“The Danish Girl” Stretches Frilly Forced Femme Fantasy Over Actual Trans History

This article was published on Medium as a teaser for HARLOT Magazine prior to their formal launch in February 2016. You can view it on the Harlot site here.

EINAR
I don’t want to put [the dress] on.
GRETA
I’ve not asked you to!
She lays it across him. He goes to lightly push it away -
GRETA
Would you just relax…? The sooner I start, the sooner I finish. Close your eyes.

In the interest of disclosure: I have to admit I have no real idea about what exactly makes crossdresser porn tick. As I’ve stated before on my own blog, not once in my life have I ever gotten an erection from putting on a pair of panties and “the feel of silky smooth nylon stocking fabric” has always felt irritating and confining rather than erotic. I understand, politically, that many “crossdressers” are trans-aligned folks that have limited outlets due to societal repression. As a drag queen back when Texas sodomy laws were still on the books, I wound up seeing a lot of that repression, way too close for comfort, waving a badge in my face.

I understand how queer culture has encoded itself in pulp fiction and erotica throughout the 20th century in order to subvert and circumvent said repression. I get it. I simply just don’t understand the porn itself.

I get it, but I don’t get it.

That said, being an internet-addicted transsexual for almost as long as the internet has been a thing means I’ve encountered plenty of said porn. I understand the structure, the beats, the emphasis on certain images. It’s really not unlike other classic queer erotica; the feeling of loss of self-control, the internalized shame and reveling in bucking social stigma, themes of being lured away from “normal” life into a hubris-laden decadent “freedom” that always ends in punishment.

The idea of a queer happy ending is verboten, even in escapist literature. A dreary reminder of the surrounding claustrophobically heteronormative world.

And now a message from Silver Age-era Superman’s best friend Jimmy Olsen.

The thing that differentiates crossdresser erotica from other contemporary erotica is that, instead of being seduced by a person, the protagonist is seduced by the clothes. Instead of “whiffing the confident musk” of the leather clad daddy about to whisk Stiffcollar Closetman off to Brokeback his Mountain, the protagonist is seduced by “the silky smoothness of the stocking fabric carefully drawn up over his knee”.

It’s always those fucking stockings or angora sweaters or whatever.

Earlier this year, I was snuck a copy of the shooting script for The Danish Girl, the “biopic” of Lili Elbe, one of the historical first recipients of gender confirmation surgery. Or rather, the screenplay adaptation (and just released film) of the also award-winning (Lambda Lit Award for Transgender Fiction) fictionalized “biography” of Elbe by (probably not a transgender woman) author David Eberhoff. Reading this script, goddamn if all those beats from crossdresser erotica weren’t in there. The script is practically written like porn:

Einar walks between racks of clothes that hang in two tiers so the ruffled
and feathered hems of jewel-coloured gowns brush his cheeks.
An explicit sensual pleasure, which Einar is conscious of but feels no need to investigate.
He pauses. The ARIA ceases, he hears women CHATTING, sometimes DROPPING THEIR VOICES, emitting DIRTY LAUGHS, which make him smile and wonder. A stolen intimacy.
Then Einar moves on, appears at a clearing in the room. Anna is being pulled into a corset by a DRESSER.
She sees him — is delighted, breaks free for a moment, her flesh spilling deliciously in all directions.”
“They LAUGH and Anna signals to the dresser to pull at the corset once more, smiles in delighted anticipation of the discomfort to come.”
“He fiddles with the second stocking now, a light sweat dewinghis forehead by the time he’s rolled both to the knee. He opens a shoebox: — the yellow pair from the shop window.
EINAR
I saw these in the window of Fonnesbech’s…
GRETA
Smart aren’t they?
EINAR
I don’t think they’ll fit…
He takes them out… The first shoe just fits. Something catches in Einar’s throat as he pushes his foot into the second. Greta’s eyes are narrow as she works. Einar looks down at his feet, the disjuncture between the body above and below the knee…he breathes… can’t keep his hands steady.
They both look over to where Anna’s dress hangs. It is white, weighted with beads at the hem and cuff. Beautiful.
EINAR
No, Greta…
GRETA
I need to see how the hem falls.
She goes to get it… Einar asserts himself now, firm:
EINAR
I don’t want to put it on.
GRETA
I’ve not asked you to!
She lays it across him. He goes to lightly push it away -
GRETA
Would you just relax…? The sooner I start, the sooner I finish. Close your eyes.
He’s reluctant. Greta WHISPERS, genuine:
GRETA
Please.
Einar yields as Greta runs her fingers gently down his face, closing his eyes, begins to arrange the dress over him, like dressing a paper doll. Satisfied, Greta returns to work. Einar’s eyes stay closed, his breathing slightly laboured, his lips apart… The dress weighs heavily on him.
His head moves slightly, feeling it brush at his neck. His fingers curl involuntarily around the beaded cuff. The SOUNDSCAPE becomes heightened: the creak of Greta’s easel, the jangling of her bracelets, the sound of the sea, the wind in the riggings. The SOUNDS build, combine, fill his head… then:
ANNA (O.S.)
Well hello, there!

And you know what, that’s fine. I’m not against the existence of this sort of stuff. The thing that bothers me is that underneath the screenwriter’s panty party is a real story being obscured. As far as trans history goes, Lili Elbe is a very important figure. She wasn’t the first first to undergo sex-reassignment surgery; that would be Dorchan Richter. But Dorchan was a very private woman, whereas Lili was a vibrant Weimar-era German socialite and respected artist.

Lili Elbe at the Women’s Clinic in Dresden, 1930. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Her first surgeries were done under the direct supervision of Magnus Hirschfield, who, alongside his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, probably deserve their own movie. Her later surgeries (including the one she unfortunately died of complications from so Eddie Redmayne could win an Oscar) were done by the controversial Kurt Warnekros.

Every aspect of her life is a vibrant exploration of early 20th century queer subculture, artistic decadence and pioneering medical science.

Where the fuck is that movie?

Fonnesbech’s relieved. Though he’s left with questions.
GRETA
It’s hard for a man to be looked at by a woman. Women are used to it, of course, but for a man…
Mr Fonnesbech begins to look wildly vulnerable.
GRETA
To… submit to a woman’s gaze. It’s unsettling…
Fonnesbech nods, relieved — that’s exactly it.
GRETA
Although I believe there’s some pleasure to be had from it, once you…
She smiles mischievously.
GRETA
…yield.
Fonnesbech swallows, cheeks pinking. Greta works, eyes glinting at what she’s provoked: finally getting somewhere.

It’s quickly established that Greta, Lili’s wife, has this domineering proclivity towards men, especially her painting models, that she dominates through quick wit and entendre. This is a frequent trope of “forced femme” erotica, in which such a woman manipulates her unwilling and frequently protesting male partner into crossdressing.

EINAR
You won’t tell anyone about this?
GRETA
Who would I tell?
EINAR
Greta…
She sees he means it now. A little surprised:
GRETA
I won’t tell anyone. No.
Greta mixes paints. Einar battles with the stockings.

Through a “wacky” mixup, Greta’s model is late, so she cajoles her husband Einar to try on the dress she intended the model to wear. He protests, but she eventually browbeats him into it. Of course, then the model finally shows up seeing Einar in the dress, humiliating him.

This humiliation is a frequent feature of the crossdresser/forced femme erotica, from which the script clearly and frequently borrows plot development beats.

This all honest to god happens, and they even have a fucking “Dragged Into Drag” MONTAGE of Greta goading Einar into becoming Lili, which is just as absurd and terrible as it sounds.

MONTAGE BEGINS -
INT. WIDOW HOUSE, BATHROOM
Einar has one of Greta’s sketches of ‘Lili’ stuck on the
bathroom mirror. Plucks a few hairs from his eyebrows to better
resemble the glamorous arch in the sketch.
INT. FONNESBECH’S DEPARTMENT STORE, COSMETICS DEPT
Einar tests lipsticks on the back of his hand, absorbed. Two
women LAUGH and he looks round, self-conscious, but it’s nothing
- just Greta messing around with one of the assistants.
EXT. NARROW STREET, DAY
Einar follows Greta, watches her hips sway, the way her weight
shifts; copies, feeling his way into her walk.
DISSOLVE TO:
INT. WIDOW HOUSE, STUDIO
Einar’s face, still concentrating as he paces the floors in
Anna’s yellow shoes, his trousers rolled up around the ankle.
INT. WIDOW HOUSE, BATHROOM, EVENING
Einar’s (unmade-up) face in the mirror. Greta does the last
button at the back of a simple shift dress he’s wearing. She
looks into the mirror.
INT. WIDOW HOUSE, BEDROOM, EVENING
Einar in the dress, sitting with his legs wide apart as Greta
sketches. She nudges him and he corrects his posture…We see
sketches around the room depicting ‘Lili’s’ progress.
INT. FONNESBECH’S DEPARTMENT STORE
Greta pays an assistant for several pairs of stockings.
INT/EXT. WIDOW HOUSE, STAIRS LEADING UP
Greta coming home, her key in the lock.
- MONTAGE ENDS -

Stockings appear frequently in this film, appearing prominently in 14 different scenes. They should get their own iMDB credit. Each time Lili is engaging directly with them; observing them, reflecting on them, caressing them between her fingers. She stares at other women’s stockings as often as she looks them in the eye.

Behind smudged glass, a worn-out girl in a corset and stockings grinds against a chair, sullen. Einar studies the girl and gradually his body begins to mirror hers, a parody of female abandon. We see his reflection in the glass now, gradually eclipsing her… He breathes, an almost orgasmic GASPING breath of relief.

Pre-transition, Lili is uptight and insecure, only brought out of her shell by the goading of Greta to crossdress. After bringing out this other side of her spouse, Greta quickly regrets it, and longs for things to return as they were. Eventually she begins to resent this change as the pieces fall together. At one point, she grills a childhood friend for clues to what her no-longer-husband was really like.

Answer: a big old sissy.

GRETA
He told me that you kissed him once.
HANS
I what…???
HANS
Oh no! You’re right — I’d forgotten. We were fooling in the kitchen,
Einar put on his grandmother’s apron… His father was sleeping - or so we thought. He was always sleeping -
HANS
Anyway, Einar just looked so pretty in that apron — I kissed him! Next thing
I know, his father’s chasing me out. I don’t know what he thought was
going on. But we were just little boys, you know, playing around?

Greta begins to see and treat Lili as a separate and distinct individual than her earlier incarnation, but makes clear she prefers the former. Lili becomes reclusive and obsessive, ashamed of what she’s become, but unable to go back.

This existential uneasiness and seeming questions of nature of self are continued tropes of crossdresser erotica/performance. This separation into separate entities, for instance, is a technique utilized/recommended in books by crossdressing community figure Miss Vera. The idea is to incorporate the preferred personality traits of the crossdresser into the “side” most sexually and romantically compatible with the partner/spouse.

LILI
Greta… what is it? Didn’t it go well? Did someone upset you…?
GRETA
I need to see Einar.
LILI
No, Einar’s not… Let me help…
Greta cuts her off sharply, desperation building:
GRETA
I need my husband. Just get him!
LILI
I can’t…
Lili’s eyes cloud. Greta moderates, already losing hope…
GRETA
I want to talk to my husband. I want to hold my husband. I need him. Can you get him? Can you at least try?
Lili deliberates, pained by the request…
GRETA
Please…

The third act culminates in and out of horrifying hospital scenes and Lili’s seeming obsession with “completing the process” as Greta looks on helplessly. Lili’s intersexuality is thrown in as an afterthought (a doctor mentions finding ovaries during one of the surgeries, which is never mentioned again) as they gruesomely wheel the increasingly sickly Lili from one operating theater to another.

That it’s so casually approached and then thrown away sends a stranger message than exploring or omitting the idea: what does it mean? Is it an attempted affirmation of some sort of underlying biological cause for Lili’s transsexuality, or an exploitative jab at the anomalous nature of same? Both? Something else? It’s difficult to tell.

So like, remember when I said that this sort of pulp erotica never has happy endings? In all likelihood, this is exactly why the life of Lili Elbe appeals to these sort of storytellers. It’s an appealing tale to them because her story arc ties so neatly into a tragic little bow. It plays into a sort of “No Homo” narrative (which I’ve discussed before) that flirts with empathy for the gender-non-conforming, but has a built-in safety valve to contain this understanding within the realm of play or fantasy.

Presented this way, it’s a punchline not unlike a cautionary tale; Lili Elbe dared to defy conventional wisdom/understanding of her existence and it literally killed her. Awww, the poor deluded thing. Enterprising auteurs have managed to condense and execute this formula in four minutes. It’s not like anyone actually manages to spend the rest of their life like this, right?

That’s the unspoken (and repeated) message this tired coda sends to trans ladies in the audience, as well as audience members that may know or even love a trans lady in their life: the mechanics of their actual continued existence remains an unspoken mystery to be regarded with pity and unreliable narration, clucking the tongue and saying “how fabulous and/or tragic” with no further consideration.

Illustration by Tessa Black.

Rani Baker is a freelance writer, artist, and frontperson for Destroyed For Comfort. An aspiring game designer, creator of of the game Never Go To Work. Maybe you’ve heard of her?

This article was produced and published on behalf of HARLOT Magazine, an intersectional e-rag set to launch in January 2016. For media inquiries or article pitches, contact us at dirtiestwellknownsecret@gmail.com.

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