It was with some trepidation that I went to watch The Danish Girl. Prior to its release the film had already attracted accusations of transphobia for director Tom Hooper’s decision to cast the cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne in the title role of Lili Elbe, a trans woman.
Lili Elbe was one of a good number of people in interwar Europe who felt the sex they had been assigned at birth was incorrect. How, I wondered, would a film that had arguably opted to undermine Lili’s womanhood in its choice of actor, handle the complexity of sex and gender at this time?
The answer, perhaps predictably, is not very well.
The Danish Girl is based on the life of Lili Elbe, who was raised as a boy and found fame as the painter Einar Wegener. Lili, as Einar, married fellow painter Gerda Gottlieb. The two are depicted as a close modern couple, sexually attracted and wholly supportive of each other. But a yearning to dress in feminine clothes became a sense of innate womanhood and thus Lili was born. She sought medical help and after some encounters with uncomprehending doctors, she met a surgeon who was able to offer her gender-affirming surgeries. It was from complications arising from one of these surgeries that Lili died in 1931.
This, at least, is the version of Lili’s life put forward by the film.
Man into Woman
It’s a version drawn from a novel of the same title by David Ebershoff, published in 2000. But there’s another account of Lili’s life, based on her own writings and edited by a friend, which came out in 1931, just after her death. This book appeared in English translation in 1933 as Man into Woman: An Authentic Account of a Change of Sex. Lili Elbe’s relative fame is owed in no small part to the existence of this memoir.
In following the later novel rather than the memoir, The Danish Girl has brought awareness of Lili’s story to a much larger global audience but in a form that privileges Ebershoff’s reimagining over Lili’s words. The sense that Lili’s own narrative is being sidelined is heightened in the film by the focus on the wife, Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander. Gerda becomes the vehicle through which the audience is invited to view Lili – it is Gerda whose triumphs and tribulations we experience; it is she, the cisgender woman, who is seemingly the more relatable.
By portraying Lili as a tragic figure ahead of her time, as exceptional, the film obscures the rich history of gender variance in interwar Europe. Lili initially received treatment at Magnus Hirschfeld’s famous Institute for Sexual Science in Weimar Berlin. Here she would have encountered people and literature that paid testimony to the variety of sexual expression seen by Hirschfeld and his staff.
Lili was one of the first people to receive surgery to remove the testes and penis and create a vagina, but she was not alone in feeling at odds with the sex she had been designated at birth, nor was she by any means the only person in the 1930s to undergo “sex changing” surgery. In his introduction to the English-language edition of Man into Woman, the sexologist Norman Haire contextualises Lili’s story, informing the general reader about the wealth of scientific research that had led to better understanding and treatment for those like her.
One of the key elements of Lili’s own memoirs is that she was intersex – she relates how doctors found her to possess ovaries as well as testes. The film never so much as hints at her intersexuality. But Norman Haire was keen to highlight this detail in his 1933 introduction and tell his readers that “male” and “female” are rather inexact labels and that there are many people who fall outside of these categories.
He goes on to provide a series of anecdotes to illustrate his claim. These ideas would be familiar to the British general public as best-selling 1930s national and local papers regularly regaled readers with reports of “men-women”, of people who were deemed to be neither wholly male nor female, and of those whose sex was reclassified from female to male or vice versa.
Lili Elbe, as played by Eddie Redmayne, experiences a series of traumatic brushes with medical authorities – men who want to commit her to mental institutions and pathologise her. Such encounters were also a reality but they were not the whole story. This was a time when hormone research was throwing a light on intersexuality and when some people – not many, but some nonetheless – were able to secure medical treatment for themselves to affirm their own gender identities.
The Danish Girl will no doubt bring Lili Elbe to a much larger audience and foster awareness of the long history of transsexuality. But it does so without turning to the growing number of trans actresses who could have played the role, without acknowledging Lili’s intersexuality and without conveying a sense of the richness and awareness of sex variance in 1930s Europe. We see the surgeon’s knife pierce Lili’s skin, but the film’s portrayal of sex and gender is more akin to the dresses and stockings to which the camera keeps returning – it never really goes beyond the surface.