Tonight is the Oscars. Criticised this year for its lack of racial diversity, it has however diversified in the category of gender and sexuality. It would have been impossible not to with “The Danish Girl” and “Carol” in the mix, lush period movies with half an eye on an award if ever there were. “The Danish Girl” is up for Best Actor in a Leading Role with Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander is up for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and it has a nod for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design.
Last month, like a lot of Planet Trans readers, I suspect, I went to the cinema to see “The Danish Girl”. Full of excitement about a movie depicting a trans life making it to our only (very mainstream) cinema, I was expecting a movie about the tragedy of Lili Elbe’s life that would be hard to watch. What I saw instead was an uninvolving history mash-up that did not move me or any of the people I went with.
The problem was the reverence that both Redmayne and director Tom Hooper placed on their subject, Lili Elbe, and the subject, “being transgender”. All their interviews talk about what a brave pioneer Lili Elbe was and the courage it takes to be as a trans person. Both have talked about the research they undertook with members of the trans community to understand gender and being transgender, and how important it was to be true to that experience in the film.
And that is how the movie played out as a study in being trans. All humanity or warmth was subsumed under a deadly weight of being seen to be respectful. Redmayne’s performance is so stilted and actorly that it got in the way of anything he said or any emotion he needed to convey. (What were the hands all about? Weird.)
Worse, it was a study that rewrote history for its own ends. Gerda Gottlieb (Lili’s wife), Alicia’s Vikander’s character, was not, in reality, the devoted, courageous woman who loved Einar/Lili to the end, no matter what. Gottlieb was a lesbian and the marriage was dissolved in 1930, a year before Lili’s death. At the time of her death, Lili was hoping to marry Claude Lejeune, a French art dealer. The film (and novel on which it is based) are much less interesting for this whitewashing of the relationship.
The narrative then became about Gerda’s sacrifice – how awful to discover your husband is trans; how brave to choose being true to your wedding vows over being married to a man – and Lili becomes nothing more than her transness – what a cruel trick of nature; what a hopeless choice between rudimentary surgery and living life as a lie. “The Danish Girl” reinforced all the old clichés (Lili didn’t say she had been “born in the wrong body” but she came very close on a number of occasions!) including the trans-as-victim trope.
What the filmmakers forgot was that trans people are first and foremost people and that being trans is not the most interesting thing about any of us. Tell most trans people that they are brave or courageous simply for being trans and they’ll give you a puzzled look or shrug off the complement. We are only brave or courageous if you perceive us a victims in some way – the trap that those involved in “The Danish Girl” fell into. Syrian refugees fleeing a conflict not of their own making, walking miles to reach safety and then living precariously in make-shift tents are brave and courageous, their lives are the result of tragedy. Being trans is not a tragedy in and of itself.
When I went to see “The Danish Girl” I took a look at the audience in the cinema with me. Not surprisingly on my small island, I was the only trans person there. Does that make me an expert on Lili Elbe’s story? No. But it does give me an insight into what being trans is like and it is nothing like what I saw on that screen. Unfortunately, the rest of the audience do not have the luxury of that insight. For many of them, “The Danish Girl” may be the closest to experiencing a transition that any of them ever come and that’s a problem because it wasn’t based in reality but on a group of non-trans people’s imaginings of what it must be like to be trans.
I hope that Redmayne does not pick up a second Oscar tonight for his portrayal of Lili Elbe and that Rooney Mara picks up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar over Alicia Vikander. I don’t wish either actor ill-will but the project they were cast in was flawed from start to finish. Hooper defended his casting of Redmayne as Lili by saying that the industry needed to change to give trans actors more opportunities. He employed several on the movie in bit parts. I agree, trans actors need more opportunities, but more than that trans writers and directors need to have their projects greenlighted and backed with big money and, when a script like “The Danish Girl” comes along, producers need to employ people who understand the material they are dealing with and who don’t have to study “Gender 101” before they start work on it.
If you are staying up to watch the Oscars on this side of the Atlantic, have a great evening and applaud the real Lili Elbe for being Danish, a recipient of pioneering surgery, a prize-winning artist exhibited at the Paris Salon, a friend, a lover, a human being, and incidentally a member of the trans community.
More trans notes from small island next month…