SM Film Festival: The Danish Girl

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Transgender representation in 2015 came with TV series including Boy Meets Girl, Transparent, and with the worldwide media storm that came with Caitlyn Jenner's debut on the cover of Vanity Fair. And on New Year's Day in 2016, The Danish Girl was released; promising to keep transgender equality and awareness at the fore.

Simpson Millar Film Review: The Danish Girl

A Brief Synopsis

The film, directed by Tom Hooper, is loosely based on the life of Lili Elbe, a Danish woman who was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It's set in the 1920s and has Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, and Alicia Vikander as her wife Gerda.

The Danish Girl offers an intimate, stripped back insight into the journey of gender transitioning. We see the ups and the downs; light humour giving way to the emotional turmoil both Lili and Gerda must work through. Eventually, we see Lili who was at first nervous and introverted, gain confidence as she becomes her true self.

Raising Awareness and Educating Others

Speaking to Cinema Blend, Redmayne admitted that he was "pretty ignorant" of trans issues before filming and explained that "the need for cisgender people to be educated on trans issues, to be allies to the trans community, feels so urgent."

Redmayne sought help from Lana Wachowski, the transgender director of films including The Matrix and V for Vendetta. He has credited her support for ensuring he was fully educated on trans issues and the correct terminology in preparation for his role as Lili.

It's true that the film does offer an insight into the thoughts and difficulties that transgender individuals go through. A review in Variety by Peter Debruge describes the film as "hugely empathetic", he explains;

"At one point, reunited with boyhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), he admits that he has considered suicide, but held back because he understood he would be killing Lili at the same time — a sentiment that all too many trans people share and one of the many reasons such a well-rounded portrayal is long overdue."

Other instances include a moment when Lili is walking through a park in Paris wearing an androgynous suit and is attacked for her appearance. Transphobic hate crimes and discrimination sadly still continues to this day. Only last year did the State of Florida plan to ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their newly assigned gender. The purpose of this hostile Bill was "to protect females from criminals" (Frank Artiles).

Casting Cisgender Actors: Emblematic of Widespread Stereotypes?

One of the main concerns amongst critics remains with the lack of transgender actors and actresses cast in transgender roles in film, with producers instead favouring cisgender actors. Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Academy award winning film Dallas Buyers Club came under fire for casting Jared Leto, a well-known cisgender actor in a transgender role, and producers of The Danish Girl also feared to break this boundary. A review in Pink News by Nick Duffy said that this time, "they didn't just cast a male actor in a trans role, they cast Eddie Redmayne: a former Eton pupil and heir to a business empire."

We did, however, see Rebecca Root join the cast – an openly trans British actress and comedian – but not in a trans role. Root played a minor role as a nurse who befriended Lili throughout her surgeries.

But Root does hold out hope that things could be about to change for trans actors. Speaking with The Advocate, she said she suspects that Redmayne as Lili could be "the last great trans role to be portrayed – as far as we know – by a cisgender actor."

A Step in the Right Direction

In the UK, transgender individuals are afforded protection from discrimination, victimisation and harassment at work under the Equality Act 2010. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic, meaning it's unlawful to be treated less favourably because of this characteristic.

Employment Law Solicitor Deana Bates explains:

"Whilst there are laws in place, fair treatment at work isn't always a reality for people who have, or are currently going through, gender reassignment. Employers need to make clear that the workplace is an inclusive and supportive environment, and policies should clearly highlight that any form of discrimination because of gender reassignment is unlawful and won't be tolerated."

"Reference should be made to gender reassignment when employers are referring to the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 within their Equal Opportunities Policy. Another practical piece of advice would be that when an employer is approached by an employee to discuss gender reassignment, it is best practice to discuss implementing a plan to manage their gender transition within the workplace. This plan could be fluid and open to input from the employee concerned, but it would be of great benefit to both the employer and the employee concerned to have a plan as guidance for aiding the transition phase."

"Much still has to be done to educate people on transgender issues and rights, and it's excellent to see The Danish Girl, an Oscar nominated film, trying to tackle this. There's no doubt this is a positive step forward."

Overall Rating – 4/5

The Danish Girl Rating - 4 out of 5 Stars

Simpson Millar's Employment Law Team

At Simpson Millar, we believe that no person should be treated different or unfairly at work because of a certain characteristic, which is why we specialise in helping individuals who have suffered discrimination at work stand up for their rights.


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