Let's celebrate the value, courage, resilience, and flexibility. Be true to yourself and set your mind free, just celebrate YOU, be the person you want to be, woman or man, does it even matter?
Text: Ophelia Wu
As we celebrate International Women's Day, we celebrate the spirit and not just of what women have achieved, but the unlimited potential of simply being alive. Clara Zetkin (Leader of the 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women's Day, the same day every year in every country, to be a celebration and press for their demands. It made sense in 1911 (the decision was agreed in guess where - Copenhagen, Denmark!). But we're in 2022 now, and we should celebrate women every day. This year's theme is Break the Bias, and it's about time we do so.
The Danish Girl
Copenhagen has been an important city for Women's rights since the 1900s, so I re-watched the movie The Danish Girl (2015, directed by Tom Hooper), loosely inspired by the lives of Danish landscape artist Einar Wegener (later, Lili Elbe) and his portrait artist wife, Gerda. Set in 1926 Copenhagen, society beliefs and settings were very different. When same-sex marriages were illegal and gender boundaries were very rigid and binary, the characters embodied a powerful set of qualities that would be considered "normal" in today's world but breaking boundaries then.
Gerda Wegener, a talented portrait artist refusing her husband's help, struggled to be represented simply because of her gender as a woman. Ironically, her paintings of a mysterious woman that became sensational were modelled after her husband's alter ego- Lili Elbe. Gerda is a straightforward and direct woman who asks Einar out when they meet at university. She's very progressive of her time with a very open mind. However, what started as practicality later turned into a game and unleashed Einar's feminine identity.
Einar's pursuit of becoming a woman didn't go so smoothly. First, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic in Denmark, beaten up in Paris by two men because he looked too feminine. Next, he underwent risky surgeries that led him to become one of the first receivers of the first known male to female sexual reassignment surgery, where he eventually died of complications and cardiac arrest. But, to him, completing the surgery was "his only hope to become a woman", as he wished to marry a man and have children someday.
Becoming a woman
French writer Simone de Beauvoir famously said, "One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman" here, she refers to woman as a construct or an idea, not physical form as an individual or group. In the movie, we clearly see these 2 characters represent all qualities of both women and men - the yin and yang of these two constantly dancing with each other. Women come in many forms, and it's not bound by society and gender rules or physical bodies. Gerda, in many ways, broke all ideology of "how a woman should be", especially during her time. You see her resilience, determination, courage, support and strength for her husband, whose ultimate wish is to become a woman. You also see her vulnerability when pleading for her husband's personality to appear again. Likewise, you see the transition in Einar/Lili from being reluctant to put on women's clothes to embracing it fully, her joy of going through the operation to "become a woman". His physical body was his only limiting boundary, but his mind never was one. His story continues to inspire many going through the same struggle. They are the perfect representation of gender fluidity dissolving social pressure.
The complexity of gender fluidity
Whether it's these two painters' life back then, or in modern days, we all juggle between a few places and with each role comes with a set of expectations, and it's more complex than binary form-class, social status, culture, family background, religion all comes into play. So, for example, Queen Anne being rumoured as a lesbian vs a homosexual man from a working-class family in the same era and society, who would be in trouble if exposed?
1911 was a very different world from today, and yes, there are still many fundamental things we assume would be allowed to women but aren't. We truly need to celebrate the liberation of our minds and the spirits, not female body positivity or any bandwagon the society is trying to form on a face level. Those are just the very first baby steps of many to come. Society, especially a patriarchal one, has placed a lot of heavily gendered terms, rules, and expectations on women and men. We are not going to dive into any of the deep gender discussions or any social movements as of late because gender studies are a whole lot more complex than a few "politically correct" pronouns. It is, in my opinion, a never-ending discussion that will continue to evolve as society goes through waves of collective consciousness. Let's celebrate the value, courage, resilience, and flexibility. Be true to yourself and set your mind free, just celebrate YOU, be the person you want to be, woman or man, does it even matter?