The Danish Girl, released today, is a film inspired by the relationship Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). It’s directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper. The focus of many of the descriptions of the film and of the discussion around it has been the fact that Lili was a trans pioneer being one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
This is true but the film focuses not only on Lili, but as I have said Gerda. It is the story of a couple going through the journey together. This film shows what the journey is like for the spouse or partner of the trans person as well as the person itself. This is important because in all the discussions of trans this year the story of partners, particularly those who stand by the person who is transitioning has been largely silent.
There has been discussion around whether the lead should have been played by a trans women. I think that Redmayne played the part well and sensitively and that it worked. His performance was excellent as was Gerda Wegener’s who captured the experience of partners excellently. My husband was particularly impressed by how well Redmayne was able to portray feelings of gender dysphoria.
The cinematography in this film, which at times looked like an advert for the Danish tourist office was excellent and there was a great deal of beauty in it.
Going back to the central relationship between Lili and Gerda there are several things which I want to highlight which were in the film which I have not previously seen accurately depicted in portrayals of the partners of trans people.
The first is the way in which the partner may be the first to challenge the partner about “is there something I should know?” and the awkwardness in that moment. The tension which results in that question, which may be asked jokingly is something hard to explain, yet it was well captured in this film.
The second aspect which the film accurately caught was the way in which the partner may initially be dealing, somewhat confusingly, with a variety of characters whilst the trans person is finding ways to express their true gender. The partner is trying to work out what is being expressed and how to react to the personalities, probably initially privately, whilst the trans person is seeking to navigate their partners feelings and their own presentation.
Then there is that point at which the trans person decides to ditch all reference to their previous self (i.e. the self which was being presented in the wrong gender). This causes feelings of bereavement and loss to the partner as well as giving rise to questioning their own identity. The former aspect was particularly well shown within one scene in this moving portrayal.
The film also caught so well the way in which the partner of the trans person can become a support to them in seeking to convince others of what the trans person has made them so sure. If you live with somebody who is taking the decision to transition and go through all that involves you know that this is not done on a whim or as an easy choice. They know they are at risk of losing you and of the angst which they are causing you as a partner as you seek to reconcile everything going on yet they have to do this.
Whilst the situation of trans people has improved over the last century there are still aspects of partners being excluded from the trans persons encounters with the psychiatrists who will determine whether they are to be determined as having gender dysphoria. The contrast between then and now and the parallels which still exist were a really interesting aspect for me as I watched the film.
As I watched I was also struck, as I so often am, by the society which existed during the first part of the twentieth century in so many parts of Europe. I continue to wonder how many of the freedoms we have today would not have been possible if that generation had not made courageous stands and decisions.
There have been criticisms made of Lili’s stereotypical femininity. However, I think this is very likely to have been accurate. The trans person who is seeking to pass yet has not gone through adolescent mistake making fall into strong gendered stereotypes.
As you can tell I highly recommend the film which is intelligent and I believe well portrayed. Whilst every story and experience (of partners as well as trans people) differs this is a realistic portrayal which I, as wife of a trans man, could believe and even in places identify with.