What No One is Saying About The Danish Girl

As a bonus bit of reading for you, we’re republishing AJ McKenna‘s essay on forthcoming film The Danish Girl. The essay was originally published on her blog Wrestling Emily Dickinson, which is totally prime for a binge-read.

The web is filled with wonder at the news that Eddie Redmayne is to follow up his Oscar-winning turn playing a disabled man (in The Theory of Everything) by playing a trans woman in the forthcoming The Danish Girl. Many sources have got very hot under the collar at the thought of the pretty young fellow dragging up (which is what it is – Redmayne is a man playing a woman, after all). The Huffington Post went so far as to declare him ‘unrecognisable‘ in his make-up for the part.

Nope, that’s definitely Eddie Redmayne (image © Universal Pictures)

Like, we get it, HuffPo, seeing Eddie made up like that turns you on, and that’s okay – but do you have to sound like such a chaser about it?

Predictably, however, the main buzz about this has come from trans people pointing out that, you know, TRANS ACTORS DO EXIST, so why not CAST ONE? And of course the answering chorus of cis people saying surely it doesn’t matter who plays the part as long as they’re a good actor, and what about hormones and blah-blah yadda-yadda must we? We know how this argument goes.

And that’s why I’m not going to make it here. I’m less concerned with who they’ve cast in this story than whose story they’re telling. And that story is the story of Lili Elbe.

Lili Elbe painted like a total fox by Gerda Gottlieb

And why would Hollywood pick Lili Elbe, of all the historical trans people they could have chosen? Because of how she died. You can’t make a Hollywood movie about a trans person without there being a tragic, Oscar-baiting finish, after all. And forget Brandon Teena being beaten to death, The Danish Girl has an even better tragic trans ending. Poor Lili died of transplant rejection, after a uterine transplant.

Isn’t it just too perfect, people? She tried so hard to be a real girl but she died in the process, because her body rejected the womb. It isn’t hard to work out the subtext in telling that story, is it? That Lili could never be ‘real’. That all trans people can achieve is artificial, a fantasy brought to a crashing end on the harsh blocks of ‘biological reality’. Never mind that a cis woman would also have died after uterine transplant surgery given the technology they had back then; never mind that such technology was only properly developed recently: we all know what the takeaway from this movie is. They’re not telling it as the story of a woman. They’re telling it as the story of a man trying to be a woman, and ultimately failing. You can tell that because all of the publicity stuff refers to Lili by her dead name, Einar Wegener. You can tell it from the way Redmayne uses that dead name to refer to Lili even as he patronisingly says how ‘brave’ she was.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.58.17

What Eddie wants, Eddie gets

TV has featured trans women playing trans women in Orange is the New Black, Cucumber, the BBC’s forthcoming Boy Meets Girl and perhaps even, according to producers, Eastenders. But Hollywood seems to prefer to remain conservative: trans women in the movies are still men trying to be women, not women ourselves. We’re still Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne giving themselves a bad make-up job (gotta get that mirror shot in, natch) and dying tragic deaths offscreen like the cautionary tales that we are. But the sacrifice isn’t in vain because, by God, playing us can win these young men Oscars.

Well, fuck that. I’ll watch a Hollywood film about a trans woman when they cast a trans woman, and tell a story where she doesn’t die at the end. Because, HELLO, we are already dying out here, in numbers. The last thing I want to see at the cinema is a movie telling me I’ll have a tragic end when the news does that just fine already, thanks. Give me a story where the hero survives.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 12.07.07

Jared fucking Leto

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 15.29.12


AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.

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46 thoughts on “What No One is Saying About The Danish Girl

  1. One of my mates actually bumped into Eddie Redmayne at a Gender Intelligence event (a trans* charity in the UK), he has been meeting with trans individuals prepare himself for the role and to ensure he does it justice. Even Paris Lees (a trans* activist/journalist) in the UK has given her blessing to Eddie taking on the role and that is saying something when she is usually pissed off at cis people being cast for trans roles.

    Finally Lili Elbe was the first recorded trans person to undergo gender reassignment so I feel her story is quite an important one to be told. I think this article is simply looking for hate where there is none.

    • We’re excited to see trans stories being told too, but are interested in continuing the discussion about trans actors being cast in trans roles. Plus, Eddie Redmayne may be a fine actor by some people’s standards, but we can’t help feeling his choices are a little exploitative.

      • exploitative? Because of all the money he’s making? Really now, he’s not Chris Pratt, who follows up playing a superhero by battling dinosaurs. He’s looking for challenging roles and now people have a problem with that too.

  2. Casting a trans person wasn’t necessary here. The story is mostly set when Lily was pre-surgery and how she developed into realising she was a woman. If you’d cast a trans person, it could possibly make them suffer more from dysphoria.

      • That is the worst response I’ve ever seen. I don’t care if you are a trans person, you should know not all Trans people experience dysphoria. And whether or not a Trans person wants a trans role SHOULD BE UP TO THE TRANS PEOPLE TO DECIDE.

        Maybe you are new, but Cis people have been banking on Trans roles so that they can get oscars *cough*JaredLeto*cough*

        Trans people should play Trans people, not cis people who don’t even respect the people they are playing. I wanted to scream when I saw the cis woman who played a Trans woman crying so hard because of the fake penis they put on her and “how hard it was to put it on.” Nice that you can just take it off and don’t have to worry about everyone and their dog misgendering and deadnaming you.

        Eddie deadnamed her, anyone who deadnames a Trans person is NOT an ally to our community. You want to suck Cis people’s toes, that’s fine. But just please step out of the way of us trying to make actual progress rather than hoping someday Cis people think of us as human.

        DOWN WITH CIS!

    • Yes. True. I find there is an awful lot of rage and unrealistic expectations in the author’s take on the film. Isn’t it helpful that a film with an excellent actor is sharing a story of a trans person? This is a step towards acceptance by a much wider group of people.

  3. I think they are telling this as the story of a woman trapped in a man’s body.

    This is set in a time when transition is taboo and she had to discover and accept her true nature.
    She comes to realize she desires nothing less than to be a whole woman, in every way. A desire for which she is willing to risk her life, and for which she pays the ultimate price.

    Historically male actors playing women’s roles is a thespian tradition, and IMO it makes it more real when she is still physically male during this process. The comment about “seeing Eddie made up like that turns you on” is unnecessary… stop confounding gender identity with sexuality TYVM. 😛

  4. I actually thought this was a pretty excellent takedown of The Danish Girl, I really can’t countenance these comments arguing for TDG and against this review. I think despite what we’ve seen here, most trans women agree that this movie is bad for us.

    • Please do not attempt to speak for the majority of trans women. I think we, at least the outspoken ones, are just too damn sensitive and are beginning to sound like spoiled children. “We” think that, because of a few winners – OITNB and President Obama’s executive actions, everything should be “our” way from now on. Why is it, for instance, that “we” believe only trans women should play trans women in the cinema/on stage? Doesn’t it logically follow that only cis women should play cis women? I think not. We cannot force everyone to believe as we believe. If trans women, even non-conforming ones, can play women’s parts, because they are women; and if we are so set on destroying the gender binary, then anyone can play anyone. Regardless of their gender and/or presentation, right? Theatrical roles should be open to anyone based on their talents. Redmayne is very talented. And here’s a thought: what if Redmayne is really trans and just has not come out yet?

      • THANK YOU. I am trans, and I’ve been saying that from the beginning. Trans actors should play ROLES. Transwomen should play women, Transmen should play men, they should also play other things, because the point of acting, is not just to entertain the audience, or even to enlighten or educate them- it also includes allow the actor(hear it as gender neutral) to stretch, learn, grow and PLAY A ROLE.

      • Well said Dawn… the Danish Girl is meant to portray a woman trapped in a man’s body… and I think that having a talented male actor (someone with a male body I presume) is perfect… as a transwoman myself I am really looking forward to when they release this film here in New Zealand. :o)

      • Dawn, How are you outspoken? Or do you mean people who are not you? Thank you for dismissing serious concerns as sounding “like spoiled children” – I guess we can’t fight for anything better, including representation. Now that we’ve made progress, it’s time to give up, eh?

        And should I ignore the vast outpourings of criticism (by trans people) against this movie? And “if we are so set on destroying the gender binary” – when did anyone argue this was our goal. My goal is simply to live life as a woman, be accepted as such, and see representation that reflects who I am. You attribute a number of beliefs to me that I do not believe in, so if you are going to criticize me for speaking for more than myself, it would behoove you not to attempt to put words in my mouth or to speculate on what the rest of us believe.

      • I’m sorry but this is a trash comment – people have the right to present themselves however the fuck they want to. AJ had the guts to write a perfectly valid opinion piece on a subject matter close to her heart. You had ‘the guts’ to merely come on here and criticise her. You might not agree that the trans community deserve to tell and inhabit their own stories on screen, and that’s fine – you can enjoy as many Hollywood portrayals of the trans experience starring handsome young men as trans women as much as you like. If you want, you can even write your own piece about that for someone and celebrate that fact: you would not be speaking on behalf of ‘trans’ women by doing so, just as AJ isn’t by providing a counter argument to it. Thanks for your time.

      • They were portraying a woman trapped in a man’s body and having a male actor portray that is fine with me. I represent #TransWomenAgainstFeminism and SJWfullofBSvictimrhetoric … mmk?

      • Yes, I have the guts to use my real name… and I yes speak for #TransWomenAgainstFeminism and yes I do write my own stuff…and this film hasn’t been released yet in our country so I have not seen it, however it is meant to present a woman trapped in a man’s body and having a talented male actor portray this is fine with me, but talk to a bunch of faceless trolls with fake identities isn’t.

      • What do guts have to do with the validity of my opinion? You show an account that presumably links to you blog, yet that provides no more cachet to your opinion than me not linking to me… I am simply reporting what I have seen – a vast swath of trans women rejecting the casting of yet another man as a trans woman. If what I have seen doesn’t represent you, you are clearly capable of saying so.

        If you had anything legitimate to say, you’d say it, instead of attacking my pseudonymity.

        Your idea of “a woman trapped in a man’s body” is a gross and outdated way of explaining the experience of a trans woman. Maybe you identify with it, but regardless it’s only one interpretation of being a trans woman and does not necessitate casting a man to play a trans woman. Otherwise you could say that about every trans role and trans woman would (as so often is the case) be played by men. If you don’t want to change that, fine, that is your choice.

      • it may be “out dated” now… but this was set in a time when it was very avant guard… and yes many transwomen don’t realize who we are we are even now. As for my identity, it is the same here as it is on Facebbook asit is on Twitter as it is on Youtube and I don’t deploy armies of faceless sock accounts to troll the opposition because I stand for what i believe in as the person who I am.

      • As for you dear “outlawjosie” you could be literally anyone.. a frikken TERF, or #femitard cyber troll… you could even be the same stalker who has been harassing me since about 2006, and you could swap to yet another sock account in a femtosecond, so why should I even bother reading your comments, let alone lend them credence?

      • Angelica: please accept this with the dearest amount of sincerity it deserves – you’re entitled to your opinion. But people, trans or otherwise, have been utilising pseudonyms online since the Internet was created. We don’t accept casual racism or paranoid accusations of trolling on this site, nor do we accept aggressive direct responses as to the character of our writers. As an editor of this blog I recommend you call it a day, chill out, and waste no further time spouting verbatim which is intended to rile commenters. Be happy with who you are and please leave everyone else to continue to be happy with who they are too. Thanks kindly – the editors.

      • Don’t bring “armies of faceless sock accounts” into the discussion when there aren’t “armies of faceless sock accounts”, much less one. And outdated – one word. Trans woman – two words. Avant garde? Fine, let’s roll with that… why does this necessitate a man playing the role of a woman, regardless of who is trapped where? Why could a trans woman not play this part, since you argue that “many transwomen don’t realize who we are we are even now” – why not give the role to a trans woman who thought of herself as being trapped in a man’s body?

      • well for a start dear, AFAIK most of this film Danish Girl is a physical male who has had NO hormone therapy and NO surgery, whereas a transwoman today would not manifest in the same way. #TransWomenAgainstFeminism are not an elitist club. We have no gender prejudice and we are inclusive of cisgender male and female people as well as anyone who falls somewhere in between. Our aim is to erase the gender gap, not to widen it with sexist bigotry and prejudicial stereotype.

      • Ah, so the loads of trans women who haven’t had HRT in the present count for nothing? And “physical male”? OK.

        I don’t want to join your club regardless of how unelitist it is. Sorry, but I think that even with people like TERFs, feminism has still contributed a great deal of value. Including many trans women who are feminists and offer even better insight into things.

        Maybe you should judge my words on their own merits instead of simply assuming that someone who doesn’t choose to broadcast every bit of information about myself is a TERF or a stalker or something of that ilk? Has it occurred to you that my own concerns about TERFs and stalkers have led me to choose a pseudonym? And why should I lend you any credence regardless of how you choose to present yourself on the internet? I’m jusging you on what you’ve said. And I find it lacking.

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  6. Eric Schaeffer’s film “Boy Meets Girl” ended with the lead actress, Michelle Hendley, very much alive. Give it a watch!

    • I really liked that movie but didn’t mention it so as not to derail the important points being made.
      Nor to use the one example of something being done correctly as an excuse for someone else doing it wrong.

  7. Okay, so, I’m going to say something here that may be somewhat contentious. So let me preface it by saying I don’t necessarily disagree with the core of what AJ’s saying.
    For me (& yes, I was medically & socially identified as female from birth & that’s never caused me an issue in the physical perception of myself) I was interested & a little sad to see you buying in to gender definitions – i.e. Lili died trying to be a ‘real girl’ by having a uterus transplant.
    Yes, socially, the concept of gender is very strongly tied to physicality.
    But isn’t it that mis-perception that we need to change?
    There are people identified as female from birth who don’t have uteruses. Society doesn’t say they’re not ‘real’ women (some @-holes might, but that’s because they’re @-holes). So it shouldn’t be any different for anyone born without a uterus who feels that as a lack/loss of their self. I understand that currently it still is perceived differently, but that’s my point, it shouldn’t be.
    By saying that the uterus transplant was what would have made Lili a ‘real girl’, you’re buying in to the gender myth.
    I understand I have a certain privilege, never being at odds with how society as gender defined me (although how the perception of gender is used to define me as a person……ffs….). What I really want to see is everyone enjoying the same, blasé, attitude I have about what is or isn’t in my underwear, what reproductive organs I do or don’t have. & I think we start doing that by not buying in to the dichotomy, the whole gender myth.
    Yes, it’s ‘easy’ for me to say that a person is a person. I’ve never had to fight to be recognised as my gender. Or fear for my safety because someone else may disagree with what I say my gender is.
    But until everyone can do the same, I’ll keep challenging the way people choose to define gender. & genitals/reproductive organs are the least of it.
    The way I see it, Lili didn’t die trying to be a ‘real girl’. She died trying to address what she saw as a missing part of herself. Other women in the same situation don’t attempt a transplant. Perhaps they have access to support to deal with what they feel as a loss or lack that Lili was denied because of being incorrectly gendered by society. If so, that’s the tragedy. That people decide what’s ‘real’ based on how they, themselves, see the situation. They don’t make room for someone else’s truth. Let’s address that.
    Bruce Jenner didn’t ‘become a woman’ – Caitlyn Jenner was incorrectly identified by others as a man &, as a consequence, lived as Bruce Jenner until she was able to correct the error.
    Let’s look at the language we use.
    Let’s bring down the gender myth, not by buying in to the dichotomy, but by changing the way we speak until our words become perceptions & perceptions become acceptance.

    • Fairly consistently Einar and Lili are referred to as separate people in the press. If you go to Redmayne’s site, he has interviews in which you can see this.

  8. The simple truth is that the film would have not gotten financed without a “name” star. The director said as much and said that Hollywood needs to allow better access to trans actors.

    Of course, that’s a “chicken and the egg” problem: If you don’t put trans actresses in visible roles, they won’t be names.

  9. *
    Chelsea:

    I’m not quite so harsh when people use my male predecessor name. Point of fact, the family who abandoned me use my current / post- / legal name in derision. My dad was the only one who used my male predecessor name and he did so until he died because, as difficult as relationships were and for a lifetime he knew was eventually to be changed, he could still not get accustomed to my new identity and name and so I took no offence.

    Extrapolating from your post, only Caucasians can portray Whites, only Negroes can portray Blacks, only women can portray women, oh, you wrote that. Or worse, do you suggest we return to only men actors as in the days of Shakespeare?

    Vanessa Redgrave portrayed Renee’ Richards in ‘Second Serve’. Who objects to her performance? Last I heard, Richards has had quite a successfull life and she is still alive; no tragic ending there.

    I have not yet seen the movie. If I understand correctly, it is about a M-F transsexual. So at some point it seems fair for a male to act at least during the male portion and transition pre-op portion as would a M-F experience. I suppose it would get into acting if a male actor took such a role and actually went under that change all the way through post-op. Is that what you demand?

    Dawn: I like your closing statement. One never knows.

    BTW, medical science has come and gone and could be coming again with efforts to actually include more anatomy for transsexuals. I conducted research in medical school (1981 – 1985) demonstrating the feasibility using stem cells to re-activate vestigial Mullerian Duct system in M-F transsexuals to grow one’s own ‘upper third’. My science was wholly denounced and it was rejected for laboratory experimentation. Maybe 30 years is collecting more than enough dust if anyone is going to DO anything.

    *

    • “only Negroes” Pro-tip: we don’t call Black people that anymore.

      How does, “do you suggest we return to only men actors as in the days of Shakespeare?” logically follow from “only Caucasians can portray Whites, only Negroes can portray Blacks, only women can portray women, oh, you wrote that”? Seems like a total non sequitur to me.

  10. Tom Hooper has said he considered casting a trans woman to portray Lilly and after auditioning some he decided against it. It’s not a case of transphobia, it’s about deciding who will recreate her story as accurately as possible (which is not necessarily done, I will give you that). The movie itself will get people to discuss and reflect on the topic, the “tragic trans end” is what is showing us how horrific discrimination is and how there is still a long way to go, including the medical field. Making one trans person the main actor for a Hollywood movie isn’t going to change our way of thinking, making a movie about a trans person an shedding light on minorities is what is more likely to motivate acceptance. The most recent example of an attempt to boycott a major movie was Star Wars, because an initially white character is portrayed by John Boyega, a black man. I’m guessing that as a right’s activist you’d find that deplorable and that would be a case of double standardising. Your article, despite being interesting, doesn’t really help the trans cause, it’s segregating the community by implying that all trans issues should only be discussed by “real” trans people, because anyone else is not familiar enough with the topic.

    • While “making one trans person the main actor for a Hollywood movie isn’t going to change our way of thinking,” being mindful of the stories that get made into films is a way of altering perceptions in a major way. Unfortunately, ‘The Danish Girl’ appears to utilise the tired character arc of a trans person with a sad ending who dies trying to become themselves – it feels like a total missed opportunity, and pretty shit that this is considered ‘liberating’ or trans-positive in any way. Sure, the more trans stories we see on the big screen, the better. But the ones currently being made (i.e. Transparent) seem to use a trans person as a central role to get kudos, but don’t fully explore that central story line, instead telling the story of those surrounding or related to the trans person. This is cheap storytelling, and a ploy to create buzz.

    • At Clarissa, we certainly don’t find the casting of John Boyega ‘deplorable’ as you suggest. Actually, he’s an example of perfect casting, in a role which previously in Hollywood may well have gone to a cis white male actor. It’s exciting to see colorblind casting, which producers and showmakers have been pioneering for years (esp. Shonda Rhimes!) finally coming into play in movies. Plus, Boyega is fit as fuck. No-one needs any other reason to cast him than that.

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  12. These are talented actors playing roles depicting people who have died. No – not all trans people need to have tragic ends, these two did. Yes – there are trans actors, but did it cross your mind that maybe the trans people who auditioned weren’t as good?
    This isn’t meant for anyone to take offence to – but it’s a movie, there are more important trans or gender issues happening than movies.

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