The Artifice of Femininity: Double Standards in The Danish Girl

There are, obviously, spoilers for the film in this post.

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Still from The Danish Girl, starring Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne.

I saw The Danish Girl, the film loosely based on the real story of Lili Elbe, at the beginning of the month. But I’m only now writing this blog post, because it took (as usual) a little while to organise what I wanted to say. The film is a strange mixture. I thought it was subtle in the way it told the characters’ stories, moving and engaging. As you might guess if you know Elbe’s history, it is pretty dark, with some appallingly disturbing scenes: notably, the episode in which a doctor emotionlessly diagnoses Elbe as a homosexual and enforces a ‘cure’ involving radiation of the genitals, and the scenes of Elbe’s horrific pain following a surgery that was crude beyond belief. But – disappointingly – it’s also saccharine in places, with some surprisingly false notes.

First the good: the film is beautifully shot, and worth seeing on those grounds alone. It is truly painterly: a breathtaking series of natural images prepares us for the scene in which we see young Einar Wegener hailed as an up-and-coming artist, the painter who captures the spare, structural and natural beauty of the leafless trees we’ve just seen growing. As the film progresses, the imagery becomes richer, with heavy tactile fabrics, swishing kimonos, drapes and silky scarves. This visual vocabulary, in turn, is echoed in the paintings associated with Gerda Wegener, Einar’s ambitious, talented, and bohemian wife.

The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between these two. Lili Elbe isn’t played as a saint: there were times when you definitely sympathised with Gerda Wegener; times when Elbe’s actions and words seemed selfish, thoughtless, or shallow. This was refreshing: one of the things that annoys me about, for example, Sophia in Orange is the New Black is that she’s almost never allowed to be anything but an anodyne cardboard cut-out, tiredly bringing out clichéd remarks about hairstyles or Our Shared Struggles As Women. By contrast, Elbe comes across as a human being, and at the same time there’s a rare sympathetic portrayal of the struggles Wegener faces. And I could appreciate the film makers’ decision to portray Wegener as a heterosexual woman: it was a good change from the irritating and guilt-inducing contemporary assumption that female sexuality must always be ‘fluid’ and accommodating.

But, a bit of me is quite sad that the film makers decided to edit out the historical part of Elbe and Wegener’s lives during which they lived as an out lesbian couple in 1920s Paris. A quick google of Wegener’s art, made during this period, is eye-opening, and very different from the tasteful, Impressionist-lite images the film substituted – and the image below is definitely one of the politer pieces. But, in place of this, there’s a single scene, in which Elbe rocks an androgynously-tailored, lesbian-chic suit and is momentarily (and delightfully) thrilled to hear a couple of men speculating: “lesbienne?”

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Gerda Wegener, ‘Ved Spljlet’ (‘By the Mirror’).

… And then they beat her up. It’s undeniably moving that the film makers’ decided to follow this moment of Elbe’s delight in ‘passing’ with sudden violence from the men, and it’s sadly ironic that she’s treated to the same violence lesbians did and do face for being too easily confused with men. But the film doesn’t really explore the possibility that Elbe – or anyone else – might associate femininity with anything other than dresses and makeup, and certainly not with lesbianism. Indeed, it’s quite hard to interpret that scene of violence as anything other than the film’s own brutal insistence that there is only one legitimate way in which to be female.

And it was this insistence that began to nag away at me as I watched.

In one pivotal scene in the film, Elbe – whose cheerfully bohemian wife is in need of a model to stand in for the absent female subject of her current painting – draws a filmy silk stocking over a strikingly hairy, masculine-looking leg. It’s a moment that’s been criticised, with some viewers arguing that to reduce Elbe’s desire to transition to a single moment of rather coy cross-dressing (ooh! women’s underwear!) is a bit simplistic. My issue was different. We see Vikander’s naked body at several points during the film, and at no time are her legs anything other than perfectly hairless. This is, of course, a tacit nod to twenty-first-century aesthetics: audiences are deemed unable to imagine the possibility of an attractive woman who doesn’t come pre-packed as hair-free, even though it’s highly unlikely a woman living during this period (and wearing the long-skirted fashions Vikander’s character wears) would have been shaving her legs. Vikander’s femininity is socially constructed, but that social construction is actively obscured, hidden, made as invisible as the hair that surely grows on her legs.

I found this telling. I didn’t expect The Danish Girl to break the mould and go for exact historical verisimilitude. I read trash media; I know that women and men alike are (supposedly) transfixed with horror at the sight of a furry female and would be utterly unable to sustain their interest in a film that portrayed one. But that’s the problem. The film works very hard to make us believe that the main character we see is, and always was, a woman; it works against the fact that Redmayne, who acts Elbe, is a male actor. But, because it also makes invisible the performances we demand from female actors (Vikander) and not from male ones (Redmayne), the film lands itself with a problem of confused categories: why is this one leg hairy, when the other is not?

By contrast, the artifice Redmayne uses is highly visible – even too visible, leading to what’s probably the complaint I’ve heard most frequently about the film as a whole. Redmayne, as Lili, spends much of the film batting, fluttering, lowering and raising, his enhanced feminine lashes.

Critics on all sides have weighed in with acidic questions: is this Redmayne’s poor acting?Is it something the director decided? Does Redmayne imagine that being a woman is a kind of performance, a kind of artifice? Does he think transwomen all look like this? What is it? The questions keep coming, because – at root – we’re aware that there’s some visible artifice here, some mannerism, that obtrudes between us and our sympathy with Lili Elbe, the character. But discussing one kind of artifice has, I’d argue, blinded us to another kind, which is hidden in plain sight.

In the film, Redmayne wears lashings of thick mascara. And unlike Vikander’s shaven legs, this isn’t an anachronism. Like quite a lot of cosmetics, mascara is a bit of an irritant. It’s come on a long way since 1933, when a new product on the market caused the death of one woman and the blindness of sixteen more. But, however hypoallergenic a product may be, the advertising boasts of new, un-clumping formulas, lighter-weight versions and waterproof options remind us that painting something onto the hairs around your eyes is never going to be a totally fuss-free option, especially if you’re not used to it. On balance of probability, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Eddie Redmayne probably doesn’t wear mascara as a day-to-day habit, and certainly not heavy, thick, dark lashes like the ones in this film. It doesn’t particularly surprise me, then, that he’s batting his eyelashes a fair bit. It’s a natural reaction. And in an actor supposed to be playing a woman, nature looks like artifice.

These details – hairless legs, mascara’d eyes – may seem tiny. But they’re telling examples of the rigid system of expectations society places upon women, the rigid demands to perform femininity. For decades, feminists have been arguing that these performances – these ‘minor’ artifices – are neither transparently innate to women, nor matters of free and natural choice. This film – which might have taken the time to expose the artifice of what it means to be accepted as a ‘real’ woman – instead chose to essentialize differences rooted not in biology, but in the aesthetics of a misogynistic culture.

 

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‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables

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Still from the 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables (Megan Follows and Richard Farnsworth)

When you’re feeling a bit down, what you really, really need is a coven of feminists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of YA fiction through the ages. Luckily, I have such a thing, and last year, on one of those days when I was moping in bed with a cold, they put me onto the film versions of Anne of Green Gables. Weirdly, although I read the books years ago (and they’re free on Project Gutenberg, by the way, which is a lovely perk you get for reading stuff written in 1908), I’d never seen the films. I think I’d probably assumed they’d be travesties, a bit like the godawful TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books (note to anyone interested in adaptations: Pa is not a hunk. He does not have a square jaw and faraway gaze. We want no sex here. HTH). Plus, a cursory glance at the cover art of the Anne books through the decades shows just how bad things can get.

Obviously, you probably know I was wrong: the film of Anne is absolutely pitch-perfect and endearing and funny and just exactly what you need to curl up with for a couple of hours with a nice cup of tea and a warm blanket. And it’s also completely feminist-friendly. So, when I heard, yesterday, that there was going to be a new, updated version, I was quite pleased. Then I heard doom-laden pronouncements from said cultured feminist YA-reading friends. And I read that there were to be ‘new elements’ that would reflect “timeless issues, including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self”. Oh, new version. No. Let me explain this to you. You do not need new elements. All the fun of the old version was introducing these ‘new elements’ yourself, through the time-honoured medium of cackling and sniggering at unintended innuendos. Allow me to explain. I present, for your critical assessment, ten moments of pure, unadulterated, queer-theory-is-my-bitch, gold dust:

10: ‘My Bosom Friend’

The theme of female friendship is what Anne’s story is really all about. And we’re not talking vague, fourth-wave gestures towards inclusion and exhortations to ‘self-care’ that turn out to be excuses to sell stuff. This is more along the lines of separatism, womyn’s lands (just minus the overt lesbianism and with an amused tolerance for a few decent men).  In the books, Marilla and the widowed Rachel Lynde eventually set up house together; in the film, the only time the widowed Mrs Hammond is shown in a good light is when her friend, comforting her, invites her to move in. So Anne’s burning desire for a ‘bosom friend’ to call her own isn’t odd in nature, only in the way she expresses herself. That said, in the books, the precise terminology just about passes without comment. By the 80s, it requires the scripting of a delightfully shocked interchange between the innocently precocious Anne and a slightly-less-than-heteronormative Marilla, exclaiming ‘a what kind of friend?!’

9: Kindred Spirits

I suppose if you’re really trying hard to queer it, you probably can. Anne and her ‘bosom friend’ do, eventually, have a brief platonic kiss and, er, they do break the bed. But really, queering isn’t the point here: what’s lovely about the film version is that Diana’s rewritten as a character who just enjoys things, with a very unproblematic refusal to beat herself up about anything. It’s a nicer, more female-friendly version than the books, where we hear Diana’s internal monologue and it tends to be irritatingly full of doubts about propriety and coy thoughts about boys.
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This is the 1908 first edition cover art, by the way, which is very, very period-piece and charming, but does have the minor drawback of making Anne look as if she’s permanently kinked her neck by wearing that volume of hair tied up on it.

8: ‘Sentimental Schoolboys’

In the film Anne, complaining about Gilbert, sounds extremely Elinor Dashwood: ‘Why can’t he just be sensible, instead of acting like a sentimental schoolboy?’ This is absolutely in the spirit of the books, but I don’t recall that specific phrase. In wider pop culture, the prhase is almost invariably in the feminine (‘sentimental schoolgirl’), so this change is nice. Plus, it gives me happy images of Jonathan Crombie playing Marianne in a gender-flip Austen. You can see it, right?

7: First Dance

At the ball, Diana asks Anne to dance, and they whirl around the floor alongside all the (mostly grown-up) male/female couples. I just love this, because why the hell not? It’s not in the book so far as I remember, but it would fit there fine: there’s no need for them to sit in the corner decorously waiting to be asked to dance.

6: Queering Parenting

Matthew (who speaks even less in the film than in the books) is determinedly unfussed about any incipient relationship between Anne and Gilbert. This isn’t in the books, and it isn’t an unqualified plus point for the films (why would Marilla – or Mrs Lynde – think Anne, in her mid-teens, shouldn’t be accepting a lift from Gilbert? And why on earth would they jump to the conclusion she’s flirting?). But, it is nice to have Matthew as the total opposite of the father-figure who censures his daughter for any kind of sexuality.

Which is why this travesty (cover art from 2013) is such a heap of Wrong. anne_of_green_gables_cover_a_l.jpg

5: Don’t Try That Shit Here

Gilbert gets tries a tiiiiny bit of emotional manipulation and gets slammed.

“I think you’re old enough to make up your own mind, Anne.”

“I’ve always been old enough to make up my own mind.”

Classy.

4) Don’t Try That Shit, Take Two:

Marilla’s fucking terrifying deadpan interrogation of Gilbert. Not remotely in the books – where Marilla takes a moment to feel slightly sad she turned down Gilbert’s dad – this bit is the only time I’ve ever seen a female character do the equivalent of the (admittedly, awful) Scary Dad to Prospective Suitor lecture.

3: Beyond Bechdel

The conversation that redefines the test (yes, I know it’s a flawed measure anyway). Anne and Diana sit up in bed, with Anne catastrophising about her exams. Diana, sensibly, motivates Anne with good old-fashioned academic competition. Technically, this is a ‘conversation between two women concerning a man’ and therefore Not Bechdel, but Gilbert features purely and entirely as Diana’s means of motivating Anne to want to kick his arse. Nice.

2: ‘There must be Some Queer Mistake’

I had to pause the film, rewind, and drink some tea to stop the cackles from choking me the first time I heard this, for I am deeply, deeply immature and have immature issues with queer theory. But this is just brilliant.

As Marilla realises that Matthew has brought home from the orphanage not the required boy – to help out with the farm work – but a girl, she comes out with this delightfully postmodern complaint:

“There seems to be some queer mistake, Sarah. We told Roberta to get us a boy.”

A ‘queer mistake’ is precisely what Anne is: a girl who should have been a boy, and an individual who destabilises all of Marilla’s narrow, tightly-controlled ideas about her own identity. In 1908, I can believe the term ‘some queer mistake’ raised nary an eyebrow. In 1985 – a year after Foucault died – I quite like to believe someone intended this one. 

1: Not quite Eddie Izzard

It’s the scene in which Matthew buys Anne her first dress with puffed sleeves. Yes, I know, in the books it’s brown Gloria, and Mrs Lynde takes pity on Matthew after his disastrous visit to the store, and makes it up herself. And yes, brown Gloria does sound a heck of a lot more attractive than the sky-blue eighties monstrosity they came up with, which does not make Matthew look (as Anne sighs) like a man of ‘exceptional taste’.

But I love everything they changed about this scene. In the books, Matthew’s mortified, tongue-tied attempts to pull himself together and talk to a woman results in a half-dozen desperate impulse buys, including 20lb of brown sugar, before he departs miserably, dress un-bought and intentions undeclared. But in the film, he manages to get control of his shyness long enough to whisper hoarsely across the counter ‘I want a dress!’

I cannot begin to say how much I adore the momentary look of utter shock in the saleswoman’s eyes, and the dawning moment before she realises he’s not asking for one for himself. This is truly brilliant: L. M. Montgomery couldn’t, I think, have written it and I’m fairly sure it was nowhere in her mind when she set out that scene. But it’s incredibly endearing, and it does bring home to you that – for a very, very shy man at the end of the nineteenth century – buying a child a dress was probably as difficult a secret to overcome as the same man admitting to cross-dressing in 1985, the date the film was made. And I’d love to imagine Marilla’s face if it were true …

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And one more for luck …

The brilliant Cath Andrews reminds me of something I should never have forgotten, from the books. In her teens, Anne dyes her hated red hair with dye intended to turn it ‘beautiful raven black’ … instead it turns her hair green, and so Marilla is forced to ‘shingle’ it.

Obviously, you could read this as Anne working the androgynous look (which I’d love, for the other sexy androgynous short-haired gingers out there). But – amongst Cambridge undergrads at least – green hair seems to be a sign of queer individuality that’s in danger of becoming a uniform …

‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4

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At Peterborough Cathedral

This Wednesday, at 8.45pm, I’m speaking on the BBC Radio 4 series Four Thought. In addition to that broadcast, the programme will also be available as a podcast little later, in a longer version including questions from the audience.

I’ve been getting nervous all this week, because I was so excited to do this talk. I got to mention some of my favourite medieval women, amongst them Margery Paston, who stood up to her entire family plus the bishop of Norwich, and the brilliant, bizarre artist Jeanne de Montbaston, for whom this blog is named. But I was also a bit terrified – I wanted to do these women justice.

Radio is an unseen medium, and that feels oddly appropriate, because the women I study are – by and large – unseen women, as well as unheard and unheard of. We simply don’t know what Jeanne de Montbaston looked like, nor Margery Paston. When I think about medieval women’s lived experiences, I’m usually working backwards from laws drafted by men, texts copied by men, manuscripts compiled by men.

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But traces of women do survive, in the bodies of work they left behind. And I wanted to spend the rest of this post thinking about how I like to imagine these often unheard, unseen women.

Although no known picture of Jeanne de Montbaston survives, her name instantly calls to mind a host of evocative images: who could forget the strange penis tree, with its industrious company of nuns harvesting the fruit?

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Jeanne’s nun leads a (surprisingly enthusiastic) monk on a chain from his penis.

The penis tree image comes – like the other images on this page – from a series of illustrations Jeanne made for a copy of the bestselling Roman de la Rose, a poem firmly part of the male-dominated and misogynistic tradition, which she skilfully and boldly subverted. Jeanne’s artistic perspective remains resolutely original, refusing to conform to the expectations of a male-dominated literary culture. Her little nun is instantly familiar, with her expressive hands and lively face constantly suggesting personality, whether she’s picking penises, spreading her fingers wide to measure their unexpected size, bossily pointing the way forward for her captive monk, or pointing authoritatively at the text beside her.
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But my favourite of the series of illuminations is this final one, where the nun stands in a high tower, while her monk companion doggedly attempts to scale the walls with a rather precarious-looking ladder. The image evokes the classic trope of fairytale romance: the captive lady; the dashing man to the rescue. Jeanne must have known such stories: she provided images for the classic tale of Tristram, who rescued his lover Isolde. But this was not the story for Jeanne: her nun’s mouth is open mid-diatribe, her hands spread in almost preacherly eloquence, as if she’s turned the feminine tower into a decidedly masculine pulpit, and one fist is outstretched to rap on the top of the walls for emphasis … and she appears not even to have noticed the climbing monk whom she’s almost hit over the head. Does she need rescuing? Does she heck.

Jeanne’s name is known to us only through a quirk of fate: she might easily have been one of the thousands of medieval women whose personalities I can only reconstruct by imagining, by thinking how they might have thought, felt, reacted, spoken, responded, to the male dominated culture all around them. But in her images, she puts forward a vivid sense of self, a sense of personality, that demands our attention. Jeanne is an unseen medieval woman, a woman we can’t picture. But, today, the illuminations she made have been shared all over the internet and reproduced in books and papers and exhibitions. She is far more ‘visible’ for her work than her male peers, far better known than any male illuminator of the same period. By attending to medieval women – by sharing their work, reconstructing their lives, thinking about who they were and how they lived – we can bring them to life again, and let their voices be heard.

Notes

All images are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526.

Jeanne also provided images for texts about the Crusades and the voyages of Marco Polo, such as this one in the British Library, which tapped into contemporary interest in tall tales of exotic countries and exciting travel narratives. She worked on a manuscript of the French Voeux du Paon (‘the Vows of the Peacock), now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 165, a strange and ambiguous moral narrative. A copy of the popular Tristram romance with its salacious and sexy adulterous theme, also contains some images by Jeanne, and is now in the Getty Museum in New York (MS Ludwig XV 5). For more on Jeanne and her books, see:

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

D. J. A. Ross, ‘Methods of Book-Production in a XIVth Century French Miscellany (London, B. L., ms Royal 19. D. I.)’, Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études relatives aux manuscrits, 6 (1952), 63-75

Keith Busby, ‘Text and Image in the Getty Tristan, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV, 5′, in Medieval Manuscripts, Their Makers and Users: A Special Issue of Viator in Honor of Richard and Mary Rouse (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 1-25