Last week, a clip of Aretha Franklin singing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman went crazily viral. She sang this 1967 hit in honour of its author, Carole King, who was overwhelmed by the tribute. United States President Barack Obama, standing in the audience, wiped away a tear as the 78-year-old Motown diva launched into the familiar opening lines.
It was splendid, obviously, but 40 years on, those words may give us cause to pause. What is that feeling? What is "a natural woman"? What does it mean to say you have been born into the wrong body, that you appear to be a man but that you are, in fact, a natural woman?
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Director Tom Hooper narrates a scene from The Danish Girl featuring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
These are big, endlessly elastic questions that probably don't have definitive answers. Perhaps they never need answering, now that surgery and hormone treatment make it possible for people to be what they want to be – or, more correctly, what they feel they already are. They are convinced. The opportunity to change exists. They get on with it. Their situation has a recognised name, so there is no need to flounder for explanations.
There are transgender celebrities: this was the year of Caitlyn Jenner on reality television and Laverne Cox starring in Orange is the New Black. There is greater acceptance and there are fewer sneering games of spot the difference among the comfortably cisgendered (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) when they see someone in the street who doesn't quite pass. All this feels new.
It came as a surprise when the first stories came out about The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, to discover that sexual reassignment surgery was being attempted in the 1920s.
The film, based on a novel by David Ebershoff, is a fictionalised telling of the story of Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Wegener in Copenhagen in 1882, and was a highly regarded landscape painter during his early life as a man. Her diaries reveal that after living largely as a woman for more than 20 years, she was so frustrated and discouraged by doctors who refused to recognise her nameless condition that she was contemplating suicide. It was at this extreme moment that she was directed to the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, set up in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld, who wanted to develop the study of human sexuality as a serious discipline. It was Hirschfeld who came up with the word "trans-sexual" for those who wished to become, rather than simply appear to be, the opposite sex.
Not much is known about the surgical procedures conducted by Hirschfeld or later in Dresden, where Lili was treated by a doctor called Kurt Warnekros, because the Nazis destroyed the institute's clinical records. What is certain is that she died in 1931, 14 months after her first operation. Her body had rejected an attempted implant of a uterus and ovaries. She had fervently hoped this would allow her to become a biological mother.
The legalities of undergoing a sex change required her to divorce her wife, Gerda, who was also an artist and bohemian and who, as a fashionable painter of women in the art-deco style, had paid for her husband's operations. They remained close companions, however, living together in Paris as two women. The film shows her at Lili's side when she died.
Eddie Redmayne researched his role as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl for a year. Photo: Universal
Eddie Redmayne, who plays Lili, researched the role for a full year before filming began. "I was incredibly ignorant," he says. We are at the Venice Film Festival, where curiosity about whether last year's Oscar winner can cut it in a dress has made it the week's must-see. "The idea that sexuality and gender are two different things is something I had been ignorant enough to not really understand or really think on beforehand," he says. "Or to know about the across-the-board violence against transgender people, that in the United States in 32 states you can be fired for being transgender or that the suicide rate is 41 per cent. The simplest thing, finding a way to be your real self, is actually made incredibly difficult and complicated by society."
But what is that real self? How is it different from the self everyone can see already? In The Danish Girl, we see Lili watching women to see how they move and what they do with their hands when they are sitting still. We feel her confusion as she becomes the object of male appraisal when she walks into a room. The real Lili Elbe recorded these moments in her diaries, but there is a curious parallel with acting: she is learning how to look like a woman.
"I know. It is a very interesting question," Redmayne says. "One of the trans women who became a good friend of ours in prepping this film described it as hyper-feminisation. When you're beginning to investigate using make-up, perhaps you use too much. Perhaps you exaggerate your walk too much or wear clothes that are too, I don't know, sexual. She described it as being like a teenage girl's adolescence, that time of discovery."
Hooper says he kept reminding Redmayne that he was not imitating a woman, but revealing the woman who lay beneath. At the same time, Lili had to recognise the latent femininity, whatever that is, already within her.
Transition, Redmayne points out, even when it is the comparatively superficial transformation of an actor, does not happen overnight. Becoming Lili was a gradual accretion of mannerisms and emotions. "There was no one moment when I was done up and there she was. It was very much piece by little piece."
There did, however, come a moment of presentation: that was unnerving."The first day I walked onto the set as Lili, I had never felt such scrutiny. That was by a mostly male crew, and you don't know whether you are judged for whether you are passing or whether you look ridiculous, but there is that idea of being judged."
Of course, he was not experiencing the same fears. "I was in an incredibly safe environment, so it was nothing compared with what they must feel, given the danger of assault," he says.
The ambivalence of his feelings, however, did ring true. "I read a book by Jan Morris (renowned British travel writer, formerly James) called Conundrum, where she describes, as a man, having been used to being given a wine list, and suddenly that didn't happen any more. And there was a very confused reaction to that: on the one hand elation, and on the other hand, `What is this patriarchy we live in?' That's intriguing."
Director Tom Hooper with Alicia Vikander on the set of The Danish Girl.
Alicia Vikander, whose role as Lili's wife, Gerda, is as prominent and arguably as dramatic as a story of change and acceptance, found a book she says "was like a little Bible": My Husband's a Woman Now by Leslie Fabian. "I called her and said, `My name is Alicia and I'm an actress ...'," she laughs.
"Her book is extremely honest. The thing is that, above all, you will support this person with unconditional love, but that doesn't mean it's not a bumpy road ... She is still with her spouse, who transitioned fully four years ago now. There have been hard times, she said, when she felt so lonely because people don't realise that the partner is transitioning too. That was a key thing for me to hold on to."
The Wegeners' story was first told in a book, Man into Woman, which drew heavily on Lili's diaries, notes and letters, and was published in 1933. It seems astonishing now that no one has tried to film it before, but even seven years ago, when Hooper first read the script and started talking about filming it, "there were definitely people around me who were negative about me doing the project," he says. "The fact that this year people seem to think it's an obvious film to have done marks an extraordinary cultural journey. The next step, I would imagine, is that it's not newsworthy in itself, and one would talk about this film as a love story that happens to have a trans character, but that is probably a while away."
It is also a subject fraught with political and personal sensitivities that have erupted in response to the first reviews of A Danish Girl. Many declared transgender readers of The Guardian welcomed a film that was "beautiful" and "accessible" as a path to understanding, but others lambasted everything from the use of gendered pronouns in the reviews to the failure to cast a transgender actor in the role of Lili. There was also fury that the film was presumed to be perpetrating unwanted stereotypes.
"Let's see ... transgender woman presented as cross-dressing man? Check. Turned on by women's clothes? Check. Pressured into presenting as a woman by pushy, oversexed partner? Check. Female persona presented as entirely separate identity? Check."
Chief among the cliches, apparently, was the scene in which Gerda asks her husband to fill in for an absent model by posing in a dress and stockings, thus creating strange stirrings in him as he smooths out the silk skirt, except that this scene was recounted by Lili herself. "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women's clothing," she wrote in her diary. "I felt very much at home in them from the first moment."
As for the despised suggestion that the transgender person is switching identities, it was Lili who described feeling like two people in the same body fighting for supremacy. Those people were, as she saw it, quite different. Einar Wegener was solid, dependable, cerebral and authoritative. He was also a competent, hard-working painter. Lili Elbe was, according to her own notes, a "thoughtless, flighty, very superficially minded woman" who cried easily, barely spoke in front of men and could not paint at all.
Einar felt he was being conquered by Lili. "I am finished," she wrote in 1930. "Lili has known this for a long time ... And consequently she rebels more vigorously every day."
She had no frame of reference, of course, no internet to consult, no transgender "community" to share, interpret or reshape her experience. Her idea of "a natural woman" was one who could bear children. Like all of us, she was a product of her times.
Gerda was as revolutionary a figure as her husband, Hooper says. "People are talking about gender fluidity in relationship to Lili, but Gerda was pushing the boundaries of how her gender is defined. She was a working artist and, in a male-dominated world, she was very fiery and, in a way, a feminist." Photographs show a broad-shouldered woman who clearly enjoys dressing up and looks into the camera with frank cheekiness. There was some suggestion that she was a lesbian.
"It's interesting how gender is constructed," Hooper says. "For many centuries, men defined how they wanted women to be, and it didn't include having vibrant professional lives. We have broken down that gender stereotype, thank God, but what's so tricky about talking about gender is that there is also an aspect that is culturally constructed. The idea of talking about gender as a spectrum is kind of interesting for me. It sort of says we're all a bit of a mixture."
A mixture of what, though? We are no closer, after our discussions on this Venetian afternoon, to knowing what feeling like a natural woman actually means, but it doesn't seem to matter. Redmayne says he hopes the film helps to improve the world for the transgendered: people who just want to live their own lives. That's simple enough: it's what everyone wants.
The Danish Girl opens on January 21.