Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
To my cisgender friends, I ask that, even if you would not normally do so, you please read this. This film was made for cisgender people, so I feel it important that I write this for cisgender people. I would not normally watch this movie, but it has been a subject of some discussion on this site in a way that has compelled me to watch it in order to discuss it credibly. I do not imagine what I have to say will be definitive or particularly more substantial than what other trans folks have said, but I have a voice here that some listen to, even if only briefly. I might as well take advantage of that. I know that many of you prefer not to read things about films you haven't seen, so let me say the important things first:
1. Do not watch this film. It is not merely bad, but harmful.
2. If you discuss the film, refer to Lili only as Lili and she/her.
If you are inclined to read further, I will explain why.
"When you were a boy..." (The film repeatedly uses language like this to emphasize Lili's past.)
"You need to stop, [deadname]." (I'm not going to use it, even in a quote, but Vikander's perfomance stresses the name over and over again.)
"Someone who knows him..." (Appealing to Lili's past in the form of Hans.)
Let's start with names and pronouns. It's a pretty simple one. A trans woman is a female, a woman. A trans man is a male, a man. No matter how we are portrayed, no matter what era of our life you refer to, no matter what we "look like" (ugh), no matter what. We deserve the basic respect of being referred to correctly; if I were to misgender you, you would be offended. At the very least, abide by the Golden Rule. You might know some non-binary people who aren't particular about it. You might know some genderqueer people who use completely new pronouns. Respect them as well, and don't use that to suggest that my experience--or Lili's--is the same. Regarding names, no matter what era of my life you are referring to, refer to my actual name--Sally Jane Black--instead of my deadname. If you don't understand the term "deadname," just stop and think about it contextually for a second. (Certain nicknames from friends are acceptable. You know who you are and what you've done.)
One of the most apparent flaws in this film, a flaw I could see coming before I even watched it, was that it did not handle this with care or respect. Undoubtedly, in Lili's day, things were different. I am certain she was misgendered, microaggressed, and insulted, malnamed and generally miscategorized by everyone around her, probably including Gerda. But there's a way to show that without promoting it, and there's a way to show that without degrading the characters. Honestly, a smart writer and/or director could even manage to make this movie without ever using Lili's deadname; the idea that a transition story has to start at a certain point is a cisgender assumption. And, for that matter, the idea that this film has to conform to narrative film conventions is a ridiculous one, too. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The point is, the film's portrayal of Lili encourages those who try to write about it to use both genders and her deadname when discussing the film, because the film itself is at best muddled in this regard. I can make this assertion with the clarity of hindsight, so to speak, because the evidence is overwhelming: very smart, very compassionate, very understanding people who are cisgender refer to Lili by the wrong name and pronoun on this site and elsewhere. Therefore, the film has failed in that regard.
The matter of names is important for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious is simply that using our deadnames and the wrong pronouns is an exertion of power over us that you are not entitled to. It is denying us our transgender status; it is devaluing our selves.
And no, I'm not offended if you didn't know any better. I'm not angry with you. Yes, you. I love you. I'm pissed as fuck with the filmmakers, though.
The most harmful part of the film, from my point of view, is that is positions cisgender people as gatekeepers. This has been historically true in very painful, awful ways. Cisgender doctors and scientists have, through history, defined the conditions under which transgender people could transition, and because cisgender people have set those criteria, people who were transgender were refused for reasons that had nothing to do with who they were. The criteria were (and sometimes still are) entirely based on hiding transgender people--as they say in high school football, no pass, no play. If you can't convince the world you are cisgender even though you are transgender, you can't have hormones, surgery, or, in some cases, freedom. These criteria were not merely based on passing, however, but also on passing by sexist cisgender standards. There are cis women who are more masculine than I ever was, but under most criteria, I would be required to meet a femininity standard (set largely by men) beyond that.
So this film shows cis male doctors with the power to give and take Lili's freedom and life, and there's some historical accuracy there. But it also--and this is even worse--positions Gerda as the most significant gatekeeper in Lili's life. From the very beginning, Gerda's role in this film is to act as an arbiter between Lili and the world. She is shown to instigate Lili's transition, she is shown to arrest it, she is shown to empower it, she is shown to have inordinate control over it. The dialogue is overwhelmed with it:
"You'd be very convincing." (Valuing passing over not passing.)
"Am I pretty enough?" / "I'll never be as pretty as you." / "You are so beautiful." (She doesn't deny the response.)
"But Lili doesn't exist." (Insists it's all a game. This is an early shift toward closing the gate.)
"I thought you might not come back." (This ambiguous line places blame on Lili for being who she is.)
"You should have been there." (The "you" referred to is Lili's birth-assigned identity.)
"You aren't insane." (Though she insisted Lili see a doctor to begin with, she later grants Lili absolution from the diagnosis.)
"I did this to you." (She takes credit for Lili's existence. Even when Lili corrects her, she latches onto this idea.)
"I won't help you to hurt yourself." (The film makes sure we know that the cis woman knows what's best for Lili.)
"There's nothing wrong with me." / "That's not true." (What an awful thing to say to someone.)
"I believe it, too." (Gerda's eventual validation in front of a doctor is the key moment to allowing Lili to get surgery.)
"You sketch me better than I was. You made me beautiful. Now you're making me strong as well." (Lili even credits Gerda with empowering her.)
And on and on and on. The film also lingers on showing how Gerda teaches Lili how to put on stockings, how she helps her choose her feminine outfits, how she suggests the first "performance" as Lili, how she, at every turn, has the power in the relationship. While I have no problem believing that Gerda Gottlieb was a woman unafraid to be herself and express herself, most accounts I've read of her relationship with Lili suggest something other than this damaging, almost parasitic back and forth. Lili's one true act of rebellion, her final surgery (in the film), [there are no spoilers here, because I told you not to see the movie to begin with] kills her. Gerda is shown to be the one hurt here. It's all about the cis woman's feelings. After Gerda calls Lili her husband, over and over and over, Lili apologizes.
When Lili is not being herded or cajoled or otherwise controlled by Gerda, she seeks out other cis people for validation, including Hans and the man she took as lover in Copenhagen.
What this eventually gets across is the value of the cis woman as an arbiter of the trans woman's life, not a mirror, not a complement, not a lover, but a master. Gerda is shown (I suspect inaccurately) as defining Lili, and because the film falls so heavily in the camp of Gerda, so sympathetic to her "suffering," it suggests that Gerda's role as gatekeeper is rightful. It reinforces the idea that cisgender people have the right to tell transgender people when, where, how, and why they can transition.
That is harmful information for a transgender person, especially one who is not yet confident in their trans-status.
"I feel as though I'm performing myself."
"You do it better than I ever manage." (Referring to putting on make up, equating this with femininity.)
"You're different from most girls." (The dialogue even calls this out for the cliche it is, but the film then doubles down on it.)
"This is not how it goes." (It's all a script, a game, to Gerda.)
"We're here to perform." (Implying that Lili will excel at the perfume counter.)
"You've been two of them." (Terrible cliche and reminder of the assigned gender.)
"I was always pretty. You just never noticed." (The worst part is, I and many other transgender people do want to be pretty, and movies like this reinforce that in those of us who are just starting to discover ourselves.)
"Of course you can't. He isn't here." (The one time they get it right, it's rendered as a joke.)
There is a performative aspect to gender, but being transgender is not all about performance. [note: this section has been edited in recent days] Gender is complicated; it is inherent and experiential and so much more. Julia Serano (to whom so much of this is indebted) clarifyingly and empoweringly refers to the subconscious sex, an intrinsic part of all people that defines us; this is important. Being transgender is innate. It is part of us--part of me, and part of other trans people. The thing Serano suggests is asking people who identify as cis to imagine how much money it would take to convince them to have sexual reassignment surgery. In her experience, most people are horrified by the thought. There's more to it than that, but the basic idea is that if you can't imagine changing your assigned sex, that feeling you have when you try is what transgender people experience when they think of being stuck in their assigned sex.
There is also a history in this world of transgender people being forced to perform as themselves for at least a year before cisgender gatekeepers would allow them to transition. This film takes the idea of gender as performative and uses it--like so many pieces of trans-focused film--to emphasize the superficial aspects of being transgender, and in doing so, sets a narrative that comes with a built-in trial period before setting up surgery as the be all end all. Part of this is, of course, because of how Lili's life progressed, but the choice to do this story at all is in part predicated on having that narrative. The end result is a transgender story that suggests the clothes make the woman, that equates behaviors of some sort of fetishistic nature to being trans, that makes it clear that Lili's story is about learning how to be a woman. Not learning how to be herself. Not learning how to pass so she can survive. Not learning how to embrace being a transgender person. Learning how to "be a woman," such as putting on stockings, walking in high heels, holding your hands the right away, wearing the right clothes, getting your voice right.
"He won't be your husband when I'm finished."
And then, as it shows this, it repeatedly wants us to remember this is a performance. She stumbles in heels. Her voice cracks as she whispers. It shows her hairy legs in the stockings. It emphasizes her monthly nose bleeds. It shows her remove her make up as she's crying, shows her de-transition before our eyes--twice! It makes sure we hear the doctor use the phrase "construct the vagina." She works at a perfume counter, masking her scent.
Most awfully, a crucial visual metaphor is Lili's emerging from her masculine clothes to reveal female underwear. That moment is especially demonstrative of how the filmmaker failed to understand being transgender: it contrasts Lili in the underwear with cis gender Gerda fully naked, this bare and vicious contrast that forces the viewer to see one as fake and one as real. Similarly egregious moments include where Lili goes to a peep show and mimics the woman inside, until she touches between her legs. Her response reminds us that she has not had surgery, again reiterating what we already know and that Lili is somehow lesser or fake still. This is after what I hope will one day be recognized as the most infamous moment of the film, the "tuck scene," which visually references the most damning moment in Silence of the Lambs (because equating Lili with a serial killer is... I can't even imagine what Hooper was thinking). But this film shows Lili's genitalia, because we can't possibly be allowed to think for a second anything other than that this trans woman is a man underneath. And then, much later, when the surgery is over, finally, Gerda gets Lili's name right. This is treated as a triumph, a tender moment, when it's really just a sad insult, another instance of gatekeeping (she's only herself after radical surgery!). Exclamation points in parenthesis mean outrage, I think you will find. I am outraged.
Some of these things you might argue are necessary in a story about transitioning (though that begs the question I will address later of whether it's worth even telling this story), but there are ways to depict transition that don't overvalue the performative aspects, that don't take those performative aspects and make them seem crucial to trans existence. To put it another way, there's a way to tell this story without repeatedly depicting being transgender as an artificial circumstance. This film did the opposite; it argues that being transgender is not merely performative, but fetishistic, that it is a process that inevitably culminates in cisgender approval only after surgical intervention.
"Slip through the surface of the painting."
More than that, because it's about painters, it goes further, emphasizing the use of images, sketches, paintings. Hooper is clearly trying to evoke other artist biopics here--from Mr. Turner to Van Gogh--in making his film canvas-like, but the side effect is to reinforce the image of transsexuality as ephemeral, merely visual, only what is seen, not what is felt. Visually, this is reinforced by ripple effects, distorted reflections, and blurred framing that suggest, repeatedly, that this is all a matter of perception, when there is much, much more to it than that.
Furthermore, twice, it comes close to suggesting that there is something more substantial going on, and both times, it equates this to dreams. First, it is the assertion that no matter what Lili is wearing, she dreams Lili's dreams. This one argument for something more is treated as exasperating by Gerda and dismissed. Later, Lili has the most terrible semi-monologue about dreaming her mother called her Lili when she was a baby, but the scene is performed and filmed so ridiculously that it comes across as hammy and almost comical. It's insult added to injury, a sign that the filmmaker did not take any of it seriously.
"Don't you wish you could paint like your husband?"
The portrayal of transgender people as artificial is based on sexist (and cissexist, obviously) ideas about what is feminine and what is not. Nowhere is this more evident than in how Lili is portrayed. While I don't know what the actual Lili Elbe was like, I have read of her that she attended and hosted parties as herself (not her birth-assigned self, but her real self), something that never comes up in the film. Instead, she is incredibly shy, demure, even described by a man as "old fashioned." It depicts her choice to stop painting as a choice to become a subject rather than the choice to live up to her own expectations instead of those of others. It shows Lili as meek in a way that suggests that the filmmakers view transgender people as caricatures of femininity.
While it seems like, from what I've read, that Lili Elbe did in fact wish to have children, the film's emphasis of this is another example of a limited view of femininity. It doesn't entirely equate womanhood with motherhood, but it does portray the climatic surgery as an attempt to achieve a form of fertility. This is contrasted with Lili's infertility pre-surgery, and her desire to and failure to impregnate Gerda. (See below about intersexuality as well.) The film makes sure to establish Lili's assigned-sex heterosexuality early on, almost graphically, and puts lines like "Can't a man watch his wife get undressed?" into her mouth out of some desire to overemphasize a distortion of masculinity as well. In depicting the sexual relationship between Lili and Gerda coded as heterosexual, it furthers the fetishization of female clothing and seems to objectify Lili in a disturbing way.
Meanwhile, the film spends a lot of time staring at women's legs in a very uncomfortable way.
Back to the fundamental misunderstanding the film has for transsexuality: it spends a lot of time exploring the misdiagnoses of Lili. If the intent were to show just how hard it was on Lili, to show cissexist and transmisogynistic and transphobic realities, this would have been handled differently. If the intent were to show how difficult it is to put what transgender people feel into words, it might have chosen other ways to go about it, or perhaps found a different story to tell. Instead, we have the story of Lili Elbe and her best attempt to find peace in a world that denied her, like Peter and Jesus (more on that later, too).
The film shows her dysphoria manifesting as a form of dissociation at first, then later in nose bleeds and headaches, and refers repeatedly to Lili's confusion. They put the words "I won't disappear into the bog; the bog is in me" into her mouth. It equates her dissonance with a filthy mire. It equates trans existence with illness. No matter what the DSM (which I will remind you included homosexuality until awfully recently) says, being transgender is not a disease. It is not a mental illness. It is a different gender from what cisgender people experience, and because cisgender people have dominated the world in a way that emphasizes a patriarchal (and white supremacist) view, because the world is encouraged to view atypical gender presentation and sexualities as bad or lesser, we suffer dissonance because it limits our freedom to live as we ought to.
"God made me a woman."
It almost gets it right, but she follows it up with "The doctors are curing me of illness." And then the film fails to correct that idea.
By many accounts, Gerda Gottlieb was not strictly heterosexual. Because patriarchal history has basically eradicated records of anything else for most people, and because it's still the case that many people are safer not announcing their sexualities, evidence of her bisexuality (or lesbianism) is always qualified by people. Because of this, Tom Hooper tells a story that ignores it completely. Not only does he ignore it, he shows Gerda wiping the lipstick off Lili before kissing her. He takes time to include this gesture to ensure that we don't think for an instant that Gerda might enjoy even a little bit of girl-on-girl, except a brief moment when it seems she is co-indulging a clothing fetish. Even sexuality is reduced to objects rather than people here. Similarly, there is evidence that Lili might have been physically intersex, and this is barely acknowledged in the film at all. Taking time to explore, explain, or understand this is well beyond the scope of Oscar bait. The connection between transsexuality and intersex people is something rarely explored or talked about, and most people never know about it, one way or another.
Meanwhile, the film's focus narratively is never, ever on Lili. It masks this, but the truth is that this is entirely Gerda's film. The title references Gerda (the time this line is used refers to her). The audience surrogate is Gerda, proving this film was made for cisgender people. Cisgender people accuse transgender people of lying to them all the time, but the way this film has been marketed certainly proves that cisgender people have a major issue with honesty. (That's a cheap shot, maybe, but I stand by it.) Vikander's performance--which many people have lauded, inexplicably--is a depiction of a woman put upon by her lover who dares to be herself. The film, because it erased Gerda's bisexuality, delves into the story of a straight woman "forced" to be married to another woman, and then it never once hesitates to blame Lili for causing Gerda pain.
"I can't remember the landscape anymore."
The "crimes" Lili commits against Gerda include quitting painting, which is used as a metaphor for the incompatibility between the two, a representation of how everything Gerda loved about Lili was encapsulated with her past. This is further emphasized as she connects with Hans, who is another symbol of Lili's deep past. (And a cisgender comfort to Gerda when things get rough.) This has the side effect of subtly suggesting that there is a betrayal involved in being transgender, that Lili's acceptance of herself is somehow akin to adultery, despite suggestions from real life that Gerda and Lili's relationship might have been much more open and loving. Little actions like asking to borrow a night dress so shock Gerda that, in Vikander's lauded performance, she is left aghast, empowering her role as gatekeeper and suggesting that what matters in that moment is Gerda's exasperation.
"Not everything is about you."
When Gerda has the chance to go to Paris, Lili is ill and fears she might not be able to travel. She is ill because Gerda pressured her into radiation therapy. Gerda is never called out for uttering the above line in this context. Lili endangered her own life in an effort to please Gerda, but Gerda screams at her the ugliest, most selfish, harmful, damaging, awful thing. She acts out of a need to "protect" Lili from being institutionalized, but couches it in terms that suggest that Gerda is the real victim. She acts as if Lili is a burden throughout the film, and Lili in turn is shown to be apologetic and worshipful of Gerda.
"You heard my wish, Gerda."
Lili accepts Gerda's gatekeeping, because a narrative that gave agency to a transgender person is unfathomable. We don't exist as people, only weights around the necks of the cisgender people who can bear us. In the end, Gerda goes with Hans, the symbol of Lili's past, to the birthplace that misassigned her gender, and there, she releases Lili into the wind, "letting her fly." This symbolic gesture is so tone deaf that I can't believe I saw it. Not only is Gerda ridding herself of the burden of Lili, she's doing so in a place Lili described with intense negativity. It's one last insult before Gerda walks off into the sunset with the symbol of Lili's past, a cisgender man that represents the cisgender ideal Gerda/the filmmmakers wish for Lili.
Surrounding this film has been heavy criticism of the fact that a trans woman actor was not cast as Lili. The usual arguments against it have come up, mostly revolving around the chestnut of "we wouldn't make money doing that." I'd like to add that they probably would not have been able to tell such an unflinchingly cisgender story with a transgender person in the starring role. If they had to tell this story, casting a trans woman would not have hurt the quality of the film. There are a lot of talented trans actresses in the world. It would have hurt the box office and Oscar chances of the film. (This assumes that Eddie Redmayne is not a closeted trans woman, but regardless, there is no visibility for trans women here.)
This is galling mostly because this film is being presented as a Moment for transsexuality, a big, open hug for us, a mainstreaming of it, along with reality television stars and online television shows. Not only is this Moment a cisgender moment because of the story it tells and how it tells it, but also because there is no one in the film that is openly trans. This isn't a transgender story. It's a cisgender martyrdom fantasy.
The question arises of how to tell the story of a trans person's transition. How do you convince a trans person to portray it when it might be triggering? How do you do it without using a deadname? How do you tell this all important story? It can be done, of that I am sure, but it probably requires more artistry and boldness than Tom Hooper is capable of, and certainly more than Hollywood can handle. But. But I don't think it's entirely necessary. No one has shown me a film that accurately reflects transitioning, nor a television show. No one has shown me anything other than cold, hard non-fiction literature that could prepare me for this. This doesn't need to be a movie; movies aren't suited to the task. Not in this form.
Let me tell you a transition story. A woman experiences a moment that makes her realize there's something different about herself. She seeks out answers to this and finds someone or something that can help her, and she faces obstacles in that journey. She faces doubt and outside pressures, and she suffers horrible defeat. And then, then she rises. She finds peace with herself and discovers she had it in her the whole time, and she returns empowered and capable and Herself. This is transition. This is Star Wars. This is every fantasy story This is the monomyth. We are the monomyth, the living embodiment of resurrection. We--transgender people--are all messiahs; that's why you fear us so much.
And that's why this film gets it wrong, because it chooses a story that doesn't have the resurrection--not for the trans woman. Gerda is resurrected in the end, "healed" and "released" from her "burden." The film goes out of its way to insert violence and hatred, fabricating a violent altercation between Lili and some Frenchmen. It makes sure to include suicidal ideation that also suggests dissociative thinking on Lili's part. And then it foreshortens her death by two or three surgeries out of narrative economy and cynicism. It tells the same story that has always been told, of trans women and men never rising again, never making it past the bottom of the story circle to bring the Gift of the Goddess. Yet that is the story we live, if we're lucky. We never get to see that.
The Bad Kind of Exploitation
I had a conversation online with someone who misperceived the exploitation genre as something it was not, and I found myself explaining that it was so-named because it exploited trends. This film is classic, nasty exploitation in every way. It exploits a trend in the zeitgeist for profit and acclaim, and it does so in the worst way, exploiting a minority without bringing any benefit to that minority. Don't watch this film; it's harmful to us all.
"I don't know how long we can go on like this."
"It was like kissing myself."
The above is actual dialogue in this film. Just blatant cliche. Gerda has an emotional break down in the rain! There's a single black man with a speaking role, just to show that Gerda can speak to black people--the essence of tokenism! There's a terrible score, just one of the most overbearing and boring scores I've ever heard. It's pretty, but that's it.
It really is just facile, narrow-minded, misguided-at-best trash.