"The Danish Girl" tells the story of Lili Elbe (born as Einar Wegener), the first woman to undergo male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in 1931. The film focuses on Lili’s relationship with her wife, Gerda Wegener. However, it is important to note that the film is based on the fictional book "The Danish Girl," written by David Ebershoff in 2000; so even though the characters are real people and the events are fairly accurate, some of the characterization is fictional. For more factual information, one can read Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change, which compiles Lili’s own letters and writings.
The real stories of Lili and Gerda are fascinating, and hopefully the film inspires others to research further. Lili lived during a time where there was no word for what she was going through, so she was labeled hysteric or homosexual. Lili’s endurance to be herself in a culture that could not understand her and her doctor’s persistence in performing the first sex reassignment surgery paved the way for future research and a much more comprehensive understanding of sex and gender. Screened at the White House, "The Danish Girl" shows that transgender history is an important part of American history.
The film is aesthetically beautiful and encapsulates the image of two artists; even the house is a recreation of a painting. The two leads are wonderful, but that goes without saying. The film is emotional without pandering for a cheap cry and it treats all characters with as much dignity as possible; Lili is delicate but not weak, and Gerda is never passive in her relationship or career.
There has been criticism about casting the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili. Since many transgender actors and actresses struggle to find parts and hiring men to play women reinforces the perception of transgender women as truly masculine individuals, criticism is justified. However, since the film focuses on Lili pre-transition and spends a significant time depicting Redmayne as Einar, the casting makes sense. (It is almost like casting Laverne Cox’s twin brother as Sophia pre-transition on "Orange is the New Black.") Nevertheless, transgender visibility is important, and a transgender actress plays one of Lili’s nurses; it is a small role, but there is some authentic representation.
Representation and positive portrayals of minorities in popular culture is key to widespread acceptance. For instance, seeing gay characters as a commonplace on television normalizes it, and viewers see LGBTQA+ individuals as relatable and human just like everyone else. Even though the fight is definitely unfinished, advocates for the gay rights movement have made great progress over the years, from repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to federalizing marriage equality in all fifty US states. Recently, there have been many more transgender characters in television and movies, such as Sophia in "Orange is the New Black," Unique from "Glee" and now Lili from "The Danish Girl."
For a long time, the ‘T’ in LGBTQA+ fell to the background; however, now is its moment. One of the biggest problems in gaining acceptance in a society is simply misunderstanding and an assumed inability to relate. Although a cis person will never truly understand and fully empathize with the daily struggles of transgender individuals, watching movies and television shows that explicitly spell them out definitely helps. Both cis and transgender viewers can relate and feel for the characters, but most importantly, transgender individuals can use popular characters as a way to explain to others what they are going through.
Transgender rights has rightfully reached the mainstream, and gaining both societal and legal acceptance is a priority. Rebecca Root, the transgender actress who plays one of Lili’s nurses, optimistically predicts, “I think this will probably be one of the last high-profile transgender roles going to a cisgender actor. As more of us come up through the ranks, the more likely it will be we’ll take these roles.” Hopefully her predictions will come to fruition in the near future and transgender individuals will see more representation in popular culture. Hopefully The Danish Girl, or any other accurate portrayal of transgender individuals, helps someone understand and empathize a little more. Transgender rights is at the forefront of the U.S. right now, and considering its nominations and mainstream release, "The Danish Girl" and the history behind it is definitely a significant part of history.