinforces the idea that they are truly a couple that has deep, strong bonds of love between them), and Gerda complains that ‘it’s not just about you’.

This is something which hurts any transgender person living in a relationship with a cisgender one, because — again, no matter how often we deny it, especially to ourselves — transgender people tend to be self-centered. That doesn’t automatically turn them into selfish, egoistic persons. But the truth is that the gender issues — especially when developing into gender dysphoria — push transgender people into deep introspection, and the sense that they somehow need to fight with all their strength to become the person they truly wish to be. That takes a lot of energy, and most of it is channeled back into themselves. As a consequence, yes, transgender people tend to feel that ‘it is all about them’ and might neglect the other person in the relationship. Achieving a balance — even with someone that deeply loves us, wants to share their lives with us, and is fully accepting of one’s transgenderity — is not easy. This unfortunately means that a lot of marriages and romantic relationships tend to break apart. The journey of a transgender person is almost always a solitary one.

In Gerda and Lili’s case — at least on the movie! — we are shown exactly what is happening. After a lot of initial scenes, setting the stage for their romantic relationship, there is no doubt that both share a very deep and intimate bond — one that Gerda makes a huge effort to keep alive. As time passes by, however, we can see how Lili takes advantage of Gerda’s love for her, becomes bolder and bolder, until she ultimately tells Gerda that she ‘has to continue to live her life’ — without Lili. Lili hesitates when saying that, and she attempts to establish a relationship with a male artist (which is supposed to be homosexual), and we see how that relationship will not work. We know how much Lili depends on Gerda. That love is absolutely true and not faked; Lili just puts into her mind that now that she is a woman, she shouldn’t ‘stick’ to Gerda but find someone else — which (in the movie) she is unable to achieve. Nobody can apparently replace Gerda, even after the Danish courts force them to annul their marriage (since same-sex marriages were not allowed in Denmark back in the 1920-1930s) — they still keep together for a while, even though they aren’t supposed to.

It is quite clear for the audience that Gerda looks way beyond the external surface of Lili, and is in love with the person within. But she also sees Lili adopting a new personality, one that is not consistent with the identity that Gerda has been living with. Again, Hooper is deliberately poking at open wounds in the transgender community. We have knowledge of several cases of detransition where the ex-transgender person admits to themselves that they were ‘all wrong’ about the female construction that they created, with a personality often much more superficial and vain, which does not truly correspond to what they truly are. In other words: some MtF transgender persons become an idealised, but quite stereotypical version of the female they imagine themselves to be. Sometimes this is taken to such an extreme that they cease to identify with their own creation. They need ‘more’ than that stereotypical ‘woman’ they have become. And in that case, many detransition. Others might live with the ‘pretense’ for a while, but finally give up and just revert back to their personality — which might not be ‘male’ (in the stereotypical sense of the word) but certainly not ‘stereotypical female’. Femaleness is hard to define, after all; but it certainly never requires one to adopt a stereotypical female image and personality to ‘be’ female. There is so much more than that.

Gerda confronts Lili with exactly this point, and the climax comes when Lili is at the verge of starting a career as a sales rep for a fancy perfume shop in Copenhagen — a job that she finds extremely adequate for her ‘new’ female persona. Gerda asks her why she doesn’t paint any longer (which was the base of her income) — she even suggests that it would be quite interesting to see what she would paint now that she has become female (this is one point of the plot which is historically accurate: Lili stopped painting after her transition), and might get interested buyers in a new ‘phase’ of her career as a painter. Lili replies that she doesn’t think that a woman ought to paint. At this Gerda becomes furious and says, ‘Some of us are both women and painters, you know?’ At which Lili can only look embarrassed at Gerda but doesn’t really reply back.

Again, this has very strong echoes in my own relationship: my wife is constantly reminding me that ‘being female’ is not just wearing fancy dresses and makeup, and go out with friends, only worrying about the next dress to buy for the upcoming party, and what colour one’s nails ought to be painted to match the rest of the outfit perfectly. Real women, my wife reminds me, have way more to worry about then that: they have to work every day, care about their children, keep the house clean, worry about the future, and so forth. These days, it’s hard (if not impossible in countries like mine) for women simply to stay at home and do nothing except worry about their dresses and how they look. We all know that. But on the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, I will have to admit that this is all I think about in my spare time, or before going to sleep, or when walking on the streets. So Gerda’s comments have truly pierced through the veil of my own obfuscations, and held a mirror in front of me: look, Sandra, you’re really not different from Lili — you just pretend to be different. But deep down there, you really think just like her.

One of the first things that Caitlyn Jenner told about her transition was something futile like ‘finally I can keep the polish on my nails for a fortnight’. She was crucified by the media and the transgender community for that; she apologised afterwards, and explained better the context in which she made that comment. But I can totally understand her. I spend two hours getting ready to go out, and one hour removing everything and packing all my stuff in the proper places. If I had transitioned and made all the surgeries, I would not need half of what I wear (Caitlyn and I, for instance, favoured Classic Curves’ Veronica garment to give us the appearance of female hips and buttocks — a piece of garment that is not that easy to put on and remove afterwards). And yes, I would not need to spend half an hour in a hurry getting my nails done, just to remove every tiny little bit of polish before going to bed. Futility? Yes, of course. But one of the many minor ‘advantages’ of transitioning, after a long period of regular crossdressing, is to simplify one’s routine — because you don’t need to ‘hide’ anything anymore.

Now, of course such a statement is outrageous — and I would say, not even inside the transgender community, but for society at large. Transgenderity, which is a serious medical condition, requiring a very special (and expensive) kind of treatment, is not to be ‘wasted’ with futilities. But the truth is that having access to those ‘futilities’ is also part of the many reasons for going through transition. It’s not even at the top of the list, but rather very deep at the bottom. But… it’s there. Deny it as much as you want, but it will still be there.

Just look at vlogs from successful MtF transitions on YouTube. The most popular come from people that are decidedly very intelligent. But all they do is talk about futile things relating to their new lives as women — which include clothing and makeup tips or how to do your hair. They rarely, if ever, talk about nuclear fission or 16th century literature — although many of those wonderful trans women have PhDs in those fields. One might argue that they wouldn’t have a big audience if they only talked about high-brow, intellectual topics after their transition. I’d say they wouldn’t. But of course there are exceptions.

The Danish Girl throws that issue back at us transgender people, and forces us to watch something we would rather expect — or hope — that the mainstream society remains ignorant about. In fact, Lili’s ‘delusions’ about what it means to be a woman is, unfortunately, very widespread. I like to give Vi Hart as a counter-example — someone who was born female, but does not identify with any gender in particular — who produces a lot of intellectual videos about music and mathematics. She is never short of an audience, in spite of the ‘high-brow’ (even though cutely doodled) videos she produces.

Many transgender people, however, still think that they won’t be accepted if they are not seen by the mainstream society as looking, behaving, even thinking as a stereotypical member of the gender they identify with. Obviously there are exceptions — a growing number of exceptions, thankfully — and some of those, like Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner (just to mention two names which immediately pop up in my mind; but there are many, many thousands more), are definitely setting the stage for other transgender people to ‘come out’ and not be afraid to express themselves according to their personality — their real personality — instead of assuming a new persona that they believe to be more in line with their ‘new’ gender. More precisely (to avoid the backlash!), they assume a new presentation according to the gender that they identify with, and so very often push the note as to stereotype their presentation — instead of simply being themselves.

Hooper noticed this trend very well, and the historical Lili most definitely thought that way, since we have details of her autobiography explaining how she ‘discarded’ everything that made her remember her ‘maleness’, and this was obviously not limited to clothes and accessories — but also her job and many of her personality traits. The movie is especially interesting in showing how Lili tries very hard to dump Gerda, believing that ‘a woman’ has to have a male partner, not a female one, or else Lili (as a woman) will not be accepted by society. Gerda, by contrast, has no such qualms. She has no issue about her gender. She fully supports Lili’s transition. But she is not really worried about how Lili looks like, or what society thinks about the way they behave. Her love for Lili is way deeper than external presentation. Gerda understands that thoroughly, while Lili is depicted as not being so understanding — although we also see that Lili is unable to form any romantic partnerships and until her death she still shares the bond of love with Gerda, the only one who fully accepted her as she is. Even though that part of the movie is apocryphal and totally departs from historical reality, Hooper’s point is well made: deep inside, Lili knows that there is an ‘inner self’ which is and will always be in love with Gerda, no matter how hard she works to ‘suppress’ that bond, and how much she tries to conform to society’s norms by picking male lovers and partners to ‘hide’ her true feelings about Gerda.

This point, of course, is also deeply annoying to many transgender people, especially those that broke apart their romantic relationships at some point because they felt that by expressing their new gender, they would need to keep apart from former lovers and partners, and engage a new life with new relationships that are more adequate to their new gender presentation. Again, this is not universal, but it’s also true that in not all cases partners leave when a transgender person ‘comes out’. Sometimes it’s the transgender person that pushes the former partner away. I believe this is much more common that we might think, but, of course, I only have anecdotal evidence to present for that — several of my acquaintances, for instance, are genetic women who have no problems with MtF crossdressers, and would gladly keep romantic relationships with them. And they clearly do not identify as lesbians, either (although we might wonder exactly where on the spectrum they might be, the truth is that establishing their orientation and gender identity is less important than understanding how they might be much more receptive and accepting than we might think). Other acquaintances and friends of mine, going through transition, fully prepared to abandon all their ties to family and friends, often find themselves surprised that there is more acceptance than they initially thought. This is not an attempt to contradict or deny the existence of transphobia, but just to state that there are some human beings that truly look beyond external presentation and are bonding with the ‘inner person’ (whatever that actually means). Even if those people are a statistical minority — which I’m fully prepared to accept, since I definitely have no data to sustain my argument — they are not ‘zero’, and are much more numerous than we would expect them to be. In other words: typical transgender stories that they are excluded by everybody in their circle of acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and family, are the main reason for suffering during transition, and such stories are most certainly true in a majority of cases. But we should not oversee the exceptions, because they are many: a lot of transgender people during transition do get encouragement, support, and often total acceptance, from their closest friends and family.

Hooper shows a lot of that, which might be an unusual piece of news for the mainstream viewer, used to see stories about transgender people who are universally rejected. The movie starts in establishing the very close bonds between Lili and Gerda. We know how Lili hates to go to ‘artist parties’, but she does it anyway, because she is aware that they are important to get new painting jobs — and she does it easily, because Gerda will be there to support her. In one of those parties, there is a group of close friends of both Gerda and Lili — all are currently single (divorced) except for Gerda and Lili — and they are bashing and demeaning ‘partners’, trading puns and comments about the freedom from an oppressive partner, making for very boring and uninteresting marriages, counter-balanced by Gerda and Lili supporting relationships with a strong bond and somehow . One particular scene shows this quite well: at one of those ‘artist parties’, one of their friends informs everybody that she’s going to do a ‘Artists Night’ at her place, only for singles — but that Gerda and Lili were invited, too, since they are such a nice couple that people tend to forget that they’re married (or words to the effect). So there is no doubt left in the audience’s mind that Gerda and Lili’s relationship is really strong as well as special.

The movie timeline is not quite obvious: it’s hard to say if months or years have elapsed between scenes (and this is deliberate, I’m sure). Gerda and Lili’s relationship, we are told at a later stage, has endured at least six years (but we don’t know if they were ‘just married’ when the movie starts). At the beginning, we see several sex scenes between both — it shows that they have a healthy sex life (although no children). These become rarer over time. When Lili is seeking medical advice for her condition, she admits to one of the doctors that their sex life has basically stalled. Once again, Hooper shows that he has good knowledge of what happens with many transgender people: their libido tends to drop over time, as they struggle with their gender identity. Although this is possibly not intended — the whole point of Hooper is actually showing how well the relationship still works, even without sex — it also debunks the mainstream’s idea that ‘transexuals’ are only changing sex because of their high libidos and desire to engage in adventurous new sexual experiences, what the society, in general, condemns (even more so in the 1920s, of course, but it still remains an issue in the 21st century — for the moralists and religious fanatics at least).

‘It’s not just about you, you know’, says Gerda at some point, when Lili is struggling with her life full-time as a woman. And, again, this drives a sharp spear through the transgender’s heart who had to deal with the exact issue with their partner during their transition. Of course there are exceptions (and fortunately a lot of them), and that’s not Hooper’s point (i.e. showing that such exceptions exist), but the truth of the issue is that a lot of transgendered people living in a relationship behave, indeed, that it’s ‘all about them’. I can say that even my psychologist encourages me to think a little bit that way — the reason being that I put all the wishes and desires of others first and foremost, and only when there is time left, I spend it as ‘me’ time — and I certainly believe that the whole world turns around my navel. I have this blog as proof 🙂 More seriously: struggling with one’s identity is time-consuming. One gets easily obsessed with it. And this shows. Even the most gentle and generous person — and Lili is definitely shown at the beginning that she is shy, gentle, generous, compassionate, very friendly, and so forth — gets easily ‘lost’ in this search for one’s identity. At some point it becomes the single most important thing in one’s life (and not pursuing it leads to anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts); when that happens, it’s very easy to forget all about the ‘others’ and focus inwardly on oneself, even to the point of destroying one’s own life (and the lives of those nearest to us). The movie shows this very, very well — and I’m sure this rings a bell for a lot of transgender people who lost their relationships exactly because of that inwards journey towards discovering one’s identity.

Lili, as said, stops painting during her transition, as she starts to live more and more time as a woman. This is actually historically accurate. In the movie, at some point, Lili is writing on her diary (something her doctor encouraged her to do — this is something that psychologists and psychiatrists still ask of their patients). Gerda, in a good mood, asks her why she doesn’t paint any more. Artistic inspiration often comes from very strong emotion — and Hooper shows this very well happening with Gerda — and Gerda is intrigued about what Lili (as opposed to Einar) would paint. She tells her that it would be very interesting to see what would come out of her paintings now that Lili is a woman and relates to the environment differently.

At this, Lili looks at Gerda and says that she will not paint any more. She says that she is a woman now, not a painter. At which Gerda replies angrily: ‘Some of us are both, you know’ to which Lili has no reply.

I believe that these two moments are at the core of the whole movie’s message, and are also those that made transgender people more furious — because, indeed, they are a very strong message about how transgender people so often think about themselves, and how they relate to those that are closest to them.

Let’s skip the exceptions. Exceptions, or so-called edge cases, are always a mess when talking about averages. I mean, we obviously cannot ignore the exceptions (or the whole transgender movement would make no sense: we are, after all, exceptions to the heteronormative cisgender society), but very often they complicate matters unnecessarily and fail to miss some of the points. So, while keeping in mind that there are exceptions (and that those exceptions include a lot of people, not just the odd case or two), it is fair to say that many transgender people feel uncomfortable with the way they are forced to ‘act’ a gender they do not identify with. As a consequence, when they finally transition, they feel much more at ease ‘acting’ the gender they identify with.

But it’s still acting. Let me give you a few examples. Turn to the most popular transgender channels on YouTube. They often feature beautiful trans women (most of which absolutely indistinguishable from any good-looking genetic woman) giving tips and advice about makeup, hairdos, clothing, or how to ‘pass’ in public. These are incredibly popular. Now pay close attention to those gorgeous trans women. They have perfect, educated diction. If you look up their bios, you’ll see that they are well-educated, sometimes even with PhDs, and rose to the top in their very successful careers. They are rich, or at least doing well enough, as you can see from their fancy apartments and the brands of clothing they wear. We’re not talking lower middle classes here.

So what you get most on YouTube (again, please, I know that there are exceptions; and no, I’m not ‘morally condemning’ anyone; in fact, I’m a subscriber of many of those channels and watch them eagerly like anyone else and love to interact with the channel owner and their subscribers) are trans people who completely left their past behind as ‘men’, and want to adopt a new identity, as some stereotyped woman, who does little more than worry about clothes and nail polish, and enjoy life fully going out to parties — or to the hairdresser. The contrast is most shocking when we see what these people have accomplished in their past, living under the ‘wrong’ gender. Now that they are women at last, like Lili, they wish to live a simple life, worrying only about ‘female’ things, and forget all about what they did before. Their lives seem empty of meaning, merely superficial, with no further goals beyond ‘enjoying being a woman’ (or, rather, the image they create of what a woman ought to do). Interestingly enough, for all the feminist-inspired talk about emancipation and equality among the genders, those trans women actually identify much more with a conservative image of a woman that has the sole goal of looking beautiful and feminine.

Now, before you start grabbing your pitchforks, let me just quench the fire of your indignation by saying that I have deliberately exaggerated my description above. Of course not all trans women are like that. Unfortunately, we know from statistics that a lot of trans woman, having no other choice to get an income, are sex workers — and they have sadly no other choice but to stick to that job in order to survive (not to mention to get some money for their surgeries and hormones). Those trans women do not have time to do cool YouTube videos about makeup. They are too busy trying to survive.

Another group of trans women do definitely not fit in the description, either. They have continued to work, now under the gender they identify with, and proceeded in their careers. They have definitely followed Gerda’s advice in the movie — that women can be both ‘painters and women’. So we have trans women working as university professors and as political advisors on the White House. Others simply continue to run their businesses. Some might feel that they would scare off many of their former customers, so they engage in online business — this happens a lot with artists or software programmers, for instance, who can take orders by email and never meet the clients face-to-face. And others have skills in many different areas and just pursue new careers in areas that they didn’t want to explore as men. All these examples are not isolated cases. Yes, they are a minority, but it’s a very large minority. To the best of my knowledge, this is also the most successful integrated group — those that will never regret transition and live their lives fully as they intended.

And finally there is a very intriguing group, somewhere squeezed in the middle of those. I was not quite aware of it, or rather, I have just read about its existence, but only recently I have been in touch with some of them. A good friend of mine has ended her transition and has now married and is living with her boyfriend. She has a higher education — and is, in fact, continuing her education. Recently we were talking about a common friend who is just beginning her transition. At some point in the discussion, I was telling her that our common friend was at risk of losing her current job (something which eventually happened), which would make her life much more miserable, especially now when she was just beginning. My friend asked me: ‘Why doesn’t she get a man?’ I was a bit surprised and shocked — my friend was actually suggesting that the best way to financially support the transition was to attach oneself to a male with a steady income! I blabbered that our common friend, due to childhood trauma, absolutely despises men (one of the many reasons she doesn’t want to be a man any more), so that was completely out of the question. ‘Oh, I see. That makes things much harder,’ said my friend, full of compassion. She comes from an environment where trans women simply get boyfriends to support them during and after transition. She has no illusions about the ability to get a job as a trans woman; the only choice of survival, therefore, is to get married and stick to a man who fully accepts her as she is. Apparently that’s what her own trans friends have done, and she has followed their advice, and done exactly that.

This group is by no means insignificant. Hooper also shows it on the movie: Lili desperately wants to push Gerda away from her life, telling her that each has to go their own way. She tries very hard to attach herself to a lover — which doesn’t work out. But clearly we get this idea that Lili, now a woman, wants to do what women stereotypically do: get a husband, create a family, raise some children, live subserviently (but happily) as a ‘typical wife’.

The contrast is even greater when we see that Gerda, by contrast, is fully independent (this was not unusual in the 1920s — although later on, the world became much more conservative again). She knows that she can survive financially by working hard at what she does best: painting. Interestingly enough, while she has every chance to get attached to Lili’s childhood friend, we can see that she never really makes that move. She doesn’t need it to be completely and fully a ‘woman’. In fact, she definitely does not identify ‘being a woman’ with ‘being married’. Even when she was happily married to Lili, their relationship had an equal standing — both were partners in the strictest sense of the word, none dominated over the other (we even see in the movie that Lili knows how to cook and at some point presents Gerda with a celebration dinner — so we can assume that even the stereotypical housekeeping roles have been shared by both during their marriage).

That’s another knife stab in the trans community’s already-bleeding heart. Hooper, while setting the story 90 years in the past, is showing a mirror of the trans ‘culture’ that still persists today. He is not politically correct. He shows the reality of the transgender community through subtle hints — but which are nevertheless there to see. And they hurt deep, because they are so true, and so to the point.

While many transgender people will certainly identify with Lili’s suffering and her long and painful struggle through transition, it’s hard for them not to identify with Lili’s own wishes at the end of that transition. Lili clearly separates her female from her male persona: in her words, ‘I have killed Einar’. She talks about her male past in the third person: it’s not something she wants to go back to. At several points we can see how hard it is for her to be ‘Einar’ again, even if for only a few moments, and for very important, and moving, scenes. ‘Einar’, interestingly enough, is by no means a ‘stereotypical male’ — rather the contrary, he is an individual with a lot of positive characteristics (and that’s the reason why Gerda in the movie has fallen in love with him). Instead of angry, aggressive, or dominant, Einar is gentle, caring, compassive, sweet and cute. He is not ‘feminine’ in the sense of having effeminate mannerisms, but he has definitely a gentle and kind soul. As Lili, however, she feels that all those were ‘male’ attributes, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Look at the irony that Hooper puts in the movie: he presents us with an adorable Einar with nothing but positive attributes, and shows us the ‘perfect’ marriage between Gerda and a man who has no problem in forfeiting all stereotypical male ‘defects’ by instead presenting himself as a kind, sweet person. But once Einar becomes Lili, Lili grabs at the stereotypical image of a female: a woman that only exists to build a family with a man, get children, nurture a family, and pretty much do nothing else beyond looking pretty and worrying about the next dress. Gerda, by contrast, is nothing like that ‘stereotypical female’ that exists in Lili’s mind; and, to a lesser degree, we can also see from their common female friends that none of them are ‘stereotypical’ in that regard. In fact, even though the story doesn’t focus on many characters, we have this impression that only Lili maintains that ‘stereotypical’ image of a woman. Even though Copenhagen in the 1920s is shown as ‘provincial’ (compared to Paris, which is also depicted — you can notice the difference mostly on the dressing styles), Gerda and Einar lived among the bohemian artistic community, with open minds, and much more accepting and tolerant about novelties — including novel ideas. Even in Copenhagen, women are much more ‘liberated’ and emancipated — while Lili, by contrast, wants to be a submissive housewife.

Again, this rubs against the grain of so many trans people — at both ends of the spectrum. Some groups among the trans community, as said, want to live their lives as stereotypical women. That’s exactly what they have wished all along. And somehow Hooper, in his movie, tends to depict that path choice as not being the best one, even condemning it to a degree — after all, while Einar was Einar, he had a loving wife in a splendid relationship, he was a moderately successful painter, and they lived a wonderful life. Once Einar becomes Lili and desires to live as a stereotypical woman, what happens? No matter how strongly Gerda supports Lili, and is perfectly willing to stick to her until the bitter end (thus keeping the vows they’ve exchanged — even though the Danish courts have annulled their marriage after Lili’s transition), Lili doesn’t want any of that. She wants Gerda out of her life. And the result is what? Death. That’s quite a powerful message — and one that the trans community is most definitely not happy with.

On the other side of the coin, there are uncountable trans women out there crying out loud that not all trans women are like Lili. Among that group are thousands, or millions, who do not identify with ‘stereotypical women’ at all, and just want to live their lives as normal women instead — women like Gerda, who are ‘painters and women’ simultaneously. In other words, these trans women are quite aware that the quality of femaleness they identify with is something interior — it most definitely isn’t about what clothes we wear, or what roles we ‘act’ in society, or what kind of jobs or activities we have. We’re in the 21st century, where women can be whatever they wish to be (in the Western world, I mean) — even though there is certainly discrimination! — and trans women identify with this kind of woman. Hooper, by contrast, is implying that trans women prefer to become conservative, submissive, ‘self-limiting’ women instead. This is most certainly not the case for a lot of trans women who were outraged with the movie’s implications.

So, as you can see, Hooper made a lot of people angry!

On one side of the coin, he depicts just one possible path for transgender women. It is obviously not clear for the audience if that is the only choice or not: there are no other transgender characters in the movie. The doctor that will give Lili her final surgeries talks about another case of someone similar to Lili, but who, at the last possible moment, got scared from the operation and ran away. So the transgender audience might feel that Hooper is not being honest enough towards the broad spectrum of different options available to the transgender community: by no means are Lili’s choices the only possible ones (not even in 1926!).

On the other side of the coin, he definitely shows a lot of things about a transgender’s personality that is quite common among almost all of them (of course, I know there are exceptions — those exceptions will have watched the movie and loved it) — their sense of obsession with the journey of exploration they engage, the way this obsession makes them self-centred (and, to a degree, even selfish), the way they cut everything with their past (instead of building upon it) — and how angry they get when their past is somehow alluded to, the way they often develop a ‘different’ persona which has nothing in common with their past persona (and one may wonder which of those personas is ‘real’ — are they just ‘roles’ or true, different aspects of the same self?). And, of course, the viewer, while initially sympathizing with Einar Wegener’s kind and loving character, slowly moves away from Lili Elbe and starts to view Lili’s transition from Gerda’s perspective — because Gerda is so much more mature, so much more apt to deal with difficulties, and, while she does all that, she never stops loving Einar/Lili, no matter what s/he looks like. Gerda (and not Lili!) is the one saying that she loves them both; while Lili claims that Gerda loved Einar, but Einar doesn’t exist any more. The movie shows us otherwise: acts are more important than words, and Gerda sticks with Lili until her bitter end (and beyond, since the movie closes with a scene with Gerda, after Lili’s death, and we know she still loves Einar/Lili — in reality, Gerda moved on to a failed marriage, but kept painting Lili until she died).

… and my own views

All in all, I have to add my subjective experience of the movie. It raised a mirror to myself — it pointed straight to my own flaws and taught me a lesson. That is, after all, one of the purpose of a good movie (or book, or any artistic endeavour): to make one think. In the case of The Danish Girl, I was pushed to see my own life, from the perspective of my own beloved wife. Like Gerda, she also has an artistic streak (she’s not a painter, though). They share similar personalities, although my wife is far more outspoken than Gerda. But she also loves me deeply (on a relationship that is built way beyond the mere sexual interest or the financial security — and we have no children, either), no matter what I look like. But, like Gerda, she also accuses me of being obsessed with my female self-image, and that I’m creating a ‘fake persona’ of a stereotyped woman that does little else than go out with friends and party.

She’s quite right in that. My only redeeming factor is that I don’t ‘put up’ a façade when I’m dressed as Sandra. As one of my many friends (who saw me both in male and female attire) said, ‘she’s exactly like that when dressed as a male — same gestures, same expressions, same way of speaking’. And that’s true: unlike Lili in the movie, I have no distinct ‘male’ or ‘female’ personalities. I have an affinity with a lot of female things (and my wife — a bit like Gerda — has an affinity with a lot of male things), but my ‘male’ presentation is not particularly effeminate. It’s not stereotypically male, either. People just assume I’m male because I look like one; but, like Einar in the movie, who does not behave like a stereotypical male when in male attire, I’m a bit like that. Well, a lot like that; just not that shy. As a female, however, I’m nowhere near Lili — I do not wish to throw all my past away and start from scratch, assuming a new ‘role’ and pretending to be a stereotypical female. My wife, however — just like Gerda! — warns me that this is exactly what I’m doing, even if I say otherwise. I brought this disturbing thought to my psychologist as well: I do not wish to sever with the past. The past has shaped my identity. No matter how ‘unreal’ that identity is — in the sense that it is not immutable, but can change — it is what I’ve got, after decades and decades. It makes no sense for me to discard it, as I discard male clothes when I present myself as Sandra. Sandra, or my male self, are not two different things (and the very few people who have read my different blogs can see that I think in precisely the same way and write exactly in the same way). Just because I favour my presentation as Sandra, and identify with Sandra much more than with my male self, that doesn’t mean that Sandra, as an identity, is something different from my usual self.

This can also be disturbing for many transgender people, especially those who feel that their true personality is constrained by the gender assigned at birth. And that is also true for many, many people. Lili, in the movie, speaks clearly of ‘Einar’ in the third person, after transition; but before transition, Einar would also speak of Lili in the third person as well. Clearly, the two are distinct personalities, different ‘selves’, and while they share the same physical body, only one can dominate — Lili clearly wants to ‘kill’ Einar and make him disappear forever.

In my case I experience things very, very differently. There is no ‘distinct personality’ — there is just me. No matter how I present myself, I’m still ‘me’. If I had been born a genetic woman, I would have exactly the same personality as I have today. Nobody would find it ‘odd’ — after all, my own wife has a much more ‘male’ personality than I have, and nobody questions her femaleness, or her personality (rather the contrary!). In a sense, I might say that I have an almost ‘genderless’ personality (which is not quite correct; I’m influenced by stereotypes), but I identify with the female gender and wish to present myself as female. The subtle difference here is the difference I make in personality versus identity. They are, for me, two separate things. Hooper shows that in the movie to the extreme — where the personality is ‘changed’ during Lili’s transition, while her identity is not.

This is, of course, a philosophical discussion. Ultimately, both the identity and the personality are nothing more and nothing less than mental constructs. Nevertheless, there are causes (biological, environmental, social, etc.) which push us towards a certain identity and personality. Such causes happened in the past, which we can’t change. But we can change the future, in the sense that we can create new causes which will influence the personality, and, through it, the presentation. Or, as in my case, the personality might not really change much (it changes every moment, of course, but there is a certain consistency between moments), even though the presentation might completely change.

The discussion is still open on what ‘transgender’ means, since it affects both the identity aspect as well as the presentation aspect. The many discussions about drag queens (and sometimes crossdressers too) being transgender or not tend to mix those two aspects together. Drag queens might have no issue with their gender, but they are nevertheless transgender regarding their presentation or expression — since they express themselves as a gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth. A lot of crossdressers are like that as well. Among transexuals, there is also a broad spectrum. Some question the whole purpose of ‘gender identity’, and simply wish to functionally change their bodies in order to present themselves as a different gender. Such questions are complex. My own psychologist has no issue in labeling me as ‘transexual’ (in the sense that I suffer from depression caused by gender dysphoria) although she knows very well by now that I’m not especially effeminate, and even though I claim to identify myself with the female gender, I would always be a non-stereotypical female from the perspective of the personality. That is not really relevant for those who experience gender dysphoria.

Hooper shows this rather well (by showing the opposite example). We get to feel, by the end of the movie, that if Lili weren’t so stubborn in assuming a stereotypical female role, she would continue to live very happily with Gerda, and lead a successful life — ‘both as a woman and a painter’, as Gerda puts it in the movie. We don’t see any motive in Lili’s choice of discarding her past and adopting a completely new personality, beyond her new gender role. Even for a transgender person like me, Lili’s choice is not absolutely obvious. Why exactly she feels motivated to drop everything when she had such a successful life remains a mystery to me. It seems that somehow Lili thinks that her ‘successful life’ (and that includes the romantic relationship with Gerda) are totally irrelevant, and that she would be much happier if she could just play the role of an immature, stereotypical woman. In the movie — but, to a degree, also in real life — this choice ultimately fails: Lili not only does not establish a new relationship with a male, but she finishes her life continuing to be supported by Gerda, who remains with her until the bitter end.

At one of the final scenes, before Lili’s last and fatal surgery, Gerda departs from the hospital room with kind words of encouragement and promises to be back the next day to be near her. Once she leaves, Lili cries. The scene is rather stretched for a few extra seconds, more than it would be necessary. We are given no explanation about why she is crying. The easiest explanation is that she cries from happiness — this will be the last night before she becomes ‘fully a woman’. But she doesn’t seem happy. My own interpretation is that she is crying for the compulsion that drives her to sever with her past, and there is still a deep bond between her and Gerda, who is the last person to leave her as ‘Einar’ and will be the first one with her as ‘Gerda’. Lili has made clear that after her surgery, she expects that Gerda disappears from her life. But by that time, she has already attempted to form new relationships and failed utterly; Gerda is the only one that remains, the only one that she has bonded with, the only one that truly and fully understands her and accepts her as a person, not merely as a stereotypical objectified image of a woman. And that’s why she cries: entering her new life as Lili, The Woman means losing the only person that supported her throughout the most hard and confusing period of her life.

But that, of course, is my interpretation; I might be completely wrong, after all. Hooper is clever enough not to explain the purpose and the message of his movie, and leaves the interpretation to the critics and the viewers. He must be smiling now at the discussion that his movie has generated. In all regards, a movie that has such an impact on so many different people, each of them being touched in a different way, must truly be a great masterpiece — and definitely worth viewing, even if you totally disagree with my own opinions.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, October 2015

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, October 2015