A fictitious love story inspired by Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender surgery pioneer.
The Danish Girl provides a highly entertaining version of the lives of Gerda and Einar Wegener. However, it appears that the book Man into Woman (1933/2004) provides a more accurate assessment of the married couple. Differences between the movie version and book version are listed below:
The Danish Girl portrays sexual passion between Gerda and Einar/Lili. In reality, their relationship was almost purely platonic.
By 1931, Gerda and Lili had separated. The King of Denmark had annulled their wedding. Gerda married an Italian officer and Lili was in love with a young French painter.
It was after this that Lili went in for one more surgery to have a uterus put in her body, which failed. The first successful organ transplant didn’t happen until 1980. By that time, anti-rejection medicine had been discovered.
After Lili’s death, Gerda divorced her husband. She rented a small flat in Copenhagen. Her art was out of fashion. She drew Christmas cards that sold for one Danish Krone apiece to support herself. She started drinking and died alone in 1940.
Dr. Renee Richards, American ophthalmologist and former tennis player, gives the book, Man into Woman, credit for inspiring her transformation in 1974 (Herman, 1976).
Gerda’s art was rediscovered in the 1980s when some of her erotic drawings turned up in Copenhagen junk stores.
Gender differences are suddenly a front-burner concern for citizens of Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia—possibly frightened because of the Supreme Court decision last year that gave the right to marriage to same-sex couples (Liptak, 2015). Their particular concerns about gay, lesbian, and transgender people have led to passing laws that have drawn reactions nationwide.
In Mississippi, companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota, all major employers in the state, have raised objections to the law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant. The far-reaching legislation allows individuals and institutions like churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to gay people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender (Mele, 2016).
North Carolina Law Bars Transgender People
The North Carolina law “bars transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates” (Mele, 2016). Because of Gov. Deal’s veto of Georgia’s so-called “religious liberty bill,” we narrowly escaped state-sponsored bigotry ourselves. To me, this simply underscores the ignorance and strange attitudes that exist surrounding human biological characteristics and the relationships of these characteristics to a spectrum of other associated human attributes.
Thus when I refer to gender differences, I conceptualize a sub-set of all human differences. I envision these gender differences along a spectrum of characteristics that people have typically limited to simple notions of male and female. But, where do we draw the lines?
In truth, we are all naturally curious about other humans and how they look and behave. We have observed and/or heard about all manner of people in our lifetimes, from those who seem to look like us and adapt well to day-to-day activities and conflicts, to those who are different and whose behavior is dangerous, problematic, or puzzling. We have all formed opinions about others ourselves, based on our own experiences—coupled with public opinion. In fact, what we consider appropriate or inappropriate largely relates to public opinion.
Gender Differences Not Fully Understood
Over the years, discussion about gender differences, esp. those outside a heteronormative worldview, has gone underground because of censorship, which of course is related to public opinion. Now, gender differences have suddenly become a critical social issue, even though obviously genderqueers have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Do you think The Danish Girl (Hooper, 2015) contributed to the urgency of this perceived public problem?
First, considering the fact that all of humanity is not fully understood in societies gives rise to fear and distrust in many for how to think about “the other”—that particular person or group that is beyond their experience, e.g., queer or otherwise different. Sometimes these differences have led to marginalization because people think of them as disabled or dysfunctional or scary. Any number of physical, intellectual, emotional, and/or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments; however, these do not necessarily lead to disability unless society fails to take account of, and include, people regardless of their differences.
Defining a “Problem” of Gender Differences
Next, and consequently, human differences may be considered as a “problem.” Thus the person who has characteristics that are outside recognized norms is in danger of unjustified social limitations. Further, simply how a problem is defined or the particular tools available to manage it dictates its solution. (“If your only tool Is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”)
In our movie this month, Einar/Lili pursues a consultation with medical doctors for help with gender identification. This reveals that in his/her context, she and Gerda have defined this distressing condition as a potential medical problem.
The following are three ways that people typically define individual human systems dysfunction:
Mental disorders are usually defined by a group of attributes: how a person behaves, feels, perceives, and thinks.
Medical problem: physically disabled, a medical model of disability:
“the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual” (Medical Model of Disability,2008, p. 718). Once a condition is classified as medical, a medical model of disability tends to be used in place of a social model. Medicalization may also be termed ‘pathologization’ or (pejoratively) ‘disease mongering'(Medicalization. 2017, Oct 23).
Religious-belief or faith problem: sinful, acting against God’s laws
When a condition is classified as religious problem, it may further be classified as a physical, metaphysical, or moral evil.
By the way, regarding terms and definitions, I didn’t realize until recently the distinctions that the LGBT community makes regarding the destructive nature of certain terminology. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times restrict usage of the term ‘homosexual’—a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased, or psychologically and emotionally disordered.
The editors have also established rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle” (GLAAD, 2013). It would be good for all of us to become familiar with these distinctions so that we might not be guilty of promoting hurtful prejudice.
The Problem Represented in the Movie
Now, let’s look at how the gender identification problem is represented in The Danish Girl, particularly regarding Einar/Lili’s diagnoses. First, a medical doctor treats him with radiation, but it is not clear why. Then, a psychiatrist weighs in, at which time the diagnosis becomes schizophrenia, and in that scene, he barely escapes the men in white coats pursuing him with a straitjacket. If he had been shown to consult with a priest, would the treatment have been exorcism to cast out his demons or evil spirits? If a pastor, would the treatment be to shun him until or unless he repents and remains celibate (Ben, 2013; Denison, 2014)?
Lack of information and/or understanding can produce all kinds of responses thought to be helpful (or hurtful), but this movie depiction simply underscores a societal misunderstanding that still exists (Sasson, 2015).
Psychopathia Sexualis (Krafft-Ebing, 1886) is said to be the first scholarly attempt to shed light on human gender differences, and this book is available for reading thanks to the Guttenberg Project and the Internet Archive.
Krafft-Ebing proposed a theory of homosexuality as biologically anomalous and originating in the embryonic and fetal stages of gestation, which evolved into a ‘sexual inversion’ of the brain (Richard von Krafft-Ebing. 2017, Jun 22).
The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is a more recent contribution from an author who has lived through the experience herself (Bradford, 2007).
The focus of The Fallacy of Assignable Gender is gender identity conflict. … The condition is examined from the perspectives of medical science, religion, political theory, the arts, and others. Perhaps as compelling as the nature of the condition is society’s reaction to it.
The Bradford work appears to be a courageous book that is worthy of our reading.
Medicalization is the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment.
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.
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.
Cross-dressing is the act of wearing items of clothing and other accouterments commonly associated with the opposite sex within a particular society.
A person, animal, or plant having both male and female sex organs and/or other sexual characteristics.