The Danish Girl & the trouble with “real” women

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This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine – journalism worth paying for. And here’s a link to Tom Hooper’s Front Row interview with me, revealing the extent of his research and discussion with transgender women in preparation for making The Danish Girl.

A New Year beckons and a chance to re-assess who we are and want to be. Watching The Danish Girl reminded me how much fun it is being a woman. Especially wearing bright red lipstick. But it was a rare moment of fun in watching the film. The real Lili Elbe a transgender woman artist – born Einar Wegener -– lived in liberated 1920s Paris. She kept a diary, published in 1933 after her death, but the film bizarrely chose not to offer any insight into her own point of view.

Instead we were invited to gaze in pity at her suffering: Putting on lipstick (badly), blushing and blinking, and apparently getting very sexually turned on by stockings and silk nighties; a phenomenon that seems only to occur in representations of “deviant” men or transgender women in mainstream film and tv drama. And, as critic Rani Baker has observed in The Harlot magazine, with Lili’s terrible death as a result of pioneering gender reassignment surgery, “her story arc ties so neatly into a tragic little bow.”

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Fascinatingly, The Danish Girl is only seen for “real” in wife Gerda Gottleib Wegener’s daring paintings: Drinking, starring back at you with aggressive, shameless eyes. A confident transwoman who was not a conventional beauty and therefore challenged the viewer. I wanted to see THAT woman’s point of view.

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair shoot

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair shoot

The row that has raged around some older feminists’ wariness of transgender politics is not that they hate transgender women, but that they see a dangerous revival of the worst sort of misogynist ideas of “true” womanhood. While Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence through surgery to feel she is truly herself is to be celebrated, it is also right to feel deeply wary of the Vanity Fair glamour girl way in which mainstream media chose to focus on her. “This is a REAL woman worthy of attention”, the magazine cover seemed to say: big hair, breast implants, body-hair all removed, stiletto heels and sexy outfits.

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It’s the patriarchy, innit? we sometimes joke. But what else to make of the aggression channelled at feminist thinkers like Germaine Greer who for decades have been exposing the ideal woman as a male-constructed fantasy? They fought for our right to be unadorned, not defined by fashion designers’ ideas of the ideal shape or the “fruitfulness” of our organs. “I think misogyny plays a really big part in this,” Greer told Newsnight. ‘”That a man who goes to these lengths will be a better woman than someone who was just born a woman.”

Apart from a few daring fictional attempts, like Colm Tobin’s The Testament of Mary, or Patrick McCabe and Neil Jordan’s foul mouthed Mary in The Butcher Boy, Mary, mother of Jesus, the ultimate woman, has been kept mute & enigmatic in art. As a role model she is obedient and accepting; defined entirely by her ability to bear the blessed “fruit” of her womb.

So it is I find myself travelling back like Scrooge to Christmas Past to see myself sitting crying on that church hall stage, aged 3 in nativity play rehearsal. I am drapped in my signature colour of Marian blue, clutching a plastic baby and weeping that I want to be the Angel Gabriel instead who gets to talk and “annunciate” and seems to have some real agency. (Ok I didn’t actually say “agency” aged 3). The kind teacher explains, “but you’re Mary. It’s the most important part.” And so when it ‘s finally curtain up, everyone else processes up the aisle to kneel, actually kneel before me and lay gifts at my feet. What a feeling. If you’re the lucky one. But there’s only ever one, isn’t there?

The Danish Girl builds towards its inevitable tragic end. Unlike her wife Gerda who was clearly a huge creative success – I’d have settled for a proper bio pic about her – Lili has become the cliché of the feminine mystique. Being a woman seems to take up all her time and energy. She gives up painting altogether and sits around looking wan and thin. It’s disturbing watching Eddie Redmayne embody the stereotype of the self-absorbed hyper-feminine woman.

If only The Danish Girl had presented Lili’s perspective it might have made her real. In contrast Mary, a figure whose historical reality is tied up within the problematic faith terrain of a “virgin” birth, seems more real than ever. An ordinary woman. Who had greatness thrust upon her and suffered so terribly. And who was never allowed to tell her own story. Perhaps the greatest battle of feminism remains the fight not against how we should look, but to get women’s uncensored voices heard no matter how loudly others want to shout them down.

Further listening

BBC Front Row interview with Tom Hooper on the sexual politics of The Danish Girl

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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