Friday, January 22, 2016

What "The Danish Girl," Says About the Oscar's Problematic Relationship with LGBT Movies

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl
Last night, I decided to catch up on the missing links in my Oscar-nominated movies for this year. I decided to tackle director Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl: a film that I inevitably had high hopes for, if just because of what 2015 was symbolically in the LGBT community. Beyond America legalizing gay marriage, it was the time when we had multiple noteworthy trans celebrities, cinema was hitting new strides with Tangerine, and Transparent was continuing its yearlong (and arguably still going) success. Transgender culture is probably more accepted than it ever had been, and The Danish Girl could be the period to the sentence. Of course, that is problematic to say, but what became abundantly clear is that it was actually doing the opposite. Despite its romanticism, The Danish Girl featured stereotypes akin to the gay best friend with flamboyancy and a lisp. While it took some reading to fully understand why, it's generally one of the problems with The Academy's recent crop of nominees.

As a straight white male, it's easy for me to understand the appeal of what Hooper wanted to achieve. The film, after all, wants to be tolerant of the issues. Speaking as I have never had the faintest desires of which this film was based, I wouldn't know the first struggle of a trans person outside of how the media portrays it. Transparent maybe serves as the most education that I've had on the matter. It is why I can understand those that like The Danish Girl. It is a quaint story that pits a strange love between Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. It's one that is fraught with biopic cliches and sentimentality, including very on the nose language. It's a film that wants to be important instead of being such. To a casual eye, the approach to this film is adequate, though maybe a little disappointing for how familiar its beats end up being.

It wasn't until I began to read reviews about who the film depicted. In particular, I read a review by Sally Jane Black on Letterboxd. For those who want an in depth reason for why the film is problematic, I will forward you there. To summarize her point, the film's intentions of being embracing equality end up backfiring in the subtle ways. Redmayne's character appears to have dual identities, even talking about his trans self in third person. His co-star Vikander is an enabler, by which Redmayne is allowed to do his journey. The title, as used in the film, even references Vikander. For whatever reason, this is a film about how straight people inevitably help trans people to realize their potential, even then while following the hierarchy standards of femininity's poise and beauty. So to an extent, the trans person is subservient to the cisgender community, even in their own journey.

The idea that a cisgender actor ended up playing the role was controversial within itself, and one that didn't bother me initially. It is the cynical mindset that movies need to make money, and we're unfortunately in a state where a transgender actor doesn't have that sustainability. Redmayne is hardly the first to be accused, though it inevitably serves as fuel for those who find the final film to be just as clueless as the motives of turning an important person's journey into a conventional prestige picture. Before this, Jared Leto won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Dallas Buyers Club as a transgender. Again, one could argue that it was a money move, but there was Matthew McConaughey attached already - how much more accessibility could you use? 

The film is less problematic than The Danish Girl, if just because it doesn't feel as shameless. However, the AIDS drama ran into its own problems when it created a fictionalized story around McConaughey's Ron Woodruff, who can be summarized as "A bigot who saves the day in the AIDS crisis." He is straight, white, and male. His relationship with Leto's Rayvon isn't necessarily the best, and Leto's role ends up being more of the antagonized, misunderstood role that gay culture has been trying to move away from for decades now. However, it seems to be the only real gay mold that people seem to get recognized for. Even the great gay dramas that have made the cut in the past decade (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) feature some unfortunate tragedy in the face of a dramatic shift. Some moments are warranted, sure, but consider that LGBT films have plenty of living folk, too. Carol features zero dead characters, and it got shut out of Best Picture. While one could blame its marketing (which took its sweet time expanding to more theaters), it also feels like an indictment on the inability to recognize gay characters who survive: a feat that is rarely questioned in the case of straight characters.

Midway through last year, I wrote about my excitement for a gay Oscars. It seemed inevitable, but the films slowly disappointed. There was Carol (too small), The Danish Girl (too conventional), Stonewall (too wrong), Freeheld (too safe), and Tangerine (too edgy). While it is true that this line-up wasn't as great as it sounded, I still wanted things to be recognized more than they ended up being. As much as Oscars So White showed the problem with diversity of race, I definitely think that the same could be said for orientation. It isn't just that they don't recognize them, but the films that are meant to be encouraging end up feeling watered down. Among the more serious contenders from 2014 was The Imitation Game, which took Alan Turing's life and attempted to suck the sex out of it (then proceeded to use it as a marketing point in the Oscar campaign). He was gay, but you couldn't tell. As progressive as things want to be, The Academy still feels nervous about letting the gay kids sit with them. If that wasn't the case, then positive gay films like Pride would've been nominated in 2014.

Another general issue is the approach by which the mainstream has accepted gays in the past. As I've mentioned before, there hasn't been a positive depiction of a noteworthy gay character, likely since Midnight Cowboy (which even then was more an allusion than directly stated due to its time). As it stands, the last noteworthy gay character came in 1999's American Beauty, in which the film's twist was that the homosexual neighbor killed the protagonist, largely because of the antagonist's own conflicted emotional repressions. Before that was The Silence of the Lambs, whose villain may never be said to be gay, but was noted as wanting a sex change (one could easily point to the "Goodbye Horses" scene for evidence). It lead that film's director Jonathan Demme to make Philadelphia as an apology for poorly depicting gays. Even in Braveheart, there is a scene where a flamboyant character is killed for a comical moment. Still, considering the changing tide and The Academy's duty to depict the times through cinema, it seems odd of how little they have factored into the big picture. If nothing else, the proof that the last noteworthy gay character in a Best Picture winner was the villain only shows how dated The Academy's view on the subject is (though kudos to its many nominations since). 

What I'm getting at is that The Academy needs to do a better job of recognizing gay culture that isn't negative. It botched the landing with Carol, and thankfully The Danish Girl under-performed in nominations (though Redmayne's Best Actor nod still feels more like the token progressive nomination that muddies the diversity water some more). Other than that, The Oscars were very straight this year, and that's a shame. What's also a shame is that rewarding films like Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl aren't going to change the tide for the better, but just reinforce hackneyed stereotypes about transgender characters (and thus transgender people in general). While it hasn't been a total crapshoot (John Lithgow's noble transgender role in The World According to Garp landed him a Best Supporting Actor spot), it is hard to really say that people are going to learn the real lessons from these films. Yes, they are more positive from an extroverted sense, but from an introverted sense, you'll find the problems.

Let's look at what lessons of tolerance can be achieved from The Danish Girl. Redmayne's character has the inciting moment happen by a straight person, who proceeds to be the defining standards of beauty. Redmayne spends the film noting how she will never be as pretty. There's constant shots of the naked human body, as if Redmayne is comparing his figure to Vikander's. The addition of having the image painted only adds to the fabrication that transgender culture is a concept and to be looked at. Basically, the entire thing feels like it's a beauty contest and that one is to be looked at, being helped by the straight friends who never allow them to have confidence. Even the choices to reference Redmayne's trans self in third person disconnects, as if creating unnecessary shame. Redmayne dies during the surgery that will make things right, but it doesn't end there. As mentioned before, the title refers to Vikander, and Vikander is whom we end the movie with. What is to be learned? Straight people are the gay equivalent of the white savior, making everything all right; and trans culture is more of a spectacle than a choice.

My education on transgender in film is very limited, but I do think that what needs to change is that we need to recognize them as individuals, and not pawns of some bigger chessboard. It is an issue that seems to apply to every minority when it comes to votes. The films only make it if the whites are saving the day. It's the problematic thing that we talk about with race, but should also apply with gender. If we're only rewarding gay films where people die and transgender movies where straight people have unnecessary control on the matters, what will the naive people think? If anything, it teaches to be overbearing and incapable of letting the former self and the transitioned self be different entities. Basically, if we want change, let these characters be as confident and singular as you let the hetero narrative be. 

It is disappointing that 2015's impressive catalog of transgender moments in pop culture had to include something that feels well intention, but misguided. I had hoped that The Danish Girl would be something more than just fuel for those mad at the cisgender casting. Instead, it is a reminder of what's wrong with the modern interpretation of gay culture in mainstream film. As progressive as things have gotten since American Beauty, they haven't entirely been allowed to be their true selves yet. When they are, such as with Carol, they are almost guaranteed to be ignored for the testosterone of male-driven films like Birdman and The Revenant, whose general motto is "white guys complaining." I am not saying that they don't do a good job, but when Leto seems to be the definitive transgender performance (if you go by wins), then maybe The Oscars do have a problem in how they recognize those most different from themselves. I am not saying that this one issue trumps everyone else's, but I think it's important to remember in a time when we want diversity everywhere else.

No comments:

Post a Comment