The problem of privilege in transgender stories

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The Danish Girl (M). Director: Tom Hooper. Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander. 120 minutes

As a white, middle-class, straight, cisgendered man, I am conscious of the extent to which the chips of social privilege have been stacked in my favour. As such there are some public conversations that I am patently unqualified to enter. One of these is the sometimes fierce debate that exists between some feminists and some members or supporters of the transgender community.

On one hand, I appreciate the perspective that those who were born biologically female contend with a particular socialisation and set of inequalities with deep historical roots. On the other, the increasing mainstream recognition of and respect for the experiences of transgender people is necessary to the flourishing and wellbeing of this group. Those experiences are theirs to own.

The Danish Girl is the latest in a line of films and series (Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, Transamerica) that may have contributed to, but more likely simply reflect, the growing mainstream understanding of transgenderism. It is an account of the life of Danish artist Einar Wegener, who in the early 1930s was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, to become Lili Elbe.

But whose story is it? Hooper, the director, and Redmayne (Einar/Lili), are white, straight, cisgenedered men. Viewed in the best light, the film is their attempt to engage empathetically with the lived experience of another — one of storytelling's noblest goals. But it also invites being read as the appropriation by the privileged of the experiences of the marginalised, for commercial and critical gain.

One criterion by which we might judge the extent to which it is exploitative is the authenticity and nuance of its portrayal. There are many shades to the central character, as scripted and acted; we see both the pain and the joy of Einar's awakening to his female self, Lili, from her initial stirrings, to attempts to repress her socially and medically, to the physical agony and liberation of the surgery.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable rightness to the objections raised by some members of the transgender community to the casting of a non-transgender person in a transgender role (as there has been previously regarding Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent). Will this come to be seen in future years as the transgender equivalent to blackface?

Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish GirlIn one haunting but telling scene, Einar goes to a peep show and studiously mirrors the movements of a naked woman. Similarly, Redmayne's Lili is a composite of perceived 'feminine' tics and gestures. This performed hyper-femininity is apparently intended to convey Lili's insecurity about her newly realised womanhood. But to the casual viewer, it is a constant reminder that Redmayne is acting — perhaps on his way to a second Oscar.

This placing of womanhood in a box that consists of fey hand movements, batted eyelids and a fixation on 'pretty' garments has other consequences. It plays into concerns some feminists express regarding the symbols that some transgender people identify as markers of womanhood (for example, while Caitlyn Jenner may enjoy banter about hair and makeup, these are not womanly characteristics per se).

It is one of the pitfalls of telling a story about marginalisation from a perspective of privilege that you can overlook such ethical nuances. Indeed what becomes apparent as The Danish Girl progresses is that not far beneath the skin of a film that the director (rather disingenuously, in this day and age) has described as 'risky' is a standard Hollywood, patriarchal narrative wanting to get out.

This is reflected no more pointedly than in the trajectory taken by the film's other hero, Einar's wife, Gerda. As portrayed with power and nuance by Swedish actor Vikander, Gerda is a bold and independent woman, a successful painter in her own right. In the film's opening third, Gerda's progression from very good to great artist is intriguingly bound up with her husband's awakening as Lili.

Initially, Gerda accepts and even encourages Lili's emergence, to the point of including her in their playful sex life. But she has mistaken Lili for fantasy, and only later does she realise the magnitude of the change that her husband is undergoing. She is conflicted about this transformation, and protective of her own needs, but also understanding, compassionate, and supportive.

Supportive to a fault, in fact: Gerda's capacity for self-sacrifice is seemingly endless. Lili is, necessarily, focused almost entirely on her own needs, but the narrative requires that Gerda put Lili's needs first, too, as it is only with her support and assistance that Lili's transformation becomes possible.

The result is that while it is intended as an affirmation of the transgender experience, what plays out on screen instead resonates uncomfortably with the trope of 'woman makes sacrifices so that man can achieve his goal'. This impression is, again, reinforced by the presence of a cisgender male actor in the transgender role. It does a disservice to all women, cis- and transgender alike.

As I wrote two weeks ago, as the #WhiteOscars controversy was gathering steam, 'pursuing justice on one front doesn't excuse committing injustice on another'. We need to tell and hear the stories of transgender people, in a mainstream context. But in the telling, we should not exploit the subject; nor contribute to the marginalisation of others to whom equality has been denied.

That is the responsibility that privilege entails.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

 

 

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Existing comments

Privilege does entail responsibility but only rarely is the full import of that statement played out. One of those occasions, in fairly recent times, was the articulation by Noel Pearson in his Gough Whitlam eulogy when he stated that Gough was one of those "rare people who never suffered discrimination but understood the importance of protection from its malice." This film may not be as authentic as we might hope, but it's a start.
Pam | 04 February 2016


The concept of transgender is one which raises many questions to those who are not. Cate MacGregor is a real transgender person in our community. Her initial reaction to the awarding of Australian of the Year to David Morrison was interesting. It said, pointedly and much more concisely, what both this film and your review attempted to.
Edward Fido | 04 February 2016


Surely official Catholic teaching is pertinent [NCR Editor's note: This article is from the archives of the Catholic News Service. It is dated Jan-14-2003.] VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After years of study, the Vatican's doctrinal congregation has sent church leaders a confidential document concluding that "sex-change" procedures do not change a person's gender in the eyes of the church. Consequently, the document instructs bishops never to alter the sex listed in parish baptismal records and says Catholics who have undergone "sex-change" procedures are not eligible to marry, be ordained to the priesthood or enter religious life, according to a source familiar with the text. The document was completed in 2000 and sent "sub secretum" (under secrecy) to the papal representatives in each country to provide guidance on a case-by-case basis to bishops. But when it became clear that many bishops were still unaware of its existence, in 2002 the congregation sent it to the presidents of bishops' conferences as well. "The key point is that the (transsexual) surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was male, he remains male. If she was female, she remains female," said the source. http://ncronline.org/news/vatican-says-sex-change-operation-does-not-change-persons-gender
Father John George | 04 February 2016


Tim's comment is very thoughtful. Not only is the husband focused on his changing gender but it appears that the audience is intentionally drawn into this focus as well. The wife's supportive role may thus become overshadowed and her self-sacrifice seen merely as necessary. The transgender story is privileged over the wife's sacrifice which is seemingly portrayed as 'that's what is expected of women and that's what they do'.
Anna | 04 February 2016


Father John George, Catholic teaching is absolutely correct in stating that "sex-change" procedures do not change a person's gender".... the fact is that the person comes to realise that their gender is not consistent with their genitalia. And I must totally agree with Edward Fido, that the issues faced by transgender people are something I still struggle to fully understand. But as a gay Catholic who seeks God in good faith, I can only empathise with their journey. The realisation that a transgender person's gender is not dependent on whether or not they have surgery was a fact I needed to learn and still find it difficult to understand. But I'm sure one day the Catholic Church will follow in the lead of the current pope and neither condemn nor judge...
AURELIUS | 04 February 2016


One of the most amazing pieces of recent acting was the impersonation of Steven Hawkins, the world's greatest scientist. It was sensational to watch the transition from a bright fit young aspiring PhD scientist, to a motor neuron diseased person to a phenomenal sci-fi scientist. There have been many such films in which the progress of a terrible debilitating disease allows persons unfamiliar with the issues of serious disability to have been successfully brought to the public table. "The DANISH GIRL" similarly allows a serious social issue to be brought to public attention. It is sensitively portrayed, grasps some pertinent issues, and is a magnificent ART production. The negative skew some wish to bring seems to suggest "HAMLET" can only be successfully played by a true-blooded young Danish Prince, somehow brought to life from the 16th cent. How bizarre. The very word "ACTOR" is being 'deconstructed'. The quality of an actor and of acting is judged not by how "true to life" is the depiction but how well the actor integrates acting skills and maintains the integrity of the person the actor has replaced with an empathy that makes the actions of the actor real to the majority of the audience.
Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 04 February 2016


Always put yourself in others' shoes. If you feel that it hurts you, it probably hurts the other person, too.
AO | 05 February 2016


Thank you for a well balanced discourse. I often wonder where I fit into society especially now I'm over 70 and just straight orientation. I can't understand homosexuality or transgender from experience. I don't have child with these orientations. I can listen to some of it but its not my journey. But please let me have a voice!
Mary | 05 February 2016


Hi, Mary - in response to your question about where you fit in society, it would be great if one day we lived in an inclusive society with respect for diversity where sexual orientation and gender is irrelevant - and age. Sexuality does not define people. We all share a common humanity and all have our our journeys that are about more than just sexuality. No two heterosexual people follow the same journey either, but our common humanity and desire to love and be loved is universal.
AURELIUS | 05 February 2016


I gave myself a week to reply to this review - notably the question of casting a non-gender person in a transgender role. Tim asks will this one day come to be seen as the transgender equivalent to blackface? No doubt some people already take this view. It's an interesting question but a loaded one too. Blackface was always about laughs and stereotypes. And there have been plenty of instances when men dressed up as women to be humourous. I don't believe any of the films Tim named had such a goal in mind. These were more or less honest attempts to portray people. As Tim says, yes, Redmayne was acting. That's his job. Whatever cracks can be seen in that performance can only serve, constructively, the public conversation. Re the wife issue: she is described here as being a successful artist in her own right on the one and, and as losing out to self-sacrifice on the other. That she is a strong and independent person makes the complaint seem more a reflex. As for privilege -- movies get made by those who can raise the cash, no matter the storyline. Here it's an over-egged argument in my view.
John Elder | 10 February 2016


This article is a review, coming from its author's personal point of view, about a film, based on a novel, which is based on, but different in some ways, to what actually happened in real life. The whole issue of transexuality is a complicated one. Individual cases can vary considerably. I understand Lili Elbe died as a result of infection resulting from her fourth gender reassignment surgery. That is tragic. I believe that, physically and psychologically, the medical procedures and necessary medications involved can cause all sorts of complications. Transgender people are not the only ones who suffer psychological or psychiatric problems, but, given all they have to go through, I am not surprised they often do. I think one of the keys to attempting to understand transexuals and their situation is what the Buddha called Compassion. He emphatically did not mean that in a patronising way. Church teaching, as explicated by Fr George, is no barrier to the Church engaging on a one to one basis with transexuals, or anyone else, in pastoral care. From a religious, or purely secular, viewpoint, transexuals, like others, can be seen to be suffering. Their situation is a difficult one and merits sensible, sensitive, open public discussion.
Edward Fido | 11 February 2016


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