The Danish Girl (2015) – Ace Mini-Review + Thoughts on Gender

The Danish Girl
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander
Written by: Lucinda Coxon
Directed by: Tom Hooper
U.K./U.S.A./Germany/Denmark/Belgium, 2015

How good is this movie?

Well, it certainly looks pretty. Almost exploitatively pretty, with Lili, in various forms of dress and various stages of undress, hardly the least pretty thing about it. As a film about coming to understand oneself as a transsexual person, I’m not sure how successful it is. A reviewer with more understanding of trans experiences could say better than I whether its depiction is accurate or respectful. I will say that I found it rather insistently sentimental, more interested in pulling on the heart strings than on seriously exploring its heroine’s emotional or physical journey. That said, it does deserve some credit for its unusually compelling love story. There aren’t enough movies about married couples facing adversity together, and especially not enough where both partners are allowed to be round characters. Gerda is much more than another supportive wife, and it’s a nice change to see a film where the woman’s part is given as much importance as the man’s (Lili may be a woman, too, but the film gives her many of the marks and privileges of maleness). On the other hand, this could equally be seen as a problematic privileging of the non-trans perspective over the trans one. Gerda is presented as our audience surrogate, and it is she, rather than Lili, that we are primarily invited to identify with.

How ace is this movie?

Although Einar and Gerda enjoy a very active sex life, sex apparently disappears from the relationship as Einar transitions to Lili. I’m not really clear as to why. Because of Lili’s sense of body dysphoria? Because she comes to identify as straight/androsexual? There are hints that Lili might want to date men, but there’s no definite evidence that she’s sexually attracted to them either. Her relationships with Henrik and Hans never go beyond kissing, and after the dissolution of her marriage she seems to get her emotional support from various friendships. In fact, it really does seem like Lili might be asexual. She may not fit the standard media image of asexuality, but asexuality in transsexual people – even if it does result from body dysphoria, medical treatment, etc. – is no less valid than any other form. My real worry is that the film is not so much affirming asexuality as denying sexuality to trans people. I’m also puzzled by the disappearance of romance from the women’s relationship. Surely, even if Lili and Gerda cease to feel sexual attraction towards one another, they could still feel romantic attraction. Having them maintain the latter without the former would have sent an ace-positive message about the nature of romantic love independent of sexuality. Sadly, this does not happen, but the women do maintain a friendship and even continue to live together, indicating that they share a bond that transcends both sex and romance.

Any other thoughts?

Obviously, any film of this kind is going to have a heavy burden of representation, with different people criticising it for not telling the kind of story they want to see. I realise that’s unfair, but I also can’t help having my own perspective and preferences. For me, what was interesting about this movie was the way it played with normative gender roles and the potential it offered for a male character to experiment with and embrace traditionally feminine modes of dress, presentation, and even sexual behaviour. The parts I enjoyed most were not the comparatively gender-normative bookends – in which Gerda lives in a heterosexual marriage with her husband Einar or in a non-sexual, non-romantic relationship with her female friend Lili – but its more ambiguous middle part – in which Gerda negotiates a straight/lesbian/platonic romance with her husband/wife/lover What’s-In-A-Name-Anyway?

Of course, you can argue that I’m missing the point. This is not a film about a man who transgresses gender norms, but about a woman who affirms her own gender identity. But the thing is, there just aren’t a lot of movies out there about men who transgress gender norms. Most mainstream movies are still highly invested in normative standards of masculinity and in normative sex between assertive men and obliging women. It’s good for trans characters to receive more attention, but I also wish there was more room for non-trans characters to subvert the gender binary and mix masculine and feminine characteristics freely.

Really, I think I just want a completely different movie.

3 Stars; 4 Aces

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