Eddie Redmayne — Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything, delightful-seeming British person in real life — is starring in The Danish Girl, a film based on a novel inspired by the life of Lili Elbe. Elbe was one of the first transgender women to successfully undergo sex-reassignment surgery; the movie, due out in 2016, is directed by Tom Hooper (who previously worked with Redmayne in 2012’s family-friendly singalong, Les Miserables). The first photo of Redmayne as Elbe, above, was released last week.
Who was Lili Elbe? And was there a responsibility here, on the part of the filmmakers, to cast a trans actress in this role?
Susan Stryker is a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona and a transgender historian and filmmaker. She’s been in touch with producers of the The Danish Girl, commenting on the script and, through producer Gail Mutrux, has answered questions from Redmayne and director Tom Hooper. “They’re trying to do a good job,” she said by phone. “They’re not trying to do anything exploitative; they’re very sensitive to questions of how trans issues are going to be presented and received, by both mainstream audiences and by the trans community… I was really impressed when I first talked to them about the level of outreach and due diligence they had been doing. So I’m not, in any way, wanting to trash the film. I’m actually very curious to see what happens.”
As for the fact that Elbe, a transgender woman, will be portrayed in the film by a cisgender man, Stryker said, “I’m on the fence about that one.” Redmayne’s response on this front has been both diplomatic (“There is an incredibly valid discussion for why a trans actress isn’t playing the part, because there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I’m sure there are many who could play this part sensationally.”) and somewhat unsatisfying. He told The Telegraph that “one of the complications is that nowadays you have hormones, and many trans women have taken hormones. But to start this part playing male you’d have to come off the hormones, so that has been a discussion as well. Because back in that period there weren’t hormones.”
Stryker didn’t totally buy that justification. “It’s like, as if you’re not going to have to use prosthesis for the after. To me, that’s a little bit of a cop-out. Which says nothing about whether he’s going to do a good job.”
“There are an increasing number of trans actresses who could do just fine,” she said. “And I hope they get the breaks that they deserve. This does seem like a missed opportunity, to not cast a trans person. And the thing that I think casting non-trans actors in trans roles perpetuates is the sense that the trans person always kind of looks like their other-birth-assigned sex, and it doesn’t really account for what hormones do, what surgery does, what it’s like to live in a social gender long term. It has the effect of making all trans people appear to be early-transitioning people.”
“However good a job Eddie does on this,” she said. “It’s about time that we have trans people playing trans characters.”
She cited Amazon’s Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor: “I don’t have any problem that Jeffrey was cast in the parent role, but that was the first season. What’s it going to be like in season two? There’s not going to be any real progress in how the trans person is embodied in the world. Hormones and surgery and habits do make a difference. So as the story goes on, I think it will become more and more of a casting problem, even if it’s not inititally a problem.”
In the case of The Danish Girl, however, it’s not necessarily as big an issue. “Lili didn’t have an incredibly long life after starting hormones,” Stryker said. “And there’s a lot that you can do with prosthesis and makeup and all of that.” She thinks Redmayne works, physically, as Lili: he “could be considered to have an androgynous attractiveness to his face, you can tip in the right direction with hair and makeup.”
The filmmakers contacted Stryker for her advice on what type of image would be appropriate for this “first photo from The Danish Girl” release. Correctly anticipating that Redmayne would win the Oscar, they expected the paparazzi to be all over him; they’d be shooting exteriors soon, and, as they told Stryker, “we really want to be in control of Eddie’s image, and we want this to hit the press right.” As Stryker tells is, “They were debating: do we do he’s getting into makeup, a full body shot, something on the set? And I recommended they do a glamorous headshot. ‘Make him look really good. Don’t have it look like a guy in a dress. Make him look like a fine babe.’ Personally, I thought they did a really good job with the hair and makeup and the pose and all of that.”
Stryker’s main concerns stem from the source material: The Danish Girl is a novel, not a work of non-fiction. In the novel, Stryker said, Elbe’s life is “represented more as tragedy or folly than as something really exciting and ultimately tragic.” In her real life, Einar Wegener married Gerda Gottlieb, another artist, and “from what I’ve been able to see, both by looking at their letters and looking at their artwork and reading the sort of half-memoir, half-novelization of their story, Man Into Woman, and reading all of that, I get the sense that Lili and Gerda were very much on an adventure together.”
The novel depicts Gerda as a “heterosexual woman who is married to a man who is going through a gender transition, and that there’s something tragic about her losing her husband,” said Stryker, even though Gerda was actually “trans-friendly. She’s bi. I don’t necessarily think that she was, perhaps, expecting the life that she had with Lili, but she seemed incredibly open to it, and that’s the point that I hope the screenplay [gets across]. That was the feedback that I provided on the script. And I hope they took that to heart.”
“To put it in the worst possible light, [I don’t want to see] ‘poor deluded person who thinks they’re a member of another gender and they try to live that way and it just creates pain and suffering for the people who love them, and ultimately it ends in tragedy and death, and isn’t it just so sad?'” said Stryker.
What does that mean for the film? “I think it depends on how much they’re willing to reinterpret the material,” she said. “Are they going to go with history or are they going to go with novel?”
Elbe was living in Copenhagen during the 1910s and 1920s, the period between the World Wars, which was “kind of a high-water mark for trans and queer culture in Europe,” said Stryker. “It was Jazz Age Europe. The cities were becoming electrified. There’s nightlife, there’s jazz music, there’s flappers… It was a really exciting time. That is what starts to get rolled back in 1933. So if anything, I think, rather than representing Elbe’s life as ‘Oh my God, you were surviving in the Dark Ages!’ it’s like, ‘This is Rome before the fall.’ This was, in some ways, the height of modernity. Before fascism, really, gained political power. In some ways I see it as being very easy. It’s more like a precursor to the contemporary period, rather than something that was almost a century ago.”
Elbe was a pioneer by choice, but also by chance: she happened to come of age a time when “there were new possibilities for who and what a person could be.” Medical and legislative progress were on Elbe’s side. “There’s this kind of a nascent sense of possibility for the transformability of human self through medical science that is exactly what Elbe is exploring, and Gerda along with her. They were grasping the potential for something new, and it’s really exciting.”
The medicine required to facilitate Elbe’s transition had been around for a while; it was just that, in Elbe’s day, scientists and transgender men and women were putting together the idea of using existing surgeries for sex-change operations. “The idea of using hormones to change sex-signifying attributes of one’s body, that was well-known by the 1910s,” said Stryker. “There’s very few, if any, surgeries that trans people undergo that non-trans-people don’t undergo.”
“What you see happening in the 1920s is sort of a new argument, a new rationale, a new -– to use an academic word –- a new discourse about the availability and the advisability, the possibility of changing ‘sex’ through biomedical technologies,” said Stryker. “There’s a lot of different lines of development that all start to converge around the possibility of making the contemporary transgender person, and Lili was one of the first people to kind of connect the dots… This was the edge of human experience.”
“When [Elbe’s] desires hooked up with what was possible, what made her remarkable was that she said yes, and that she went forward,” said Stryker. “She went forward with this sense of desire and curiosity and risk-taking. She grasped hold of something that she wanted, and she went for it. And that’s the thing that we don’t always do.”