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Emily Watson: The Danish Girl is brilliant propaganda and another blow to human happiness


Eddie Redmayne may soon be picking up an Oscar in addition to the Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe that he won as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His performance in The Danish Girl as Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender re-assignment surgery, has been hailed from all quarters as compelling, extraordinary and brave – a watershed in trans acceptance into mainstream culture. Director Tom Hooper, when asked about the timing of the film in an interview in Slate, replied “there’s definitely like a tipping point in trans narrative acceptance in the mainstream culture that’s happened so recently.” This film was seen as too controversial to be made seven years ago, but in the brave new world of 2015, reviewers and audiences alike were primed and ready.

The story of The Danish Girl is that of Einar Wegener, who was born in 1882 and worked as a successful artist. He married fellow artist Gerda Gottlieb in 1904 at the age of 22, and they lived a bohemian life in Paris for a number of years. Einar’s awakening to the female persona of Lili happens when posing for his wife as a female model. He subsequently presents himself as a woman called Lili Elbe on a regular basis throughout the 1920s, finally undergoing sex reassignment surgery in Germany in 1930. His marriage to Gerda is dissolved in 1930 following the surgery, and he dies a year later, aged 48, as a result of heart surgery following a uterus transplant. Gerda enters a second marriage but divorces after a few years, her second husband having burned through her savings, and dies destitute in Denmark in 1940.

Looking at the bare bones of Einar’s story, it’s certainly a sad one. Perhaps most poignant is the fact that Einar stops painting after his surgery. His identity as a successful artist, who doubtless brought pleasure to many through his work, has been replaced by the female identity of Lili.

Artistry is at the forefront of Hooper’s film, with reviewers sighing over its “sumptuous visual qualities” and “picture-postcard beauty”. In his adulatory review in The Telegraph, Robbie Collins describes the film as “a beautiful, humane and moving biopic”.

It’s no surprise that the story of a pioneer of the transgender movement is presented as aesthetically as possible. This film is a crucial weapon in the transgender lobby’s cache, as a way to use cultural propaganda to win over mass audiences while governments across the Western world push through with cold hard legislation. Culture is undeniably a powerful tool in influencing popular opinion, as other recent films have shown, such as A Single Man, making the case for same sex marriage, or the euthanasia propaganda film Amour, where a loving husband smothers his paralysed wife. Love is Strange pits a devoted gay couple against the tyrannical Catholic Church, when George is dismissed from the Catholic school where he works after marrying his partner Ben.  Obvious Child, marketed as the first abortion rom-com, seeks to normalise abortion into a simple medical procedure that carries no trauma.

Undoubtedly, The Danish Girl will win yet more legions of sympathisers to its own particular cause: where a human being is the only arbiter for his or her identity, regardless of the inconvenient scientific reality.

Well, what is wrong with this, might object a disinterested observer?  What’s the problem in bringing to light the very real, traumatic feelings that someone undergoes when they feel that they are trapped in the wrong body, and arousing compassion instead of distaste or mockery?

The reason is that to live a life disconnected from reality is to be unhappy – sometimes to the point of suicide. 41 per cent of active transgender people attempt suicide – almost ten times the national average of 4.6 per cent. Walt Heyer, who lived as a woman for a number of years and now runs a site called SexChangeRegret, has written very movingly of the despair he felt following his surgery. Of course, this not only causes damage to the individual in question, but to all his loved ones, creating a ripple effect of pain and confusion throughout society.

Activism, propaganda and increasingly legislation choose to ignore the inconvenient testimonials and warnings of Heyer and others. Last month, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights released a new interpretation of the city’s transgender anti-discrimination law. Violations of this new legislation, such as failing to use an individual’s preferred pronoun, restricting same-sex facilities and limiting a person’s options to just male and female can now incur fines of up to $250,000 for each violation. In Canada, Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne is forcing a graphic sex education curriculum on schools, where the theory of gender fluidity is being promoted to children as young as 8. In the UK, transgender activism is flourishing at universities, with students tearing Germaine Greer off her feminist pedestal due to her heretical views on the subject. The most egregious example of transgender activism is perhaps this article in Slate, where the author denounces the evils of “infant gender assignment”. It’s not inconceivable that you may soon be fined for sending out a card with “It’s A Boy!” after a successful delivery.

So Hooper’s film is certainly riding the crest of a transgender wave. His philosophy seems to echo that of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “Liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Yet this so-called right to self-definition, free from objective reality, leads to a sterile narcissism. In The Danish Girl, Gerda says of how she fell in love with Einar, “It was the strangest thing, it was like kissing myself.” The Big State, backed by totalitarian legislation, would have every man an island, family ties and duties thrown aside in the endless quest for self-fulfilment. But no amount of enforced “tolerance” will bring about the happiness that people like Einar crave – this can only be achieved through a life of purpose, rooted in reality and centred on satisfying others rather than pandering to the insatiable appetite of the ego.


(Image Courtesy Global Panorama, Flickr)

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Emily Watson
Emily Watson
Emily Watson is the co-editor of Quadrapheme (, a classically proportioned arts, culture and politics blog.

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