Essential Opinion: The Danish Girl

“Fuck this movie and fuck Eddie Redmayne,” appeared on my Facebook wall when I posted that I was at The Danish Girl on Christmas Day 2015; a film about Lili Elbe, one of the first identifiable recipients to receive gender confirmation surgery in 1930, based on the fictionalized novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.

Contemporary Hollywood belief aside, Lili is not the first person who is transgender to receive genital modifications to match their ‘authentic self.’  The Old Testament talks of the eunuchs that were castrated and penectomys have been practiced on the Hijra in India for centuries; several patients prior to Lili had traveled to Berlin for treatment at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, however, she is considered the first to have ovarian implants and vaginoplasty surgery, the last of the four surgeries that caused her death in 1931.

Once her orchiectomy [removal of the testicals] was completed by Dr. Hirschfeld, she was then classified as a woman and able to be checked in at Warnekros’ Women’s Clinic in Dresden, where she would have her final three surgeries.

Historically, Hirschfeld’s Institute was looted by the Nazis in 1933 and all the records were burned; Warnekros’ institute was bombed by Allied forces in 1945 and any remaining records, books and manuscripts concerning transgender services administered prior to WWII were now lost forever.  The only remaining source of information was the book “Man into Woman,” edited by Niels Hoyer based on eye-witness accounts and compiled from Lili’s own letters and manuscripts, but certainly not a first person account.  In-other-words, The Danish Girl is a fiction based film taken from the skeletal remains of whatever scraps of paper were left behind after the Great War.

The Danish Girl

Criticized by the transgender community for casting a cisgender actor for another transgender role, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see, “If you see The Danish Girl, then unfriend me now” posts littering my social media accounts, a barometer for how the Trans community was feeling about more cisgender actors playing transface.

In September, Elle magazine posted the first trailer to The Danish Girl and to be honest, it looked cinematically beautiful and put together in a way that was tasteful and respectful to a story about a person who is transgender.  At the time, I said in an article, “The trailer is warm, tender and above all tastefully done as it draws upon scenes and memories that most, if not all, of us trans women have experienced.”

Further investigation into the movie preparation revealed that the Director and Eddie Redmayne had reached out to the transgender community to make sure that the story was told as accurately and humanly as possible.  The movie itself, again, based on a fictionalized account, is an extremely condensed version of that period and if the viewer isn’t familiar with the story, can get lost in some of its overreach.

There is no explanation of Lili’s sudden bloody nose or migraines, it is assumed that she and her wife Gerda were forced to divorce when in fact both of them traveled to Copenhagen to have the king annul their marriage so Gerda could remarry and live a ‘normal’ life,’ and perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie was the montage which for some reason reminded me of montage song in Team America.

“Wondering when you got so pretty,” Gerda says gazing into Lili’s eyes, “I was always pretty, you just never noticed,” replied Lili, still presenting as a male honestly made me tear up.  The line was as beautiful as it was simple and something that many of us wish we had said sometime in our lives given the opportunity.  Lili is wearing Gerda’s slip when Gerda says, “beautiful shameless girl” and our collective minds are set to wonder what impossibly romantic night they had as the scene changes.

Many transgender realities were addressed in the film like passability when Lili asks, “Am I pretty enough?” The possible loss of one’s spouse when Lili is scared and in an embrace a Trans girl can only dream of says, “Don’t leave me,” and Gerda whispers, “No…never.”  Words we have all heard and clung to in our darkest dysphoric spousal moments while Lili says, “My life, My wife.”

“No…never,” but she does like most of our spouses do and like the movie, we are left to deal with the “Are you a boy or a girl” questions prior to our beatings alone, the trips to the mental health professionals to label us gay, confused, perverted or mentally unstable, or like myself in the early 90s, a trip to reparative therapy to cure me of my abhorrent behavioral thoughts.

As a person who is transgender, the movie can be a difficult one to watch, especially when some of the following lines can send one down the rabbit hole of memory and once you re-emerge, a few minutes of the film have passed and you’ve missed a few scenes.  Lines such as:

“I believe I’m a woman on the inside.”
“I want to be a woman, not a painter.”
“You helped bring Lili to life, but she was always there.”
“There was a moment where I was just…Lili.”

These are meaningful statements and although never truly spoken by Lili Elbe the person, Eddie Redmayne delivers them with such capacity that if only for a moment, a person who is transgender can suspend their belief for a brief two hour period simply because what is being said on the screen is not all that fantastical or unrealistic when it comes to what most of us trans women are thinking throughout our lives.

I won’t allow myself to be called an apologist for wanting to see this film and for truly enjoying it for what it is, a fictitious based period piece played by a cast of actors that were hired to do a specific job, act.  There is already talk about an Oscar nod for Redmayne and that will no doubt spark additional controversy when or if he wins; but is the Oscar talk coming from a perspective of the Trans-Pop fixation the media seems to be focused on or because of Redmayne’s portrayal of the character.

The dreams of girls are different from the dreams of boys and Lili says it best, “It doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s what I dream,” and Lili dreams, and I dream, and we all dream of a time when things are different from 1930. When the chasers stop chasing, the doctors are cooperative and society doesn’t ask us if we are a boy or a girl, but as of today, the film is relevant to what we go through today.

“You mustn’t worry about me anymore Gerda, there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore…I am entirely myself.”

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Claire-Renee Kohner

Claire-Renee Kohner

Trans Activist Journalist
Claire-Renee is a Minneapolis based transgender journalist, activist and mother of three. She is published on Bustle, TheNewYorkTimes, PlanetTransgender, TheAdvocate, Original Plumbing and syndicated across multiple media platforms. A former music industry veteran, she has attended more than 6,000 live concerts and often complains about that constant ringing in her ears. Needless to say, Claire is either listening to music or writing her next article…or both. – Those are advantages of working from home.
Claire-Renee Kohner


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