Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, and Amber Heard

The Danish Girl: The Plight of Transgenders Today

The Danish Girl is an appropriate choice to continue Movies on My Mind’s LGBT theme, as transgenders are prominent in the news of late. This movie, directed by Tom Hooper and starring the accomplished actor Eddie Redmayne, was released in November 2015 and was subsequently nominated for four Oscars. Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Gerda Wegener in this film.

2015 a Banner Year for LGBT

Producers of The Danish Girl chose an auspicious time to release the movie, as 2015 was a banner year for the LGBT cause. In 2015, openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Academy Awards ceremony, gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, and Caitlyn Jenner made her grand debut with a Vanity Fair spread (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15).

The Danish Girl, set in 1920’s Copenhagen, focuses on a married couple, Gerda and Einar Wegener.  A synopsis is available on IMDb, as good as any, and as is typical in true stories, the movie is an entertaining version. Further, the movie’s success is reflective of our times’ progressive march towards full acceptance of the LGBT community.

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

The theme of cross-dressers has been in the movies throughout the history of motion pictures.  Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon endeared themselves in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. Dustin Hoffman impressed critics in 1982 with his performance in Tootsie. Robin Williams charmed in Mrs. Doubtfire in the mid-1990’s.  Among these movies of the past is one that shocked the audience: The Crying Game.  Yet, as we recoiled then recovered from the major twist, the movie was simply chalked off as ‘alternative.’

Moving the focus now to transgenders, The Danish Girl is significant because it forces us to watch a real person just like you and I, struggle with gender identity and delves deep into the transformation from a he to a she. It is not a comedy, nor is it a thriller, but a movie based on a true story.

Transgenders and Sex Change Surgery

The concept of sex change surgery is still awkward in mainstream society, but Caitlyn Jenner imposed it on American households in summer 2015.  My generation lauded the gold medal that Bruce Jenner brought home from the 1972 Olympic Decathlon Competition.  The next generation enjoyed eating Wheaties in front of Bruce Jenner’s picture on the cereal box at the breakfast table. Current generations associate her with the Kardashian Family and Reality TV.  When the time came for Bruce to become Caitlyn, it was a lot for Americans of all ages to digest. But digest it we did, and we listened.  We read the sincere article in Vanity Fair.  We opened our eyes to the harsh realities and complexities of gender. With this very recent introduction to transgenders, the timing of the release of The Danish Girl could not have been better.

Complexities Evident in Gender Identification

At the moment of conception, each of us is assigned a gender by God or by science, however you see and/or experience it. In any case, most assume that one is either male or female with no gray areas. Yet, gender is not always as simple as black and white. Much controversy was raised over the gender of African female athlete Caster Semenya, and whether or not she had an unfair advantage over other female athletes due to her abnormally high testosterone levels, the presence of internal testes and absence of female reproductive organs. She was found to be a hermaphrodite, considered by many a derogatory term. Those in book club circles will remember the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2013), in which the main character was a mixture of male and female traits. There is also Klinefelter Syndrome, where those afflicted have an extra X chromosome in addition to an X and a Y. The result is a tall and thin body type with no shape. Some historians speculate that George Washington had it. The idea that gender can be considered a spectrum is a slowly emerging one.

Caitlin Jenner’s Life Change

There is no doubt that Caitlyn Jenner was genuine when describing the feelings that propelled her to make such a drastic life change. She has reported (Bissinger, 2015, Jul 15),

The uncomfortableness of being me never leaves me all day long. I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.

The inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be desperate; otherwise, why would people go through the massive ordeal of a sex change operation? And it is not just the surgery. Caitlyn Jenner and other transgenders undergo the legal process of the sex change at the Social Security Administration, on their driver’s licenses, passports, credit cards, and any other official documents. Just the paperwork alone should give anyone tremendous pause on following through a gender-change. The Social Security office alone would do me in.

Recently, my daughter and I visited a friend in the hospital immediately following her knee replacement procedure. We saw her post-op, in the haze of anesthesia with tubes and wires in and out of her body. My daughter asked why my friend or anyone would subject herself to such a painful surgery as a knee replacement. I replied that the pain in the joints can get so severe that one is willing to take any measure to do something about it. I believe the same goes for transgenders who subject themselves to the sex-change surgery. The desperation and inner turmoil of a gender mis-assignment must be that painful.

There were scenes in The Danish Girl that showed where Gerda had prevailed upon her husband, Einar Wegener, to be a model for her paintings. His body type was typical of one afflicted with Klinefelter’s disease, although it is pure speculation that he had it. Einar’s posing as a female for Gerda’s paintings proved to be an eye-opening experience for both artist and model. Dressed in female clothes and adopting female mannerisms, the model experienced an awakening that led to his transformation as Lili.

Gerda’s Paintings and the Fashion Industry

A theory is floating around that Gerda’s paintings are the origin of the fashion industry’s ideal female body type. Artwork from this era is said to be the origin of Twiggy, Kate Moss, and all successful models with the androgynous body type whose images have tortured many women for decades. The ideal female of the Renaissance was forever banished from the artwork. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus would be considered a plus-sized model.

Despite the growing media attention to their plight, transgenders are rare, a minuscule part of the general population. Since no well-meaning human being should feel ostracized, may the world be more welcoming to those who suffer a genuine need to change their gender. May they feel free to come out and do something about it.

Glossary

Cross-dressers
Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing and other accouterments commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society.

Hermaphrodite
A person, animal, or plant having both male and female sex organs and/or other sexual characteristics.

REFERENCES

Bissinger, B. (2015, Jul 15). Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/caitlyn-jenner-bruce-cover-annie-leibovitz

Eugenides, J. (2013). Middlesex. London: Fourth Estate.

Hooper, T. (Director, Producer). (2015). The Danish Girl [Motion Picture]. USA: Focus Features.

Mary
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Mary Reed is a staff writer and director of social media at Movies on Chatham, where she contributes to the monthly magazine and book publishing projects. Along with a blog of her own, she regularly posts about our Second Thursday Films, always adding a fresh and enlightening perspective. A graduate of Emory University, she was previously a consultant at Accenture.