The Danish Girl (2015) and the De/Construction of Gender Identity
The prostitute has become his imago. She has, in a sense, become his Ideal-I. This might, at first, seem contradictory if we see it in connection to the first scene. I consider it however a continuation of the transformation Einar has started before. Having shed his male identity, which was “tenuously constituted in time”16, he now needs a different set of parameters in order to express Lili and, precisely, make his new self-image attainable.
This possible attainability - the malleability of Einar’s body to make it become exactly how he wants it to be – is expressed by the fluidity of bodies throughout the scene. The prostitute’s smooth, flowing movements, mimicked by the camera’s repeated change in position and the constant bringing in and out of focus of the two bodies, evoke an impression of perfect pliability. Further, Einar’s and the prostitute’s body virtually flow together in the ensuing synchronised caressing. When their two hands overlap, they do not merely touch; they melt into one another. At the same time, the prostitute’s face, now framed by utter blackness, seems to emerge from the shadows and with her longing eyes fixedly set on Einar it is as if she wanted to reach him, be one with him. We still see two bodies, but the fluid zooming in and out, imperceptibly exchanging one for the other, the mirroring of the round movements of hands gliding softly, tentatively, longingly, now performed in perfect simultaneity, create such a sense of harmony that the two bodies might indeed be just one. What is more, when the prostitute becomes aware of Einar’s non-compliance with his role as spectator, she is taken aback for a moment, covering her body as if overcome by shyness.Quickly re-evaluating the situation, the prostitute grows sympathetic, appreciative even, and engages fully in the joint performance. This, in turn, liberates the prostitute from her customary object status and further obliterates the boundary between the two. Einar, then, has achieved what Lacan and, to a certain extent, Butler perceive as unattainable: he has turned into his ideal self-image. By synchronising his body with the woman’s body in front of him, he is able to transform into the woman inside him, thus seemingly completing what he has started in the first mirror scene.
Now what exactly do I mean by that? The prostitute, as a symbol of femininity or the female in general, comes to stand in as an allegory for the woman Einar feels to be on the inside. For Lacan, the categories by which we label the world around us are elusive precisely because they are one of society’s illusions created through language. In that point Butler concurs by stating in an interview that “symbolic positions—”man,” “woman”—are never inhabited by anyone, and that's what defines them as symbolic: they're radically uninhabitable.”17 While their undermining view of any pre-given and fixed social reality, with all its accompanying conventions, rules and categories, is by now a widely accepted fact, they seem to leave one aspect out of the equation in making their argument: the emotional and metaphorical. Emotional identification naturally does not play any part in Lacan’s or Butler’s writing since the aim is, broadly speaking, to demonstrate and to undo identity regulations. If we do, however, take into consideration the emotional and metaphorical, and if we do, for a minute, accept the labels given to Einar to choose from, he here does come to inhabit the woman he wants to be.
This means that, according to Butler, gender is not naturally given to us on the day of our birth. Rather, it has been, together with the concept of gender itself and the binary categories of male and female sex, inscribed on us over time through a “stylization of the body”18. Butler is careful to underline, however, that since these stylizations have been repeated for an unspecified period of time they have been both absorbed and developed by our psyche, thus becoming both anterior and posterior signifiers of our identity: “Actors are always already on the stage, within the terms of the performance.”19 The acts, in short, are our own, but only to the extent that we (as a society) have created them.
That being the case, though, we also have the potential to undo and rearticulate the stylized acts that signify gender ideal. This last point, then, is where Butler and Lacan diverge. While the latter considers the categories that define us altogether more fixed, and the focus on the other, in defining our identity, is rather more pronounced, the latter is somewhat more optimistic. According to these specifically chosen, summarised aspects of Butler’s writing on gender performativity, what can we deduce from them in relation to the performances Einar is giving in those two scenes?
The already mentioned leitmotif of hands plays a crucial part here. While in the first scene the hands describe Einar’s initial getting-in-touch with his female identity, in the second one they perform said identity. The transgender identity, or new Ideal-I, which surfaces here can be read as the dissolution and re-articulation of the gender ideal that was inscribed on Einar’s body. In that sense, Einar transcends his role as a man and challenges the, in the Foucauldian sense, docile body he has been shaped to be. He shifts what Foucault terms the “’new micro-physics’ of power”20.
This positivistic reading, however, holds true only to the extent that Einar challenges the prescriptive notion of male sexed body equals masculine gender identification. By saying that, I do not mean to undermine the importance of any such act. Yet it would be wrong to equate transgender with the escape from the established system of power and normative regulations, gender and otherwise, when such an escape is simply impossible. What is more, the defiant attitude is undercut by Lili herself and the pathos of her ultimate line: “Last night I had the most beautiful dream. I dreamed that I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She looked down at me, and she called me Lili.”21
While the wish implied here to be able to forgo the surgical intervention to become a woman is no doubt comprehensible, it nonetheless takes away some of the force of Lili’s act of remonstrance. Further, the hand movements so paramount for Einar’s expression of Lili can in fact be read as an example of the “bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds [which] constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self”22. Therefore, Einar exceeds the limits imposed on him by his male body only to then subscribe to the performative acts which, in his eyes, will make of him an abiding female self. That is to say, Einar discards his role as male performer only to fully conform to a different set of gendered acts. Going back to the brothel scene for a moment, his mimicry of the prostitute can thus be linked to Joan Riviere’s text Womanliness as Masquerade in which she writes:
To that end, Einar, in his “coming out,” is so self-aware of possessing the object of masculinity, i.e. his penis, that he overcompensates for it with a mask of almost flamboyant womanliness. This act, of course, then becomes the epitome of the invented, normative nature of gender. If there were no such norms, Einar would not need to learn to behave like a woman or, indeed, wear the mask of womanhood. He could simply be.
Having worked closely with Lacan and Butler, I hope it has transpired from my paper that, at least in a figurative sense, Lili eventually attains her gender ideal. In that sense, The Danish Girl can be lauded for telling, in an empathetic way, the story of a woman with pioneering spirit. What I believe to be more important, though, and for which I consider the film to be a failure, is the fact that it portrays Lili as a heightened version of so-called femininity. The husky voice, the timid smile, the hands – all these are stereotypical tropes which are increasingly emphasised as the film progresses.
It must be conceded that the film’s cultural positioning as mainstream entertainment as well as the period it depicts play a key role in this. Arguably, gender roles in the 1930s were comparatively more pronounced and static. Nevertheless, rather than debunking the “model of coherent gendered life that demeans the complex ways in which gendered lives are crafted and lived”24, the film illustrates the undoing of one such coherent gendered life only to substitute it afterwards for another, equally harmonious one. Hence, gender ideals and stereotypes are sadly reinforced.
The one aspect in the film which we may call subversive relates to Gerda. In her undying support of her husband Einar who becomes her wife Lili, Gerda challenges the prevalent kinship system by not succumbing to the urge to define the exact nature of her relationship with Einar/Lili. In fact, Einar’s transformation does not change her position at all: “I’m still Einar’s wife”25, she says decidedly. To that extent, some of the endeavours made by different camps to undercut persistent social norms and fictions did come to bear on The Danish Girl, and maybe it is Gerda after all who spearheads here. On leaving the cinema, an aftertaste of such bitter-sweetness, aroused by Gerda’s kind, sympathetic and non-compliant actions, clings to our emotive palate that it is quite impossible to not re-think and re-see.
The Danish Girl, dir. Tom Hooper, (2015) [film]
Butler, Judith, ‘Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault’, in Praxis International, Issue 4, (1985), pp.505-516
Butler, Judith, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (John Hopkins University Press, December 1988), pp.519-531
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York: Routledge, 1990)
Butler, Judith, ‘Introduction: Acting in Concert’, in Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp.1-16
Butler, Judith, ‘Critically Queer’, in The Routledge Queer Studies Reader, ed. Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose, (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp.18-31
Foucault, Michel, ‘Docile Bodies’, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books, 1995), pp.135-169
Kotz, Liz, ‘The Body You Want: Liz Kotz interviews Judith Butler’, in Artforum 31, No. 3 (November 1992)
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Approaching Abjection’, in Power of Horrors, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp.1-13
Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Routledge, 2001)
McNay, Lois, ‘Subject, Psyche and Agency: The Work of Judith Butler’, in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 16(2), (London, 1999), pp.175-193
Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Screen, (Autumn 1975), pp.56-68
Riviere, Joan, ‘Excerpts from Womanliness as Masquerade’, in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 10, (1929)
1.) I am using this type of phrasing as an allusion to Judith Butler’s work which bears the same title.
2.) Butler, Judith, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (John Hopkins University Press, December 1988), pp.519-531, p.521.
3.) The long, narrow drapes at the side of the theatre stage, blocking from view the backstage area, are referred to as “legs.”
4.) Performative Acts, p.527.
5.) Min 22:23
6.) Dr Hexler: “Where does she come from?“
Einar: “Inside me.”
7.) Butler, Judith, ‘Critically Queer’, in The Routledge Queer Studies Reader, ed. Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose, (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp.18-31, p.22.
8.) Critically Queer, p.22.
9.) See min 25:00 and 25:58 for this.
10.) Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, (1949), <http://faculty.wiu.edu/D-Banash/eng299/LacanMirrorPhase.pdf>, pp.502-509, p.503, [accessed: 13/01/2016].
11.) Kristeva, Julia, ‘Approaching Abjection’, in Power of Horrors, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp.1-13, p.3.
12.) Performative Acts, p.519, emphasis in original.
13.) Performative Acts, p.526.
14.) This performance is of course precisely what Butler is talking about, but, for now, I would like to discuss the scene in the light of Einar’s male sexed body.
15.) Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Screen, (Autumn 1975), pp.56-68, p.62.
16.) Performative Acts, p.519.
17.) Kotz, Liz, ‘The Body You Want: Liz Kotz interviews Judith Butler’, in Artforum 31, No. 3 (November 1992), <http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/PoMoSeminar/Readings/KotzButler.pdf>, pp.82-89, p86, [accessed: 13/01/2016].
18.) Performative Acts, p.519.
19.) Performative Acts, p.526.
20.) Foucault, Michel, ‘Docile Bodies’, in Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books, 1995), pp.135-169, p.139.
21.) Minute 1:49:38.
22.) Performative Acts, p.519.
23.) Riviere, Joan, ‘Excerpts from Womanliness as Masquerade’, in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 10, (1929), <http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/DadaSurrealism/DadaSurrReadings/RiviereMask.pdf>, pp.1-5, p.3, [accessed: 20/01/2016].
24.) Butler, Judith, ‘Introduction: Acting in Concert’, in Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp.1-16, p.5.
25.) Minute 1:09:22.