I was scared going into The Danish Girl because, with it being about the first woman to medically transition from male to female, the subject matter hits quite close to home for me as a transwoman. I went out looking for other reviews by trans people on the film to try and get a read on what I was in for and how accurate it was in terms of the experience. However, after a cursory search I didn’t find much of anything. So! I went into the theatre and here we are.
I found the film to be more about Gerda Wegener than it was about the woman who went through transition, Lili Elvenes. I don’t know if that was intentional or if it was due to Alicia Vikander’s strong vocal performance as Gerda in contrast to Eddie Redmayne’s Lili who seemed to try to do most of her communication through variations on a smile. But I think the result is fine enough cause Gerda is accessible and a great vehicle for the audience to connect to Lili through in order to try and understand her struggle. To be a little blunt, even after going through transition myself I don’t think I could have connected with Lili as well had she been the focus, because transition seems to be very a personalized thing.
I found the symbolism in the film to be rather heavy handed and lacking in creativity. Gerda and Lili, while Lili was still living as Einar, were painters. They have a dog that finds its way into shots to symbolize fidelity, as dogs do in painted portraits. Then there was Einar dragging her hand along racks of women’s clothes which I’m not fond of cause it makes it look like Lili’s motivation to transition was due to superficial things like clothing. Then there’s a scene with Gerda painting a gentleman, and their dialog during the scene shows how men are uncomfortable being gazed upon, whereas women, we live with it.
The film has the expected montage of Lili learning to put on makeup, move in a feminine manner and dress fashionably as a female. I’m typically not a fan of these scenes, but they gave me flashbacks to me getting consults at the mall for makeup, watching YouTube tutorials on how to walk in heels and only recently have I learned how to dress down as a woman. So while I may not be a fan, I can’t deny the accuracy in that these events can happen. Back to the movie and, for all her effort emphasizing her femininity, Lili ends up finding herself involved with a man who eventually slips and calls her Einar.
After the man makes his verbal slip and Lili is running away, she catches her reflection and pauses before she starts running again and this, along with a prior moment where Lili asks Gerda if she’s pretty enough, I think captures the importance placed on “passing” in the trans community rather well. I’d go so far as to call this a moment of strength in the movie cause it does capture the consuming need trans people feel to go home to their correct gender as completely as possible so their body is at peace with their mind. As Lili goes on to do. Even today there are trans people who will go so far as to effectively set fire to their whole previous lives and who limit themselves in the interests they pursue in order to “pass”.
Throughout, Gerda and Einar treat Lili as a third person going so far as to have Einar inquire about Lili even though Einar knows the answers to the questions perfectly well as Lili is Einar. This dynamic sets up a scene where Gerda asks Lili for her husband, for Einar, back and Lili stands for herself and refuses. This the moment of reckoning that transition is going to happen. I remember where my partner and I were when we had ours so this is another moment accurately portrayed.
While still vilified, the medical community gets off light in this movie. From reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and Lili’s own Wikipedia page to living my own experience, I’d say it was around 2010 when the medical community started to just give us the help we needed, but only in some places. I gotta qualify that cause I know today in Britain trans people still have to live a year full time as their true gender before they can get something as basic as proper hormones.
From beginning to end Gerda is there for Lili. I was lucky enough to have had my partner who I’ve been together with before, during and after my transition and here’s where my and Lili’s path diverge. My life has gone on and has gotten immensely better and I’ve been able to enjoy it. But too often, for various reasons and by various means, there are also endings like Lili’s. So again, the movie is accurate to what can happen.
I think The Danish Girl is a good portrayal of the trans experience and it’s worth a watch, even if whitewashed and heavy handed with the symbolism at times. I wish Lili had had a happy ending and been able to live. That she didn’t, and there are so many sad stories in the news about transfolk, I just do need to say here to those who may be exploring now and stumbled onto this article: it is possible to go home, and it can be great.
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