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The Danish Girl – The Beauty of Be(com)ing a Woman

The Danish girl is loosely inspired by Lili Elbe’s autobiography ‘Man into Woman’. While reinforcing gender stereotypes, the film does well in underlining that gender is a performance that is studied and acted.

Yvonne F. January 2016 - available to download as a PDF.

The Danish Girl is a biographical drama film loosely inspired by Lili Elbe’s autobiography Man into Woman, in which she writes about her sex reassignment surgery. The film was first shown during the International Venice film festival in 2015 and reached UK theatres in January 2016. The film stars Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne as Einar (Lili) and Alicia Vikander as his wife Gerda.

Einar Wegener is a successful artist in the 1920s in Copenhagen and lives together happily with his wife Gerda, who is also a painter. Once Gerda’s model is missing, she asks her husband to replace her. The moment when Einar first poses as a woman becomes the catalyst for a certainty, which to this point had been masked; when Einar touches the silk stockings he’s wearing, his smile seems to reveal that the experience is an expression of his true nature as a woman.

More as a joke, Gerda goes on to ask her husband to dress as a woman during an evening event, in which they pretend that he is a remote cousin called Lili. It is from then onwards that Einar dresses more and more often as a woman, both out on the street and to be a model for his wife’s paintings. It is through Gerda’s paintings of him dressed as Lili that Einar comes to acknowledge his identity as woman; and it is the same paintings that allow Gerda to find her own identity as a painter, making her a successful artist. When they move to Paris for an art exhibition, they meet Einar’s old friend Hans. He refers them to a German doctor who is willing to help Einar and do a sex reassignment surgery.

The Danish Girl is a film of femininity and beauty.The quaint little alleyways and bridges in Copenhagen and Paris form the basis of what is a picturesque setting. This is continued on the inside of Einar’s and Gerda’s flat, which is covered with fine costumes and dresses, as well as colourful paintings of models and landscapes. Einar’s new identity as a woman is depicted as inherently beautiful: she wears fine silk dresses and fitted coats, red lipstick and a voluminous red-haired wig. At one point Einar goes to a Paris brothel to see a peep show, where he mimics a woman’s sinuous movements and gestures from a distance, trying to learn how ‘femininity’ is performed. Even the transformation of a man into a woman seems to be a thing of beauty and grace. Such a depiction is somewhat problematic, as it greatly conceals the suffering involved in seeing various doctors who all diagnose Einar as insane or schizophrenic. It further glosses the physical and corporeal pain of undergoing a sex reassignment surgery. Einar keeps on suggesting that to be a ‘real woman’ he must be beautiful and act in a feminine way. This strongly reinforces existing gender stereotypes according to which any woman ought to look and behave in such ways. It also undermines the fact that not all men wishing to have a sex reassignment surgery feel the desire to act in what is considered a particularly ‘feminine’ way. 

At one point in the film, Einar’s old friend Hans says: “I have met few people in my life that I really liked – and you are two of them.” This certainly catchy phrase gets to the core of the story: Einar’s identity seems solely defined by his sex and gender. And indeed, sex and gender are mixed up here. After all, not everyone who wishes to have the opposite gender also wishes to have a sex reassignment surgery. In the film, Einar insists that to become ‘a real woman’ he must undergo surgery. In a dialogue with a stranger, he even expresses his wish to be a mother one day. This reflects his perception that to become a ‘proper woman’ he must be a mother one day. Such a view is of course highly problematic and leads him to agree to a dangerous womb implantation.

Furthermore, once Einar has ‘discovered’ his identity as a woman and undergoes surgery, he suddenly shows an interest in men. It is confusing, because it seems to suggest that with changing your gender and sex, you automatically change your sexual orientation too. This is obviously not the case as there are many people who keep their sexuality after a sex reassignment surgery. 

The strength of the film lies in its detailed documentation of Einar’s emotional and physical transformation into a woman. In this, his wife Gerda plays a major role. Einar can only become Lili because his wife loves and supports him unconditionally. When the doctor tells her warningly, ‘after the surgery, he will no longer be your husband’, this does not prevent her from helping him get through the operation and his subsequent recovery. It is very moving to see them work on this together, despite the fact that Gerda is evidently struggling just as much as Einar is. She is torn. On the one hand she does not want to lose her husband, the man who she has shared her bed and life with for seven years. On the other hand she loves Einar so wholeheartedly that she cannot but support him. 

Indeed, while Einar is looking forward to his new future as a woman, Gerda is experiencing the loss of her husband. This is most strikingly demonstrated after the first surgery when Einar cheerfully enjoys his new life as a woman, as Lili. Gerda is left alone to deal with the new situation. However, left by one man, not much time passes before Gerda is ‘saved’ by another man. Einar’s old friend Hans is right there to comfort her. Firstly, this makes you wonder: Does a woman always need to be saved by a man? And secondly, in real life, there is not always someone to catch you, someone to be there in this sort of situation. Not everyone understands. Finally, I wonder why Gerda is shown as being together with Hans in the end when according to the original autobiography, Gerda was lesbian. Did the Hollywood protocol require her to save the story with a happy ending of a heterosexual couple?

All in all, the film is worth watching if you can forgive its various shortcomings. After all the actors are very convincing in displaying the emotional upheaval experienced in Einar’s decision to become a woman. The selection of the setting and costumes does well in endorsing the theme of beauty and femininity. While reinforcing gender stereotypes, the theme of beauty and femininity does well in underlining the fact that gender is a performance that is studied and acted. The film succeeds in displaying that Einar’s wish to become a woman is not ‘made up’, but forms part of his identity, even though this is partly exaggerated to the extent that one thinks his identity as a woman has become the only identity he has. The film’s greatest strength lies in making aware of the dilemma experienced by Gerda in accepting her husband’s wish to live as a woman. After all, Einar’s decision does not only affect himself but his entire personal context. It requires a lot of courage, determination and strength, both on the side of Einar and Gerda, to go through with his transformation to become a woman.

The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies. ReproSoc is part of an expanding concentration of Reproductive Studies at Cambridge, is led by Professor Sarah Franklin and has funding from the Wellcome Trust, British Academy, ESRC, ERC, and Office of the Vice Chanccelloer, as well as several other funding bodies.

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