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Elbe Room
I wasn't going to write anything about The Danish Girl here, because it's all been well said in various other places, but since I had to give a little impromptu talk on it the other night after a film showing and was subsequently asked to write it up for a newsletter, I may as well put the summary here too. (I'm not going into the details of the plot, as the circumstances of the talk made this unnecessary.)



Watching a film with a transgender subject is always a slightly nerve-wracking experience for me, as for many trans people. Trans identities in cinema, on television and in fiction have frequently been fetishized, made alien, held up as objects of disgust or ridicule. Even when a more sympathetic approach is attempted, trans people are often made the objects of the curious and puzzled “cisgendered gaze”, their anomalous nature setting their stories on a seemingly inevitable tragic trajectory (much as was the case for gay people some forty years ago), and their existence serving primarily as a way to teach cisgender protagonists useful lessons about tolerance and themselves.

The Danish Girl avoids the worst of these traps. No one is shown vomiting at the discovery that Lilie Elbe is trans (a staple of trans stories from The Crying Game on); on the contrary, this is very much a film in the sympathetic tradition, and both its director and its male star have been vocal in their support of trans people. Nevertheless, it sports its fair share of bingo-card clichés. We see the familiar lingering shots of Lili applying make-up, fondling fabrics, or taking lessons in convincing female body language, all of which tend to suggest the superficial and artificial nature of trans identities in contrast to the “natural” performances of cisgender women. We have the inevitable penis shot (unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal…) and numerous scenes based around Lili’s attempt to fool others into thinking that she is Einar’s female cousin, a framing of trans people as deceptive that has fed a good deal of real-life violence over the years. And, of course, there is the tragic death – which, sad as it is, conveniently clears the stage for the resumption of heteronormative service.

Conversely, aspects of the historical Lili’s life that fit the familiar trans narrative less comfortably – such as the strong possibility that she was intersex – are omitted. So, for that matter, is her wife Gerda’s bisexuality; while the occasion of Lili’s death (in reality caused by complications after an attempt to transplant a uterus) is here recast as a failed vaginoplasty – thus iconically fixing on the impossibility of her becoming (in the film Lili’s words) “a real woman”.

Ultimately, Lili herself remains something of a cipher. The tropes that cluster around her are a distracting camouflage that frustrate any attempt to understand her as an individual, or indeed as a person beyond the fact of her trans-ness. Rather, viewer sympathy is channelled through the far more legible figure of her wife Gerda, who has to cope with the fact of her husband’s distress and, eventually, transition to a female identity. Lili is Gerda’s artistic muse and model, as well as the catalyst for her personal growth – but like many muses before her she is effectively mute.

This film was, I think, made with unimpeachable intentions all round – but it ends up stumbling into too-familiar narratives for ignorance of any alternative. The fact that the writer, director and stars are all cisgender, and that the film is based on a novel by a cisgender novelist, is not incidental to the kind of film that they have made. And while it is easy to find justifications for this casting (Eddie Redmayne is indisputably both a skilful and a bankable actor) it does almost inevitably limit what can be produced.
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I'll not bother, I think.

Just another one for the long, sorry collection.

You've already seen it. Many times.

Just so.

Over and over and over.......... :o(

The fact that the writer, director and stars are all cisgender, and that the film is based on a novel by a cisgender novelist, is not incidental to the kind of film that they have made.

My cousins and I were talking about the film (which we have not seen) a few nights ago. I hadn't known it was based on a novel, much less a novel written by a cis man; I had assumed it was the standard biopic, either researched from scratch or adapted from some best-selling biography. It's sounded from reviews as though the focus of the film is on Lili's discovery or acknowledgement of her gender identity, with the surgery a secondary concern, which sounded backward to all of us—if she was the first person to transition medically, then it's really interesting not only that she had access to the technology, but that she made the choice to try for it, while trans people throughout history have had coming-out stories. Is this an accurate perception, or just a bias on the part of the reviews we'd seen?

while the occasion of Lili’s death (in reality caused by complications after an attempt to transplant a uterus) is here recast as a failed vaginoplasty – thus iconically fixing on the impossibility of her becoming (in the film Lili’s words) “a real woman”.

That seems especially nasty. Transplant rejection can happen to anyone, especially in the days before immunosuppressants.

Why they chose a novel vaguely based on the facts of her life rather than the life itself a basis I've no idea, especially since Lili Elbe wrote her own memoirs, which was later published in edited form. Whatever the reason it doesn't sit well with me, especially considering this will be the first introduction most people have to her.

The idea of surgery is first mooted quite a long way into the film - somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the way through - and there's very little information given on the nature of the operation involved. Although the surgeon mentions that it's an untested procedure this is really only to underline the sense that Lili is taking a great risk rather than to highlight it as pioneering medicine. The surgeon himself is a very minor character.

To be fair, I can't remember whether the "real woman" phrase was made in reference to the surgery specifically, or in a more general context. Possibly they decided that a uterus was simply less "sexy" than a vagina? (The first successful womb transplant in humans didn't take place until 2010, so it's not surprising it failed in the early '30s.)

especially since Lili Elbe wrote her own memoirs, which was later published in edited form.

Okay, then there's really no excuse. (Do the unedited originals still exist?)

Whatever the reason it doesn't sit well with me, especially considering this will be the first introduction most people have to her.

Agreed.

At least there is still a very good movie to be made about her. It's just a shame that The Danish Girl isn't, despite all its Oscar nominations, it.

(Do the unedited originals still exist?)

I'm afraid I don't know that.

I'm afraid I don't know that.

That's fair. This was just the first I'd heard of Lili's own published words.

Fwiw, the book is in print.

Fwiw, the book is in print.

Thank you! I will start looking for a copy, although probably in print as I do not have a Kindle. Also, argh.

I saw the film and agree with your assessment--like Cinderella's stepsisters, the bits of Lili's life that didn't fit the narrative were chopped off. I thought there was a subtext of medical horror (including shock treatments), and the German surgeon was well on the way to fitting the mad scientist archetype.

This sums up why I don't want to see this movie. I feel I lack an intuitive understanding of transsexuality (not the hard facts of the topic, but the subjective considerations which are your main topic here), and the last thing I need is the powerful medium of film giving me a story that, though sympathetically intended, is full of hidden bias. I don't have the proper BS filter.

Cheryl Morgan just published an objection to a list of books about gender identity, but I notice that she didn't offer any suggestions for better books about gender identity. From things that you and cmcmck have said, I gather there may not be any.

I read quite a few YA (and younger) books on the subject last year in preparation for a conference paper. None was perfect (obviously) but I enjoyed some, notably Cris Beam, I Am J and Ami Polonsky, Gracefully Grayson. Adult fiction I know much less about. There are plenty of memoirs, some much better than others - but they tend to cover very similar territory in a rather similar way. I think my favourite (because it's a bit more oblique in part) is - excluding the title - Richard Beard's Becoming Drusilla, written about his friend and mine, Dru Marland. There's far less sense in it than usual that transness is the be-all and end-all of the person or that Dru is somehow paradigmatic of all trans people; and although the writer is cis he worked in close collaboration with Dru, and is very upfront about the disadvantages of that as a writing position.

As for films, I actually did enjoy Ma Vie en Rose, which I think does an excellent job of getting inside the head of a young trans girl, though it has to be said that as with many girls of that age (she's about 7) the pink dial is turned up to 11, which may not be to everyone's taste. The pay-off is a bit flip, too - but I'd rather have that than tragic.

Otherwise, the best single book on the subject that I've read is probably still Julia Serano's Whipping Girl: it's a series of polemical essays rather than a description of "What it's like to be trans", but I think it gives some great insights into that too along the way.

Edited at 2016-01-28 03:51 pm (UTC)

Redmayne. Thing is, he is not an actor. He is a pretty boy who pouts. "Birdsong"? You think he could be an infantry subaltern? Perhaps a pouty one.

I haven't seen that one. Does he pout as Hawking?

Than you for the overview!

I have downloaded this movie and I have yet to watch it. I'm not real sure I want to.

I am at the beginning of the medical portion of my journey and everything you read or watch always glosses over all of the pain and suffering that tg people go through their entire lives. You are miserable growing up in the wrong body (gender) and when you finally begin transition, society makes sure you stay miserable. I am not flamboyant and in your face. I'm not, nor ever was, a club kid in the gay bar scene (I did work in one for a while, as security, during a one of many overcompensating male portion of my life) and I hid my gender identity and sexual preferences most of my life. For me, my transition is closeted. My choice. I have decided that it's not anyone's business. Once I reach a point, I will 'come out' and begin dealing with the REAL negativity that humans (or at least Americans) have towards things they refuse to educate themselves about.

I hear you. I've been relatively sheltered,working in a pretty accepting academic environment in a country with some legal protections (albeit well short of equality), but it's still hard in all kinds of ways, and has involved rejection and estrangement from people I love.

Good luck with the next stage of your journey.

Thank you! You too.

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