The De-Queering of Historic Figures

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The Danish Girl is a fantastic, beautifully acted movie. Eddie Redmayne, in particular, is an exquisite actor, emoting masterfully the first time that painter Einar Wegener tries on a pair of woman’s silk stockings. There’s only one small, minor, almost inconsequential problem: this movie, which bills itself as being a “biographical romantic drama” based on the real-life story of the Danish painter, is almost completely fiction. Many biopics are fictionalized accounts of real individuals, but in this case, the fictionalization serves one major purpose: to de-queer—an ironic endeavor, given the subject—a woman and make her instead into a staunch symbol of heterosexuality. 

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To begin with, the points of congruence between the movie and real life: is true that Wegner was a painter, moved to Paris, was married to artist Gerda Wegener, and was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, eventually living as Lili.

But here is where the similarities end. Now, the glaring “artistic license”: in the movie, Gerda is portrayed as Einar/Lili’s long-suffering wife. In many ways the protagonist of the movie, she is alternatively supportive and dismayed that she’s losing her husband as Einar transitions into a woman. Even at the end of the movie, when she feels drawn to (the fictional character of) Hans Axgil, she still feels a compelling loyalty to her spouse that overrides the attraction. It is a beautiful (mostly?) heterosexual love story, with overtones about wifely duty and dedication. How lovely for straight viewers. 

Gerda WegenerGerda Wegener. Artist: AnonymousPhoto by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But to depict Einar/Lili’s story this way is approximately as accurate as telling the story of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—also a biographical romantic film in which Redmayne played the lead the year before—as though Hawking was handicapped not by motor neuron disease but instead was an American with a limp. In real life, Lili was probably intersex, since she wrote in her memoir that during gender reassignment surgery vestigial ovaries were found in her body, or had Klinefelter syndrome (which stems from XXY chromosomes), and she passed more easily as female than male. Gerda, meanwhile, was either bisexual or lesbian, and during their time in Paris, Gerda lived openly as a lesbian and painted lesbian-themed erotica. After 26 years of marriage, Gerda and Lily only separated because Lili’s gender assignment made their marriage illegal in Denmark.

With this in mind, is it so improbable to suggest that Lili and Gerda were in essence “bearding” for each other in Denmark and maintained their marriage of convenience even when seeing other people because they enjoyed each other’s companionship? Even if Gerda was not lesbian (she married Fernando Porta in 1931), the film does her and viewers wrong by completely eliminating her queerness. If there was any emotional turmoil in Gerda and Lili’s relationship, it was Einar’s, not Gerda’s. But audiences aren’t interested in the story of a libertine, pornographic lesbian artist (notice that none of the paintings shown in the movie were Gerda’s lesbian ones) and her intersex beard, however, and so the deeply moving, mostly heterosexual story of The Danish Girl emerged instead, and the rest is Oscar history. 

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