Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning film The Danish Girl (2015) dramatizes Einar Wegener’s journey toward self-fulfillment as Lili Elbe. The big-screen depiction of one of the first modern “sex-change” surgeries, in 1920s Paris, was a natural opportunity for transgender advocates to extol the virtues of their proto-martyr. To remove all doubt regarding their political intentions, the filmmakers conclude with a written tribute to Lili’s heroism and the example she has left to innumerable transgendered persons enduring persecution throughout the world.
While The Danish Girl was not the most pleasurable cinematic experience of my life, I was grateful for the chance to gain insight into the painful confusion of those who suffer sexual dysphoria. I wanted to understand why a young man, married to a beautiful young woman with whom he shared his artistic passions, would pursue such painful and risky surgery to abandon the man he was. I expected to endure countless scenes of bullying and societal rejection. Two men do, unfortunately, assault Einar-Lili after he strolls through the city in androgynous garb. Otherwise, bullying is absent from the film. The viewer has no impression that Einar’s battle is with a discriminatory society clinging to its gender constructs. His tragic struggle is within.
I thus found the concluding homage to the contemporary transgender movement incongruous with the rest of the film. Lili’s quest to suppress Einar shatters a marriage that seemed full of promise. Joyful liberation does not follow. In one of the work’s most graphic scenes, a conflicted Einar flees his home to attend a nearby strip show so that he might learn how to express the femininity he has so long repressed. The objectifying caresses of a Parisian brothel hardly seem a better guide to gender identity than the loving embrace of a committed wife.
When Einar’s wife Gerda recognizes her husband’s need for psychiatric assistance, they find repeated diagnoses of mental imbalance unacceptable. However, the viewer is left wondering just how wrong the psychiatrists were. A confessional scene midway through the picture captures Einar’s confusion well. Einar admits that Lili has been seeing a man, but he assures Gerda that the affair will not develop beyond a few forbidden kisses, since the man is a homosexual. In Einar’s mind, Lili is not his crossdressing persona. Lili is a distinct person who happens to inhabit Einar’s body.
I did not relish watching Einar meet premature death, from complications arising from surgery to construct Lili’s vagina. I wish that he could have found the psychiatric assistance necessary to confront his sexual dysphoria. I longed to see Einar at peace and was saddened to see Dr. Kurt Warnekros persuade a confused young man to become a guinea pig for his experimental sex-change operation. Warnekros may have made a bold advance for technology, but not for humanity.
The Danish Girl has much to teach us about an ever-more-prominent cultural phenomenon. But in its effort to promote a transgender ideology of self-affirmation and unrestrained manipulation of the mechanical body, it ignores the authentic psychiatric accompaniment victims of sexual dysphoria desperately need.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at FIRST THINGS.