The New New Homonormativity: The Danish Girl and Transnormativity
“The new neoliberal sexual politics of the IFG might be termed the new homonormativity—it is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan, 2004, p. 179).
In 2004, Lisa Duggan shook the interpretation of the norms of sexual politics and hegemonic sexualities in the United States. Quite literally creating a new conceptualization of normative sexuality, Duggan (2004) dubbed her observations of representations of queer subjectivities as “homonormativity:” a collusion of homosexual and normativity. The homonormative subject, who did not contest normative identities, but rather aligned with such notions, was recognized and accepted by the state as a hegemonic marker of sexual modernity. Years later, this phenomenon is ever apparent, and scholars such as Jasbir Puar (i.e. 2004, 2006, 2013), Sara Ahmed (2011), Jin Haritaworn et al. (2008), and others have created extensive bodies of literature on the effects of homonormativity, homonationalism, pinkwashing, and this type of sexual politics. Although this area of research is well developed, the same questions that have been sought out by past scholars are the very questions being asked now in a new context. Specifically, how are certain trans bodies positioned as normative and accepted into the nation’s norms? Furthermore, what effects/repercussions does this have on non-normative trans identities?
To begin answering these questions, the romance in The Danish Girl will be examined as it is portrayed in a normative way that places the focus on relatable aspects of the relationship in a heteronormative society. This emphasis of a normative (read: seemingly straight) romantic plot in the film creates a trans character that is easily relatable to a mainstream audience. The use of hegemonic romantic tropes within this film facilitates the viewer’s identification with the protagonist; however, it is crucial to note the ways in which this character embodies characteristics of an ideal citizen. The Danish Girl parallels Duggan’s notion of homonormativity in its portrayal of the transgender protagonist who aligns with many normative representations. Not only is this dynamic present in this film, but the film also exemplifies the possible early stages of “transnormative citizenship” (Stryker, 2016) or “transnormativity” (Puar, 2015). Finally, this acceptance and media representation of certain trans subjectivities creates an opportunity for the nation to present a façade of inclusivity and progressivity. This could foreseeably have transnational implications, much as the homonormative subject is used as a market of sexual modernity within the nation-state.
Transformed by Love
The Focus Features film, The Danish Girl (2015), starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, is inspired by the true story of two Danish artists. After uncovering “long-repressed feelings,” Einar Wegener (Redmayne) “embark[s] on a groundbreaking journey that’s only made possible by the unconditional love of her wife [Vikander], Einar fights to become the person she’s meant to be, transgender pioneer Lili Elbe” (Bevan, 2015). This film was well-received by critics and was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Redmayne and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Vikander. However, much of the media attention for this film solely focuses on the love story between characters and barely acknowledges the film’s portrayal of gender. In a TIME article about the film, Berman (2015) writes, “Tempting as it may be to label the movie a transgender story, it’s as much a portrait of a marriage as of an unwitting trailblazer.” In essence, Berman is implying that this film about a “transgender pioneer” can actually be read as a film about the story of a marriage, therefore eradicating the importance of gender in the film. In this section of the paper, the normative representations of sex, love, romance, and gender in the film will be discussed. To begin, gender is portrayed exclusively within a reliance on a binary sense of gender. In addition, the romantic relationship between the two protagonists is the most important relationship in the film characterized by many contemporary western (hetero)normative tropes of mythic love. In addition, sexuality and gender within this film is portrayed in a way that both supports compulsory heterosexuality and erases queer sexualities.
In The Danish Girl, gender is portrayed in dichotomous terms, as Einar’s transition to Lili operates strictly within the gender binary of man to woman. Positing gender in such dichotomous definitions simultaneously portrays transgender experiences only within a gender binary and renders nonbinary expressions of gender unimaginable. Due to this binary understanding of trans identities in the film, the movie attempts to create a distinction between Einar and Lili as though they were separate characters, one a masculine man and the other a feminine woman. To illustrate this dichotomy as presented in the film, I will use he/him pronouns and the name Einar when the audience is meant to understand a masculine presentation of this character, and she/her pronouns and the name Lili when the audience is viewing a feminine presentation throughout this paper. During the film, the presentation of the protagonist switches back and forth, and rarely does the viewer see a transition or anything in between, which upholds such a dualistic understanding of gender (Bevan, 2015). However, in one scene in particular, there is a clear physical transition from one gender to the other. In this scene, Einar rushes to a dressing room and is visibly distraught. He hastily removes his masculine clothing, stripping down to only boxers in front of a mirror, and begins to pose in a stereotypically feminine manner, while still looking distraught. At the turning point in this scene, Einar removes his boxers and tucks his penis between his legs. The viewer is led to understand this as a point of transition from Einar to Lili, through the cultural collusion of genitals and sex/gender. This scene concludes with Lili posing in a more overtly feminine manner while holding up a dress, and the next scene is Lili presenting as a stereotypically feminine woman meeting a male who is a potential love interest (Bevan, 2015). Although the viewer watches a transition in this scene, there is still a clear distinction between Einar/man and Lili/woman, and the character is not meant to be understood as anything in between. This distinction is accomplished through a western understanding of gender that prescribes gender to bodies.
Through this scene, two main messages are imparted into the film about the relationship between gender and bodies. First, the viewer is made to understand that the masculine Einar is completely separate from the feminine Lili. Not only is the scene marked with a transition in the tucking of the penis, but this scene is preceded by Redmayne’s character presenting as Einar and followed by a feminine presentation of Lili. The moment when Redmayne hides away his penis is the moment that Einar is transformed into Lili—as if trans identities are only intelligible if they are mapped onto dichotomous definitions of gender. Second, this scene also functions to support hegemonic understandings of gender and sex. Not only must trans identities be mapped onto the gender binary in order to be normative, but they must also align with typical conceptualizations of sexed and gendered bodies. It was necessary for Einar to hide his penis before audiences could view Lili as a woman. In the U.S. gender binary, women do not and cannot have penises and trans identities must operate within the dual expressions of the gender binary. Therefore, to have this character presented as a normative (thus acceptable) trans body, it must be one that exists within either gender (or both, but not simultaneously).
The Danish Girl portrays tropes of mythic love that function to normalize the relationship between Einar/Lili and Gerda due to the heteronormative implications of the romance. Throughout Einar’s transition to Lili, the relationship between Einar and Gerda is understood as a constant, influential force of Lili’s experiences; however, as the film portrays the transition from Einar to Lili, it is only Einar that has a romantic relationship with Gerda. In one scene, Gerda tells Lili that she wants her husband back, implying that Gerda is incapable of loving Lili, and needs this character to be presenting as Einar in order to experience love and attraction (Bevan, 2015). This instance of the expression of Gerda’s desire for Einar, but not Lili, upholds heterosexual understandings of romance, which normalizes the relationship between these characters. In contrast, not only is this relationship normalized through its continued existence only in a heterosexual understanding, but the love between these characters is also viewed as transformative because it persists in some way throughout the transition in the film, which adheres to hegemonic love tropes. Galloway (2013) explains mythic love as a type of romance that is transformative and capable of overcoming all obstacles. Using this trope within The Danish Girl, the audience is led to recognize the romance between these characters as normal and typical of hegemonic romantic storylines; this creates a comfortable, heteronormative focus point for a straight audience to anchor onto in the midst of a seemingly queer subject matter, thus continuing to normalize aspects of this film.
Similarly the sex scenes portrayed within the film maintain heteronormative sexual acts that make this film viewable as normal to a hegemonic, straight audience. Although certain aspects of the sexual relationship between the two main characters could be seen as queer, most of the scenes in the film involving a sexual exchange between characters is understood to be between Einar and Gerda, not Lili and Gerda. The viewer understands that Gerda is not only exclusively attracted to her spouse, romantically, when he is presenting as Einar, but this is also the case sexually. In one scene, Gerda and Lili are in bed together; however, this exchange is clearly not with any implication of sexual activity. There is a curtain hanging between these characters, creating a physical barrier from any sexual activity (Bevan, 2015). In many other scenes, however, there are explicit sexual acts between Gerda and Einar. This distinction between the sexual relationships within the film emphasizes compulsory heterosexuality as a standard, and prevents the viewer from having to conceptualize a less dominant type of sexuality.
Old Theories—New Meanings
For this section of the argument, several theoretical explanations will be drawn from to situate an analysis of this film within queer theory. Gayle Rubin’s “charmed circle” helps to discuss the ways in which this sexual and romantic relationship is redeemable to audiences. In addition, extending Lisa Duggan’s notion of homonormativity allows the inclusion of the representation of Lili Elbe’s character within this film, as well as other similar trans subjectivities.
Within her theory for a radical discourse of sex, Rubin (1984) explains the charmed circle, which delineates an “imaginary line between good and bad sex” within the sexual hierarchy (p. 281). In this sexual hierarchy, “good” sex is heterosexual, procreative, within a marriage, and so on, while “bad” sex is not heterosexual, not for procreation, and not within marriage. Turning to the charmed circle below, the characteristics of “good” or socially-accepted sex are within the innermost circle, while the characteristics of “bad” or unaccepted sex are on the outside. Although Rubin’s original charmed circle is perhaps outdated, this film and homonormative representations of queerness demonstrate that this circle can be expanded to include other types of sexuality within the “acceptable” areas. Within The Danish Girl and other media representations, homonormative and transnormative characters and sex acts are included within the “good” section of the circle when they meet the other criteria for “good” sex. However, these expansions are still normative and perpetuate the classic hierarchy of sexualities and behaviors. It could be argued that the inclusion of “new” sexualities into the charmed circle is a marker of progressive sexual politics; however, this still implies that certain expressions of sexuality are inherently destructive or demented. In addition, the other factors of the relationship portrayed in the film that align with the charmed circle make it so that this relationship is understood by viewers as valid. The value of this relationship for being white, within marriage, upper-class, and so on makes it acceptable that this relationship is taking place between a gender non-conforming couple, which would otherwise lie on the outside of the circle.
As quoted at the beginning of this paper, a shift in sexual politics and the inclusion of queer subjectivities was marked by the notion of homonormativity (Duggan, 2004). This sexual politics is one that puts the focus on neoliberal notions of equality and rights, while only granting these recognitions of the “ideal” citizen to select, normative queer bodies. Essentially, within this system of homonormativity, queer subjects who align with other neoliberal ideals are fully recognized by the nation. In contrast, other queer subjectivities that fail to embody the same norms of sex, gender, race, and able-bodiedness, are not considered to represent the nation in the same way. These sexual politics function “within the framework of neoliberal politics” and perpetuate neoliberal systems of governance (Duggan, 2004, p. 179). By doing this, the nation can claim its acceptance of gay-friendliness while still bolstering its own neoliberal interests through perpetuating ideas of consumerism, gay marriage and its expenditures, and national pride. Essentially, certain homonormative bodies that were once on the margins of the nation have been brought into the center and have come to represent another type of ideal neoliberal citizen, while other queer bodies are erased or left out on the margins.
This new inclusion of subjects creates a crucial shift in mainstream understanding of “queerness” within the U.S. as these homonormative bodies are used to create the image and nation’s conceptualization of what it means to be queer. This dynamic of creating an ideal gay subject to be welcomed in as an ideal citizen while simultaneously disregarding other queer subjects and further oppressing these marginalized identities is expanding into the treatment of trans identities within the United States. The welcoming in of these normative bodies results in an addition to the conceptualization of citizenship within the United States, while also further marginalizing trans bodies that are not representative of these new ideal norms. Although The Danish Girl exemplifies one instance of a normative trans representation, other emerging public figures and sources of media are also embracing normative trans bodies. Although Caitlyn Jenner is perhaps the most salient example of this, other normative representations of transgender bodies are being presented and adopted as a new national ideal, which creates an expansion of homonormativity, or even a new homonormativity.
A Shifting Guise of Modernity
With the previously explored analysis of The Danish Girl’s use of romantic tropes and normative romantic plotlines and the understanding of this film within various theoretical frameworks, I turn now to my argument that this acceptance and portrayal of certain trans bodies represents a new form of sexual politics. Specifically, the welcoming of trans bodies into conceptualizations of the ideal citizen parallels the dynamic between homonormativity and homonationalism, creating a new form of sexual politics. In addition, this new discourse is one that creates a façade of sexual modernity and progressivity that has many transnational implications.
In a lecture titled Trans Life Now, Susan Stryker (2016) referred to this emerging addition of normative trans bodies into the understandings of the nation as “transnormative citizenship.” This model closely parallels homonormativity and homonationalism by defining a normative representation of transgender bodies and welcoming in those to the consciousness of the nation while erasing non-normative trans subjectivities. Homonationalism, as elaborated by Puar (2006) has several effects, which transnormative citizenship potentially mirrors. Not only does a homonational inclusion of certain gay bodies result in the exclusion of other queer subjectivities, but it also functions to bolster neoliberal and nationalistic ideals. In addition, a nation’s treatment or inclusion of gay subjects becomes a standard upon which to judge the modernity of a nation. Both Puar and Stryker have noted the emersion of a similar dynamic with regard to the normalizing of trans bodies and their selective inclusion into the nation. As Puar (2015) states, “it is also about trans bodies being recruited, in tandem with many other bodies for a more generalized transformation of capacitated bodies into viable neoliberal subjects” (p. 47). Particular trans bodies can be both normalized and recognized by the nation because of their adherence to other national ideals, particularly in regards to whiteness, affluence, and typical presentations of gender norms. To be a normative trans body, it must be one that transitions from one normative expression of gender to another; nonbinary trans identities are not viewed in the same way as trans subjectivities that operate in a more binary system of gender. As seen in the film, Einar’s transition to Lili exists exclusively within the dichotomous system of gender, which allows this character to be read as normative.
This transnormative body, once defined by the nation, is then adopted as a new type of sexual or gender politics that marks the progressivity of the nation. According to Stryker (2008), “this ‘new transgender’ mark[s] both a political and generational distinction… and an emerging gender politics that [is] explicitly and self-consciously queer” (p. 146). These transgender politics can become the new market of modernity, which creates a guise of progressive gender and sexual politics within the United States. This façade of sexual modernity has transnational implication, as this could create the next pinkwashing phenomenon, wherein Western societies form affiliations with other countries based on perceived “modernity,” of their treatment of transgender subjects.
The Danish Girl, an award winning and critically acclaimed Focus Features film, emerged as a film about a transgender character and the ensuing conflict in this character’s transition from Einar to Lili. Despite this film championing itself as a progressive story of a non-binary gender, this film and its portrayal of Eddie Redmayne’s character is not especially queer, as it adheres to many norms of society of the time and place in which it was produced. Namely, this film creates an understanding of transgender subjectivities that exclusively maps onto binary notions of gender and sex; emphasized the heterosexual, mythic love between Einar and Gerda, which normalizes and focuses on the romance of the story; and supports compulsory heterosexuality through only portraying sexual interactions between the two characters if the protagonist is presenting as the masculine understanding of the character. These portrayals in the film make this story and its characters understandable and relatable to the hegemonic audience. Furthermore, this film also demonstrates and perpetuates transnormativity and transnormative citizenship, which mirrors notions of homonormativity and the resulting inclusion of certain gay bodies into neoliberal ideals and modes of governance. As a result of this new dynamic, transnormative bodies are being welcomed into the nation, while other trans subjectivities are being further excluded. The nation then uses this shift as a new marker of modernity, which has transnational implications with regard to the assessment of progressivity of other nations. Despite the violence enacted against non-normative trans bodies, especially those of color, normative trans identities are becoming the new markers of progressive gender and sexual politics. This has the potential to ignore the violence and degradation faced within the trans community by bolstering the inclusion of a select few into the nation. Within this system of inclusion and exclusion, trans bodies are manipulated, co-opted, and tokenized as the new new homonormativity and homonationalism.
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