Well, that was even worse than I expected.
I had problems with The Danish Girl before I ever saw it. I have problems with a movie that wants to add “transgender” as some kind of notch in a cisgender male actor’s prestige belt on concept alone. The fact that it stars a man who just won an Oscar for portraying someone “overcoming” a visible disability (The Theory of Everything) and is directed by a man whose claim to fame is winning an Oscar for an underwhelming World War II period piece about a man “overcoming” a visible disability (The King’s Speech) was also a pretty serious red flag about how a transgender identity would be treated by this film. So, to an extent, I knew what I was getting in to. But then, I also really, really didn’t.
Try this one on for size. In this film, having a transgender identity is presented as though it’s some sort of multiple/dissociative personality disorder. Lili isn’t the name she chooses for herself to express her true identity, she’s presented as a completely different person with a completely different personality and set of interests, and events in her past are described as having happened to either Lili or [deadname], as though they’re not the same damn person.
I mean, come on.
Despite like two or three brief lines that pay lip service to a healthier understanding of transgender identities, Lili is consistently presented not as a woman, but as a man that a transgender identity is “happening” to. And during discussion of Lili’s potential gender confirmation surgery, there are multiple references to her being “a real woman” afterwards.
As expected, the film’s cinematic language presents being transgender the same way exploitative films present someone “overcoming adversity” due to physical or mental disabilities, which again I guess shouldn’t be a huge shock when you consider who made and starred in this film. As if all of this isn’t egregious enough, the film also unnecessarily injects eroticism into basically every detail of Lili’s discovery of her own identity.
If this film is remembered in 10 or 20 years when we hopefully have a more vibrant selection of mainstream films with transgender characters, it will probably be remembered for the scene where Lili rips off her clothes, stares at herself in the mirror, and tucks her penis between her legs. The scene is shot in an aggressively erotic way, and paced as though this is some sort of dramatic reveal. Even as I’m describing it now I can’t wrap my head around how wrongheaded it is, and I’m probably not even doing justice to how poorly-conceived and poorly-executed it really is. It’s like a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the entire film.
Honestly, if you were to make a guide to how not to make a movie about a transgender person, The Danish Girl would be a pretty good example of nearly everything you shouldn’t do. And if you’re going to make a movie about us, maybe make one where we actually get to do something, and not just… I don’t know, overcome the fact that we’re transgender, or whatever the fuck Hooper was going for here?