Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener. From Wellcome Images. Copyright free under Wikimedia Creative Commons.
A couple of weeks ago I saw The Danish Girl. I watched Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of the male artist Einar Wegener attempting the metamorphosis, psychological and physical, to a woman, Lili Elbe. Like a whole bunch of critics, I found it hammy and unconvincing.
On the BBC in October last year Germaine Greer fought back under flak for her comments about transsexual men, her gist having been that "Just because transgender men have their bits lopped off' doesn't make them women." She expanded:
"I think that a great many women don't think that post-operative, or even non-post-operative, transsexual M to F transsexual people look like, sound like or behave like women, but they daren't say so."
Transsexuals play with, and/or strive to inhabit, their ideas of womanhood; of course Redmayne's Lili isn't real, is at several removes from a real transsexual, a male actor imitating a transgender male mimicking his/her notions of the female. So perhaps this female shouldn't be surprised if in this he fails.
As for real life transsexuals, Greer may have been tactless in her language and throwaway in her delivery - to me she often comes over as batty and ill-considered these days - but I have to say that my thoughts chime with her description of a common but unspoken female view of M to F transsexual behaviour. I've been one of her "great many" silent women - until now.
This is the part where I feel I have to stress that I know several M to F would-be and post-operative transsexuals; that some of them are friends. And where I assure you that I support what they have done, and the way they choose to live their lives - as I would anyone's right to be the individual they feel they are. I'm truly glad that they are happier living as female, more comfortable in their own skins and emotional lives.And please don't accuse me of protesting too much: it happens to be true.
But, for reasons of this very empathy, or is it embarrassment, or maybe pure cowardice, with them I've never had those conversations that I have with other women friends about clothes, makeup and the rest; because if I did, I'd want to suggest changes to the way that several of them - and even a couple of cross-dressing friends - dress and move.
Note, though, that I don't. As I say, it would feel wrong of me: I fear being accused of political incorrectness, and/or making some kind of imposition. The problem is, I do have these self-help conversations about fashion and appearance with my other women friends - all the while, I hasten to add, expecting them to be as open with me, about me, in return. So here, with my transgender friends, there's an inequity.
It's not just Eddie Redmayne who's got me thinking about where some transgender men might source their notions of womanhood. I think of Dustin Hoffmann as Tootsie; Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire; Barry Humphries as Edna Everage. I know they're only actors, but don't their clothes and mannerisms embody one particularly enduring and prevalent female archetype: the homely matriarch, reliable or regal in manner, often iron-clad in a blouse with a fussy bow and high collar, and/or with an impressive frontage that carries all before her? The capable mother figure, the formidable female authority, not to be gainsayed.
There are alternative concepts of womanhood that some men-turned-women appear to want to pull off. Redmayne continually uses his hands in what he seems to consider feminine poses. His hands hover around or cling to his neck and shoulders, their backs framing his face, as if to draw attention away from Wegener's still-male body. Perhaps he's inspired by a tradition, seemingly originating in the 1910s and 1920s' birth of advertising for women's perfume, manicure products and more, in which the hands are raised and placed in stylised, artificial poses in the air, or signposting the Marcel-waved hair and shapely jaw. Look at Carole Lombard; though this is an archetype that still endures today.
Fashion modelling seems to me to have a lot to answer for in some modern-day transsexuals' dress and gesture. Daily we're all exposed to an abundance of vogueish images in which hands clutch luxurious lapels together, close under the chin. Deriving, it seems to me, from the 1920s and 30s, still, today, models arch their pencil-thin backs or hunch their jaws and shoulders forward over flat chests; hemlines droop in tactile, silky fabrics, one over the other; but that's a hard look to pull off in the street, in a dress from M & S under a coat from Jaeger.
Give him this due though: Redmayne does highlight something I've observed among most transgender friends: their love of fabric just as fabric: satin, lace and fur; the feel of frills and furbelows and bows under the fingers. For the transsexual, not just the actor, forget such everyday wear as mine: jeans and a sweatshirt; a tailored skirt and top, if I have to be more formal; velvet trousers and a loose blouse for evening. (Most non-transsexual women I know are much the same as me, on many occasions dressing close to asexual.) For most of my M to F transgender friends, it's different: fashion has to be as textural and sensory as it can be, and all of that in flounce and volume.
Don't misunderstand me. I don't get my own fashion and walk and gesture 'right', or at least how I'd like them, much of the time. And a lot of fashion and appearance, for me as for many transsexuals, is about playacting, taking on one or more roles to suit my mood - if I can only fathom it. That's why I agree with Germaine. It takes a whole lifetime, and lots of friends you can trust, to help you learn how to be, and act like, a woman.