Shallow progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” have in common

CN – minor spoilers for both films , discussion of racism, sexism, intersex erasure  and cissexism

I watched Star Wars Episode IV in the cinema, aged 6, wide-eyed and full of uncritical wonder.  Later, as a much more critical adult, I was let down badly by the racism in the portrayal of Ja Ja Binks in The Phantom Menace (among so many other disappointments).

I was holding my breath before seeing The Force Awakens.

I didn’t buy into the hyped controversy around those racist asshats complaining about a black stormtrooper – it smacked of a publicity stunt, a way of displaying the film’s right-on credentials, and possibly encouraging us to overlook its shortcomings. And yet, when I went to see the film, I was seduced. I loved the film, uncritically and with the same childish wonder I had in 1977. More of a remake than a sequel, it was just like going back in time only the effects, and the acting, were so much better. And as a feminist, it was great to see a woman in the active, heroic role, spurning help and rescuing herself. It was great to see the film’s leading man playing second fiddle to her.

[image: fan art depicting Finn, a black male stormtrooper, and Rey, the white female hero from "The Force Awakens" - they are depicted next to the villain's lightsaber, which looks like a burning cross]

If it wasn’t for my feminism, would I have noticed the problem inherent in Finn being portrayed by a black actor? Because having a black man play second fiddle to a white woman is hardly shattering the status quo in quite the same way. I wonder if Finn being white would have been a much bigger challenge for mainstream audiences, or indeed for the writers. The problem is, the apparently right-on casting kind of cancels itself out: Finn being black dilutes the film’s feminism, and the strength of Rey’s character reduces Finn to yet another black character who lacks agency, as beautifully described here (more spoilers).

In the end, I felt Finn’s character, despite his prominence and screen time, perpetuated some pretty racist tropes, right down to his job in sanitation – a black janitor, how very ground-breaking.

But I still went back to see the film again, caught up in the magic of my childhood being reinvented for the 3D, IMAX generation. I saw the problem, but it was far too easy for me to overlook.

Which is where The Danish Girl comes in. Because when it’s a film about trans people, it’s much more personal. I find myself agitated and hurt when I see my cisgender friends going to see it, and tutting at my objections. I refuse to go and see it myself, based on the copious accounts I have gleaned from trans friends and commentators, all of which tally with one another.

.[image: Lili Elbe pre-and post-tranisition]

There are a number of problems with the film. Casting a cis man as a trans woman (who was also intersex) is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that trans women are men that become women. Ideally a trans or intersex woman would play Lili Elbe, but if not a cis woman would be more appropriate than a man. Just look at the picture of real life Lili pre-transition – she was never a man. I find it really sad that Nicole Kidman, apparently the original choice, was replaced by Eddie Redmayne.

There are many problematic tropes in the film, such as it focussing on the idea of performing femininity, as if being a woman is in itself just a performance, and all about clothes and mannerisms, rather than heartfelt identity. The film also has a sexualised and fetishistic gaze.

Worse, the true story has been fictionalised in ways that preserve a false but pervasive idea of trans lives. Real life Gerda was bisexual, and fully accepting of Lili – in the film she struggles, as no doubt she is expected to. Film Lili’s intersex condition is never mentioned, contributing to the ongoing erasure of intersex people. The film also appears to many to give the message that Lili died for “trying to be a woman”, with the implied blame laid at her door for her selfishness, another hurtful trope the trans community have heaped endlessly upon us. In fact Lili died because doctors tried an experimental and still impossible to this day surgery to transplant a uterus. The film has her dying as a result of a now routine and then successful vaginoplasty.

danish girl

History was changed to tell the story the cis director wanted to tell. Changed to be acceptable to the cis gaze.

Overall, a lot of trans people are concerned that yet again the film views trans people from a cis perspective that fundamentally misses the truth of our lives, and erases intersex altogether.

So is this cissexism worse than the racism of The Force Awakens because Lili was a real person, because this is fundamentally a trans and intersex story and not just a flight of fantasy? Or is it only worse because it is my minority affected by this movie?

I’ll admit it – I don’t want my friends to go put money in Tom Hooper’s coffers for this movie, I don’t want Lili’s true story trashed for this fantasy, and since it has been, I don’t want people to be sucked in.

But of course, cis people will go, and they will see it as progress, they will praise Redmayne and Hooper and they will probably brand those of us voicing concern as over-sensitive. They will tell us we should be grateful our stories are being told at all and many trans people will agree with them, thankful the portrayal is at least kind, if not accurate. It is progress, after a fashion, just like Rey and Finn are progress, sort of.

But the progress is shallow, and it too easily preserves the status quo and fails to challenge people’s views or really dig deep.

But I am a hypocrite, for while I will dig my heels in over The Danish Girl I will no doubt continue to be riveted, albeit somewhat critically, to the ongoing Star Wars reboot. I have no justification for this. In the end it is really difficult to judge the level of offence when it’s not you or people like you being undermined. All I can do is keep promising to listen to and amplify the voices that count and hope others do the same.

4 thoughts on “Shallow progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” have in common

  1. lesleydreamwalker

    Once again, beautifully written and very thought provoking. I haven’t seen either film, so can’t comment more critically, but I love the way you raise and discuss these issues.

  2. G. B. Marian

    I see your point regarding Star Wars – though I can’t speak to The Danish Girl just yet – but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Finn character lacks any agency. He does indeed play second fiddle to the white woman, and that can certainly be seen as presenting a negative message; but Finn still accomplishes quite a lot of things throughout the film by his own power, such as rescuing Po Dameron and holding his own for a large portion of the climactic light saber duel. (Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting a non-Jedi to do as well as he does in that scene.) Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but just the fact that they’re trying and that we’re even able to discuss these things publicly today (as opposed to the social climate in 1977) is a pretty huge step. Perhaps they will do something in the next film that will push the envelope further. (I for one hope that they will avoid having Rey and Finn become romantically involved, but we’ll see.) I for one thought the new Star Wars was pretty pointless – it’s really just a remake of the original, as you’ve said; there’s not much by way of creative innovation – but it is nonetheless very enjoyable for what it is, and much more so than the prequel trilogy.

    All in all, great review; I will have to try The Danish Girl as time permits. I do agree that the casting choice is strange; it’s not appropriate to have white actors play people of color anymore, so why is it still appropriate for cis actors to play transgender roles? Of course, the answer probably has more to do with money and funding than anything else. Consider the upcoming Gods of Egypt movie, in which there are almost no actors of color at all (despite the fact that the ancient Egyptians clearly weren’t white). I’ve heard that the reason for this is because the producers felt they couldn’t get the movie funded if they cast mostly black and/or Arabic actors, especially given ISIL and all the rampant Islamophobia that’s been happening. Personally, I think that’s exceedingly shitty and stupid, and I’d prefer the film not be made at all (for other reasons as well as this). But maybe something similar happened with the casting in The Danish Girl?

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Here’s the thing, we can acknowledge that something is a step forward and still see how it doesn’t go far enough. 40 years is enough time that we should be doing better, but I accept the film is still in many ways refreshing. You’re right that an interracial relationship would break further ground. On the other hand, I’m rooting for a Poe/Finn romance as that’s where the chemistry is, and Finn/Rey seek to have more of a Luke/Leia relationship 🙂


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