In spite of the crusade by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his so-called “silent majority,” I still care about political correctness to the extent that it preserves the basic dignity of threatened groups. (Overreach is a separate conversation, however.) Words and language are powerful tools because they serves as outward reflections of inner ideas and beliefs. How society talks about a person as a part of the group with which they identify is important.
One such group that rightfully points out inadequacies in our vernacular is the transgender community. Many activists seek nothing less than the implosion of gender-based assumptions in the way we speak, a prospect as liberating for some people as it is uncomfortable for others. Every time it forces me to pause a little longer before speaking, I use that time to remind myself that these are above all people who just want the same respect to live their lives as any other person in society.
I try to stay on top of the latest developments in acceptable language – so this could be out of date – but the last I checked, it was a dubious practice to link anatomy to gender. (If this is no longer true, I welcome someone politely educating me.) Gender is a social construct, which may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex.
Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” arrives in the heightened era of trans visibility; 2015 alone brought cultural prominence to Caitlyn Jenner, “Tangerine” and “Transparent.” The film tells the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wagener, as she seeks a then-radical surgery to remove the male organ that ties her to the sex she was given at birth. For someone so ahead of her time, it strikes me as rather ironic that the movie telling her story seems so behind its own time. Its assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality feel only slightly progressed from the 1930s setting.
The film seems unlikely to change hearts and minds on granting dignity to transgender individuals, either. Lili’s journey of self-discovery begins as casual transvestism when wife Gerda Wagener (Alicia Vikander) needs Einar to fill in for an absent female model in a painting. It then spills over into the bedroom, where donning an article of Gerda’s clothing spices up their sex life for a little while. I picture many people stopping the film right here, having reaffirmed their preconceived notions of transgender people as confused people playing a game and putting on a false identity rather than discovering their true one.
Credit Eddie Redmayne for staying committed to his character’s confusion as the movie around him wavers in depicting such turmoil. We can always see the earnestness of the journey as he finds her unknown misery more and more with each scene in which Lili must front as a man. Vikander’s Gerda, perhaps the audience’s closest surrogate, has to work through her own web of feelings about Lili’s big revelation before ultimately coming to support and believe her. Yet, for each of them, the idea of her becoming a woman is always tied to the presence of a vagina.
Perhaps it is not entirely fair to hold 1926 to 2015 standards of discourse, but so little of “The Danish Girl” ties femininity and womanhood to anything other than genitalia. The emotional height of the film comes not from the time where Lili declares she has “killed” Einar, refusing to parade about as her old identity. Nor does it come from Lili fitting in at work and gossiping with the other ladies at work (which, by the way, strikes me as a rather reductive view of women).
It comes from the scene midway through the film in which Einar runs out on Gerda and storms into a ballet studio to stand in front of a mirror and tuck his penis between his legs, envisioning the woman he feels inside. Redmayne makes it emotionally resonant, sure. But those who care about the continued strides for equality for transgender individuals will probably feel it ring a little hollow, arriving about 10 years too late to reach the right people and advance our national dialogue. B /