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Regressive, Reductive and Harmful: A Trans Woman’s Take On Tom Hooper’s Embarrassing ‘Danish Girl’

Regressive, Reductive and Harmful: A Trans Woman's Take On Tom Hooper's Embarrassing 'Danish Girl'

People like to ask me why I hate Eddie Redmayne.

Earlier this year, Redmayne won an Academy Award for portraying Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s biopic “The Theory of Everything.” When you watch him, it’s easy to see why. His mannerisms, physical movements and speech patterns are all perfectly calibrated to give us the closest approximation to Hawking’s disabilities one could possibly ask for in a fictional portrayal. It’s impressive to watch… as an impression. Redmayne can twitch and mumble and spasm his way through “The Theory of Everything” with precision, but without all of those exaggerated physical ticks, what is left of the performance? Nothing.

You are always aware of his performativity, but he imbues his obviousness with so much exaggerated, visible effort, it’s no wonder Academy voters and audiences love him. Redmayne is an actor who wants you not to discover deeper insight into his characters, but rather for you to see every ounce of effort he puts into portraying them. In that sense, he’s both an engrossing performer and a brilliant conman; all the razzle-dazzle, with nothing to deliver—the feel of Stephen Hawking rather than the real thing.

In a way, he was perfect for Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” a heavily fictionalized account of the romance between 20th century painters Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe that’s being sold as a “revolutionary” depiction of a “transgender pioneer”. The timing of this film’s release could not have been more opportunistically lined up with not just the rise in transgender visibility in the media, but also my very own life.

For context: I had only recently discovered I was a trans woman since March of this year. In June, I started going out and presenting as a woman. I’ve still not come out to my family, who I’m currently living with, and before going outside as my true self, I drive to a secluded spot so I can change in my car, putting on a wig, make-up, and different clothes to align my presentation, drive off to where I need to be, hang out with friends, have a good time, then drive back to said spot and change back before I can return home and ensure my family that their totally cisgender heterosexual son has returned safe, unharmed, and uncorrupted. My life, as it is, is difficult. But it works. For now.

Then in September, the trailer for “The Danish Girl” debuted on the web, with Eddie Redmayne, my nemesis, already being touted by cis media for the bravery of his transformation. It’s discomforting as hell being so early in my own transition and seeing words like “bravery” and “heroism” used to describe Redmayne, even though he’ll be able to shed off the experience after his probable Oscar win, all the while having it be a matter-of-fact point of life for me and millions other trans women like me. But as much as I was dreading the inevitable thinkpieces by cisgender writers and the inevitable praise that Redmayne’s style of performance would garner from critics and Oscar-voters… I was so damn curious.

So I watched it with a cisgender friend, and we were both aghast that, even with our low expectations, it was worse than we could’ve predicted: a boring slog with director Tom Hooper’s typically ugly visual style and a laugh-out-loud embarrassing conclusion. It’s well-intentioned, but every movie’s well-intentioned in every directors’ heads.

That isn’t to say it’s entirely without merit. Alicia Vikander steals the entire film with her more nuanced, magnetic performance; and bad as Redmayne is, he and Vikander share a palpable romantic chemistry that makes scenes of Lili and Gerda’s acceptance of each other somewhat moving. And it’s admittedly hard to distance myself from this movie when I see some of my own experience portrayed in it: the secret walks outside, the stares of other men, the longing looks at the mirror, the debilitating dysphoria, all played out here like they’re part of a transgender playbook, ticking out the checkboxes. But when I see the form that that experience has taken in this film, and the lens with which Hooper uses to depict it, the emotional connection is lost, replaced only with discomfort.

“The Danish Girl”‘s struggle to portray Lili Elbe’s story magnifies not only the most glaring weaknesses of both Redmayne and Hooper, but also the cisnormative gaze of the transgender community. You get this in Redmayne’s performance, of course, only instead of approximating a single individual, he’s approximating femininity itself, ratcheting his exaggerated, nervous physical ticks to 11 when playing both Einar and Lili. As Einar, he’s doing a proto-Stephen Hawking, with shaking hands, sad eyes, a sickly complexion, and a breathy voice. As Lili, he performs womanhood by way of stereotype. Amy Nicholson describes it very well in her LA Weekly article: it’s “exaggerated, simpering body language, all head-ducking and languid caresses, which she learns studying a peep-show stripper—someone who is herself playacting a faux femininity for men.”

That peep-show scene actually happens, and it’s even more embarrassing to watch onscreen. Redmayne’s Einar examines a cisgender stripper’s exaggerated body motions and then mimics them perfectly, as if learning how to sensually caress the back of your hand against your cheek will teach him how to be a “real woman”. His femininity is reduced to caricature. If the comparison isn’t already clear, Redmayne is that peep-show stripper, only he’s bringing it full-circle by presenting, instead, a faux-transsexuality for cis people.

Redmayne’s work is one thing, but the way Hooper and his DP Danny Cohen shoot him adds a grosser layer to their portrayal of Lili. Like Redmayne, Hooper exaggerates and conflates feminine imagery to the point of parodizing them. His camera doesn’t linger, or observe, or examine—it leers.

When Gerda is putting make-up on Lili, Hooper splices in extreme close-ups of the lipstick rubbing against Redmayne’s lips. When Einar touches a dress for the first time, we get more extreme close-ups of the fabric rubbing against Redmayne’s skin accompanied by heavy breathing and operatic strings courtesy of Alexandre Desplat. In the soon-to-be-infamous tucking scene, Hooper closes us in on Redmayne’s naked body and slowly moves his camera down, treating the tucking of his penis like a gigantic reveal that he—and thus the audience—gawks at.

This hyperbolizing of femininity is never given to Alicia Vikander’s Gerda, or any of the other cisgender characters. It is only for Lili. Intentionally or otherwise, Hooper’s intrusive camera doesn’t invite empathy, but only further otherizes Lili. Compare this to the way Celine Sciamma shoots a scene of self-reflection in her 2011 film “Tomboy,” about a young, gender-questioning child named Mickäel who presents himself as a boy to his new friends. Sciamma allows us to examine him just as he’s examining his own body in the mirror, but she never once calls attention to tiny details that isolate Mickäel’s masculinity. Her patient, observant camera allows the audience to reflect on the body presented in the same way Mickäel is reflecting, and thus, empathy is created.

Hooper, on the other hand, will shove his camera right in the face of any feminine aspect of Lili. Especially her clothes. Another trans writer named Rani Baker wrote a terrific article about Lucinda Coxon’s script (from when it was leaked) and how the descriptions of fabrics, dresses, and stockings (so many stockings) border on fetishistic. The finished film is no different, the costumes and the way they congeal with Redmayne’s skin given the same kind of ogling Hooper gives to Redmayne’s tucked genitals. It’s no surprise that a cis male director would focus so intensely on a trans woman’s choice of fashion, as “sad man in drag” is just as easy a transgender stereotype as any mention of The Surgery.

Speaking of which, after Lili’s first surgery to remove the male genitalia, she finally feels comfortable enough with herself to live full-time as a woman and both her and the film’s true colors start to show. In “becoming a woman”, Lili gives up painting to become a department store salesgirl, where she teaches old ladies how the French put on perfume, becomes gal pals with her coworkers, and starts a close relationship with a depressingly wasted Ben Whishaw.

At this point, Lili’s finally happy as her true self, but we the audience are left wondering…what is that true self? Hooper and Redmayne have spent so much time and effort leching and leering at Lili’s femininity, we’re never given an insight on what else she really wants besides being a woman. What they give us instead are the stereotypical tropes of a housewife—simple retail job, gossiping with the girlfriends, desperately wants to have kids of her own—with nothing else to define her. Like the rest of the film, her ultimate form of femininity is a simplification, a caricature.

Vikander’s Gerda even questions her on this. Lili responds, “I want to be a woman, not a painter.” Gerda’s cheeky response: “Well, some people have been known to do both.”

From what we know of Lili’s life, she actually did give up painting, but not out of “wanting to be a woman instead”, but because she considered that to be so closely tied to Einar that she couldn’t do it anymore. This could’ve made for an interesting dialogue about identity and action, but is here reduced to Hooper, Redmayne and Coxon’s close-enough approximation of what they believe it means to be a woman. And wouldn’t you know it, they made it so the only person who has any “rational” sense of femininity is Gerda, the cisgender female. Because of course.

As these varying stereotypes of womanhood are given immense focus, it becomes all the more glaring what Hooper decides not to closely examine. The Male Gaze is presented in one scene for less than a minute, and then never brought up again. The owner of Lili’s department store mentions how the type of femininity they’re selling is “all about performance”, but the film never once engages with the idea of performative femininity—taking part in it entirely, instead. The difficulties of womanhood are glossed over, making room instead for the pity of Lili’s trans-ness, and her being unable to partake in the very simple, womanly pleasures as presented in the film.

For a film that’s being touted as a progressive step up for “transgender
visibility”, everything about its view of trans women and women in
general is regressive, reductive, and contributes to harmful
stereotypes: the cisnormative idea that a trans woman is simply a man
performing faux-femininity, as Redmayne twirls and vogues his way into
womanhood; the reductive portrait of a trans woman as a figure of pity
whose tragedy stems from being a man unable to “practice womanhood”,
rather than accepting her womanhood as natural fact; the arguments that
TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) love to perpetuate that
trans women only reinforce outdated gender stereotypes; the leering at a
trans woman’s body as something unnatural and abnormal instead of
inviting the audience to understand our dysphoria. What should’ve been a
celebration of a very complex, compelling transgender figure is instead
transmisogynist, and just plain-old misogynist in general.

We end with Lili’s capital-T Tragic death a mere few hours after her second surgery to receive ovaries, played like a “Tropic Thunder”-esque parody of Oscar-bait social-issues movies by having her slowly lose breath just as she’s staring at the sunrise, hand-in-hand with Gerda. Afterwards, we conclude with the hilarious denouement of Gerda and Hans (Lili’s childhood friend) visiting the location of one of her landscape paintings in her memory. One of Lili’s scarves is blown by the wind, and just as Hans is about to go after it, Gerda stops him: “No! Leave it… Let her fly.” The final shot is of the scarf being carried by the wind. Smash cut to me simultaneously cackling and barfing.

Funny as it was (to me, at least), it was the most fitting end to this film. Hooper and Redmayne define so much of Lili by their own shorthand feminine archetypes, that it was only appropriate to have her end this film not as a woman, but as a piece of frilly fabric being flung out to who-cares. That is clearly how they see her, and that is clearly how they define us. An artificial texture, careening through empty air.

Follow Carol Grant on Twitter.

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