Let’s begin with a question that the rest of you can decide—a month in the future when you read this—is either provocation or prophecy. Almost half a year after her appearance in the pages of Vanity Fair, have you finally seen one Caitlyn Jenner magazine cover too many? Is this already the point when a legitimate movement for compassionate acceptance of transgender dignity and equality has been reduced to a fad that, like any fad, wears out its welcome and brings out the unreasonableness in even reasonable people? Preposterous as last summer’s suggestions were that Jenner’s gender transition was a publicity stunt—clearly her initial season in the spotlight denoted a breakthrough in terms of social comprehension and personal courage—popular culture’s potential for crystallizing a historic reckoning and making it meaningful to a larger public is matched by a nearly limitless capacity for trivialization. Now, as movies and dramatic series catch up with print media and reality TV’s monopolization of the matter, the transgender narrative verges on collapsing into glibness, self-congratulation, and inconsequentiality.
The timing of Tom Hooper’s feature The Danish Girl hovers on the knife’s edge between canny punctuality and not-soon-enough. In the works at least seven years, with two directors attached before Hooper took over, the film nonetheless seems so made-to-order for the cultural moment as to appear opportunistic. Pedigreed to the max with Oscar-winning Hooper and Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne, who follows his remarkable turn last year as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and with the kind of topical theme, hushed tone, and sedate presentation that sweep up awards perfunctorily, The Danish Girl is the sort of Oscar contender whose intentions flatter the motion picture academy into respecting it if not loving it. Rendered irrelevant is whether the movie is any good, which in this case is not so much. The Scandinavian couple at the heart of The Danish Girl are a highly regarded painter of landscapes (husband) and a struggling painter of portraits (wife) whose lives and art are irrevocably altered by the discovery of his inner female and the decision to surgically reassign his gender accordingly. Based on a novel about the real-life Lili Elbe (previously Einar Wegener)—a doomed sex-change pioneer of the early 1930s—the script as written by playwright Lucinda Coxon never knows what to make of itself. The sense of something amiss in Wegener’s id isn’t conveyed by anything deeper than Redmayne’s running his fingers through the fabric of women’s clothes. Otherwise he seems fairly content as a man, which doesn’t just confound our understanding of the emerging Lili but dangerously suggests that somehow gender identification and sexual orientation are a choice. Start dressing in drag and dabbling in decadence at bohemian soirees and look where you wind up.
To be fair, this isn’t the easiest story to tell. There are any number of common assumptions and stereotypes—having to do with straight or gay sexual attraction, for instance—that the reality of gender identification upends entirely. But finally The Danish Girl is too prim and pretty to struggle against the limits of its vexation; given little to work with, Redmayne makes the most of heartbreaking gazes and anguished smiles. (At one time Nicole Kidman was in line for the role.) The revelation of the picture is Alicia Vikander—startlingly good earlier this year as the android in Ex Machina—depicting Wegener’s wife, whose career takes off when she begins painting likenesses of her husband as a woman and who then sacrifices both marriage and success for the happiness of a husband who’s no longer a husband. Like The Theory of Everything ’s Felicity Jones, Vikander carries the picture’s emotional freight, left to express not only what she’s feeling but what her costar feels as well. Vikander is being touted for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but she’s the lead as much as anyone, dominant enough to raise questions about which Danish girl the title really refers to.
Watching Redmayne as lost in the maze of Wegener/Elbe as was Wegener/Elbe him-/herself, I couldn’t help wondering what a late acquaintance of mine would have made of the movie if she were still here to see it. Ashawna, once Sean, initiated the psychological (if not surgical) change later in life than Elbe, after raising a family, so I feel certain she would have related more to the Amazon television series Transparent, about the impact that a former professor’s passage has on his/her former wife and three children. More incisively understanding of its material than The Danish Girl, Transparent is terrific and groundbreaking every time the splendid Jeffrey Tambor is onscreen as Maura, and it’s a kick to see a veteran comedic actor flourish in his greatest role at the age of 70. The show is less terrific when we’re subjected to Maura’s children, who—I swear on the lives of my own children—are the single most off-putting family in any history of television that stretches from the Ewings of Dallas to the Lyons of Empire. It’s part of the show’s point, of course, that the kids embody the ramifications of Maura’s narcissism, and that as Maura makes her transformation to a more honest self, we follow the rest of the clan’s epic journey from critical-mass insufferability in episode one to mere garden-variety obnoxiousness in episode ten. But you’re also left figuring that maybe Maura has become a woman just so no one will know she fathered the almost supernaturally unlikable people around her. In any case, when someone asks early in the season whether she’s going to start “dressing up like a lady” and she answers, “My whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man,” it says more about transgender than all of The Danish Girl.
Besides inquiries as to our general well-being, the first thing asked about us, in our first seconds of being alive, is whether we’re a boy or girl. Our first passport through this world is our genitals. In the 21st century the trans revolution has it that “genitals,” “genetics,” and “gender” all share the same first syllable purely by coincidence; gender is now a function not of anatomy but of psyche, which constitutes a revolution in our ongoing multimillennial meditation on who we are, if you want to put it banally, or what makes a soul, if you’re willing to entertain the metaphysical. If the liberation that such a revolution involves is incontestable, if we’ve evolved to a stage when ownership of our identity transcends any dictates of physical nature, also incontestable is the inevitability of confusion, not to mention the collision of social agendas. When a white woman in Spokane identifies as black because that’s who she feels she is, those who are born black and have paid the price for it—in a society that’s racist at least some of the time—resent someone who hasn’t earned what’s been hard-won in the long struggle that blackness signifies. Somewhat similarly, prominent feminists like Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia have had their problems with the trans movement. “If the shoe doesn’t fit,” Gloria Steinem once asked, “must we change the foot?” (a statement whose sentiment she has since recanted). Bold as The Danish Girl and Transparent are in their embrace of a cause worthy and righteous, the exquisite implications of transgender are more profound than can be addressed by a fad at even its most intuitive. The very definition of persona has shifted, something the culture thus far barely glimpses, let alone reconciles.