'Get real Hollywood and catch up with the wider world': A trans woman's view of The Danish Girl

Much as the disability community can find able-bodied actors "cripping up" an excruciating, offensive spectacle tantamount to blackface, we trans folk are likewise aggrieved when our complex struggles are reduced to mannered gesturing as shorthand for stereotypical gender behaviours.

At a time of rising visibility and acceptance of transgender people, the zeitgeist-tapping release of Tom Hooper's film The Danish Girl comes as both blessing and curse for people of the community the film and its makers purport to represent.

As a (non-binary) trans woman film critic and a member of the team behind tilde, Melbourne's trans and gender diverse film festival, I have heard responses from my peers that run the gamut of reactions.

Some have found it moving and consonant with lived experience, while others have felt affront and disdain that a film about a pioneering trans woman should have been directed by a cisgender male with a non-trans performer as the lead.

I believe Hooper and Oscar-nominated actor Eddie Redmayne were well-intentioned in adapting David Ebershoff's novel of the same name.

Both the book and film are fictionalised, sanitised accounts of a relationship between two notable queer Danish artists. The pair were put under great duress when one of them, Lili Elbe, nee Einar Wegener, sought to brave what was, in the early 1930s, crude and experimental gender confirmation surgery, as a culmination of a transition from male to female.

Indeed, a roll call of distinguished trans personages thanked in the closing credits testifies to a community-consultative approach taken by the filmmakers in aspiring to authentic representation of the film's factual subjects.


Nevertheless, much as the disability community can find able-bodied actors "cripping up" an excruciating, offensive spectacle tantamount to blackface, we trans folk are likewise aggrieved when our complex struggles are reduced to mannered gesturing as shorthand for stereotypical gender behaviours, especially when played equally to the Academy as to the gallery. Consider Jared Leto, granted an Oscar in 2014 for a very broad performance as a trans sex worker in Dallas Buyers Club. Similarly, when watching The Danish Girl, we are meant to marvel not only at Elbe learning and performing her newly embraced gender identity, but at Redmayne too.

Intersecting with the current #OscarsSoWhite outrage is Sean S. Baker's film Tangerine, a low budget dramedy of great trash-talking vim concerning an eventful Christmas Eve in Los Angeles for two trans sex workers. Its studio campaigned for Oscar nominations for the superb performances of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both trans actresses of colour. While it too was directed and co-written by a white cisgender man, Tangerine possesses an urgent, streetwise authenticity that The Danish Girl could never hope to approximate, but which the Academy clearly couldn't come at either.

For all its self-aggrandisement, nor has The Danish Girl anything of the vitality of the recent Swedish film Something Must Break, an artful, genderqueer, contemporary relationship drama from trans director Ester Martin Bergsmark, whose young lead, Saga Becker, in 2014 became the first trans person to win a Guldbagge Award – the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar.

A little devil's advocacy: The Danish Girl is set at the dawn of a new paradigm, when what might constitute an authentic trans identity is indefinable, unformed. And while Redmayne's coquettish performance of Elbe's burgeoning femininity strikes me as overwrought, I'm acutely aware from my own experiences transitioning that my initial unleashing of my femme self wasn't always subtle and nuanced either.

Many have taken issue with the film's presentation of its lead as possessing two discrete identities, rather than the one developing along a before-during-after transition continuum.

However, this is based on Elbe's experience as described in her diaries, and illustrates the perils in applying today's expectations of trans identification upon a depiction of a historical personality for whom there were no role models or literature, let alone the ready global knowledge exchange and community fostered by the internet.

American television stands far ahead of the United States' film industry. Orange is the New Black's Laverne Cox, a trans woman of colour, made the cover of Time in 2014 and has been nominated for an Emmy. That same show has recently added Australian Ruby Rose to its cast, who asserts a gender-fluid identity. And while Jeffrey Tambor is a cis actor playing a trans lead in the equally excellent Transparent, that series' producers have committed to what they've termed "transfirmative action" to populate the cast and crew, wherever possible, with trans-identifying personnel.

Trans folk are also visible in non-fiction American television, not least I Am Cait's Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman who – before her transition and while known as Bruce Jenner – won a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. (The International Olympic Committee has just released guidelines to allow trans athletes to compete according to their gender identity, rather than to the gender assigned them at birth, at this year's Rio Olympic Games.

The popular music world has long celebrated gender non-conformity, as the passing of that great icon of androgyny, David Bowie, reminds us. The massive success enjoyed by the avowedly non-binary Miley Cyrus emphasises that asserting a genderqueer identity is no passing fad, nor commercial suicide. Locally, the world's highest ranked trans military officer Cate McGregor is Queensland's Australian of the Year recipient.

Visibility and wide acceptance for the trans and gender diverse community is at an all-time high. Yet it seems for now that authentic portrayals of trans and gender diverse people's lives on film will remain the domain of low-budget filmmaking, ghettoised to the niche film festival circuit and narrow cinema release.

Unfortunately, Oscar glory for The Danish Girl, should it eventuate, will only encourage Hollywood to take longer still to get real and catch up with the wider world.