The Danish Girl is the story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), born Einar Wegener and one of the first persons to undergo gender reassignment surgery. At its centre is the relationship between Einar/Lili and wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), which gives the film a solid emotional core. Unfortunately, director Tom Hooper never takes advantage of that, instead focusing on the eroticization and objectification of the female body, both cis- and transgender.
The first act of the film is little better than soft core porn. I’ve never considered tulle to be particularly erotic, but in the hands of Hooper all clothes labeled “female” take on an implied indecency. The camera caresses fur coats and women’s stockings as they slide smoothly up a leg. There’s even a small nod to S&M as Gerda violently unlaces her knee high, leather boots.
Einer’s beginning realization of his identity as a woman is framed as akin to a sexual awakening. There are closeups of Wegener’s body as he examines it in the mirror, fragmenting and fetishizing it, coding it cinematically female. This takes away the agency of Lili and her choice to live as a woman, instead framing it as a naughty little secret. Redmayne’s performance doesn’t help here, with his highly feminized (read: submissive) demeanor and worse, his constant sharp intakes of breath like a woman from Elizabethan England who has just discovered she has sexual yearnings.
The Danish Girl even goes so far as to define women as the performance of femininity, but never takes the performance of femininity seriously, framing it as the inevitable conclusion of womanhood. It never considers how much of how we define woman is a construct. Instead, it seems to hint, under the guise of being supportive of the trans community, that Einar is simply performing Lili. This denies the personal truth of Einar identifying as a woman and makes a mockery of him and his choice undergo surgery to match the body to the gender.
This construct of woman is wrapped up in a warped idea of femininity. As Einer starts to embrace the identity of Lili, he looks to the stylized and constructed mannerisms of performing women around him, visiting a peep show to learn how to behave as a female. It never seems to occur to (Hooper or Redmayne) that as a transgender woman, Lili is not trying on a part or taking on a role. Rather, she is a woman. At the very least, the filmmakers could have presented Einar as having enough intelligence to copy the real women in his life, such as Gerda or her dancer friend Ulla.
It’s with Gerda that The Danish Girl gets something right. Alicia Vikander is spectacular and well deserving of the Oscar buzz surrounding her performance. Unlike Lili, Vikander’s Gerda is spontaneous and natural. She never falls into the trap of the stereotypical supportive wife. She is allowed to be strong willed and independent, placing her own career as a painter ahead of Einer/Lili’s needs on several occasions and demanding that for everything she gives her spouse in support and love, they reciprocate.
The strength of Gerda’s character and Vikander’s performance marginalize the role of Lili and place her in a distinctly supporting role. In a film already uncomfortable with nontraditional expressions of the feminine, this makes The Danish Girl even more problematic. Trans people are already so marginalized within society at large; it’s extra cruel to have them secondary in their own story. Gerda’s star presence also gives an underlying feeling that Einar is inherently selfish in being transgender.
Gerda provides a stark contrast to Lili, and as a result, makes the film’s treatment of Lili and its ideas of womanhood that much harder to swallow. Lili remarks that she “wants to be a woman, not a painter,” much to Gerda’s annoyance. Worse Lili also hopes for children in the future, “just like a real woman.” The desire to stop painting or the desire to have children are not in themselves problematic, but the way they are framed is. Both of these statements undermine the woman as a person and individual and place the identity of woman in the body and their biological function as birth mothers. They reinforce the film’s stance that the female body, especially when the body in question is one of a trans woman, is first and foremost an exotic foreign object that must be contained and conformed.
For a film that has been advertised as highlighting transgender issues, The Danish Girl simply manages to add to them. It is demeaning and objectifying to the very people it claims to support. It would have benefited greatly from a trans, or at least female, touch. Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener were amazing individuals and important historical figures. Their story deserves better than what The Danish Girl gives them.