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The Danish Girl

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When I first saw The Danish Girl posters around town I didn’t notice. At some point I looked closer and wondered. Then it came to me, “That’s Eddie Redmayne!” “Well done!” I thought and then went about my usual business.

Over the holidays I was watching Graham Norton and Eddie was one of his guests. I must admit I’m a bit of a fan. Anyone who has watched his career bloom has to be. He said the project had been 15 years in the making and over the years many people had been assigned to it. When Tom Hooper gave him the script about 4 or 5 years ago, he was immediately on board. “It’s a passionate love story between two …extraordinary people.”

It’s purely by coincidence that over the last year Caitlyn Jenner has very publicly transitioned. I dare say even the term “transitioned” was not in the public arena before that. As Eddie says, “There has been such a shift in the past year of trans issues coming to the mainstream, but what was staggering for me was their story happened almost 100 years ago and it’s astounding how little progress there’s been.”

This is a true story of a Danish couple who met at art school in Copenhagen and were married in 1904. Einar Wegener was primarily a landscape painter, while his wife Gerda was more of a portraitist. One day her model didn’t show and she asked him to sit in. This donning of feminine clothing sparked something that was already bubbling beneath the surface. Gerda became his empowerer and the two began frequenting parties as Lili and Gerda. The two women moved to Paris in 1912 and were part of the Bohemian community. As Einar became fainter and fainter, Lili realised simply living and dressing as a woman was not making her whole.

Eddie Redmayne admits that before preparing for the role he thought you were either man or woman rather than what he now understands as a continuum. He gives his all to the role. He says he wanted to find her smile. There was one moment when Lili smiles for the first time that really warmed my heart, and that was before I watched the interview, so I know he accomplished that. In every interview I watched, he thanked the trans community for their openness and willingness to talk about anything. They said they just wanted the greater world to understand. I had read something saying they thought the part should have been played by a transexual, but I think it would not have had the same effect of educating the general public. Many still don’t understand that gender and sexuality are not the same thing and I think they would either not have gone to see it or gotten lost in their curiosity.

The 1920 post war experience gave a free platform for experimentation. Women were getting to actually live out the theories that they should be able to enjoy sex with no repercussions. Jazz music and petting parties were common. Paris was home to the Lost Generation. The party ended with the stock market crash. Somehow this gender bending that was common in Europe was shoved in the closet. Things for millenials seem to be changing and becoming more open, with more and more of today’s youth identifying as fluid. Amazon even has its own transgender series called Transparent.

The Economist goes so far as to say: This is “Transparent”’s achievement: to show gender as a performance. “The Danish Girl” shows that love conquers all. That’s not a bad story to tell, but it’s not going to cultivate the empathy that trans people should expect from people whose gender matches their body. “Transparent” shows how gender conquers us. 

For me this does show how far we’ve come since Lili was one of the first to receive gender reassignment surgery. But at the same time there is extreme violence every day, especially against trans women of colour. I feel Lili’s is and has to be a love story. She was an innocent. There were no HBO documentaries to watch. In fact it was at this time German physician Magnus Hirschfeld came up with the word “transsexualismus” to distinguish those who dressed in women’s clothing from those who wanted to actually be women.

I say go watch a beautiful story shot, acted and directed with great love and sensitivity. I think Lili and Gerda would approve.

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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