‘The Danish Girl’ and the transit of gender

Eddie Redmayne at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Photograph by Gordon Correll.

Eddie Redmayne at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Photograph by Gordon Correll.

The acclaimed new movie “The Danish Girl” – about the artist Einar Wegener, who became the first person to have male-to-female sex reassignment surgery – raises intriguing questions about the nature of art.

Specifically, should a transgender role be played by a transgender actor? (The film stars Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for his performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and has been nominated once again for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for “Girl.”) More broadly, should creative and interpretive artists stick to their own experiences? The latter is a question that I have a vested interest in as the author of the debut novel “Water Music,” about four gay athletes and how their professional rivalries color their personal relationships with one another, and the forthcoming “The Penalty for Holding,” about a gay, biracial quarterback’s search for identity, success, acceptance and love in the NFL. (They’re both part of my series “The Games Men Play.”)

What, I’m often asked, would a woman – and a straight one at that – know about gay sex? I could say I find men thrilling and that it’s fun to escape into something or someone other than yourself. (In that sense, artists are transgendered intellectually.) But ultimately for me, a male-male romance is a distant mirror through which I can view a narrative of sex, dominance, rivalry and power safely, objectively and sensuously. (An editor friend told me I should simply respond that Stephen Crane – who wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” one of the best war novels – never set foot on a battlefield. Or maybe I should just say, one with Gustave Flaubert, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”)

Of course, I bring myself to my work. We all do. How could we not? And conversely, there’s much to be said for matching an artist’s background to a work. It has, however, no relevance in the so-called high arts – ballet, opera, theater – which are characterized by a kind of hyper- or super-reality and in which the four Ts (talent, training, technique and temperament) prevail. (These are also art forms that contain a fair amount of drag and pants, or women playing men or boys, roles.) Who cares that the soprano singing Madama Butterfly is not an actual 15-year-old geisha? She is, after all, singing in Italian. And if she cannot manage those repeated Fs in “Un bel di,” well, forget about it.

But the popular visual arts – film, video, digital – have always suggested a verisimilitude that is heightened by the age of the Internet. Reality rules. We want everything to be authentic. A transgender actor would certainly look more like a transgender person, right?

"There is an incredibly valid discussion for why a trans actress isn't playing the part, because there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I'm sure there are many who could play this part sensationally,” Redmayne told “The Telegraph. "But one of the complications is that nowadays you have hormones, and many trans women have taken hormones. But to start this part playing male you'd have to come off the hormones, so that has been a discussion as well. Because back in that period (the early 20th century) there weren't hormones."

Beyond the physical reality, however, is the role that imagination plays in all the arts.

“Look, I’ve just played a man in his 50s with motor neuron disease,” the hearty, thirtysomething Redmayne was quoted as saying in Out magazine. “I’m acting.”

And an actor – or any artist – filters his subject through himself, encountering that subject on the bridge of the imagination. So there is another, greater trans at work here.