Transsexuality Through Gender Performativity

The Danish Girl, written by David Ebershoff, is a biographical novel about Einar Wegener or later known as Lili Elbe. The novel was written based on the autobiographical book ‘Man into Woman’ by Lili Elbe, the first transsexual person in the history.

It will be analysed in this paper how transsexualism is portrayed in literature by taking as reference 'The Danish Girl' book. It will be focused on how the main character develops his/her identity change and analysed the transition towards other sex gender by means of the performative identity theory. With the aim of giving a voice to this topic in the history of literature, a theoretical basis will be established taking references from scholarly works, especially the feminist Judith Butler, in order to provide a close reading and analysis of the issue in the novel. The reflection that is intended to open is to think about the transsexual identity, the relation between sexed bodies and the gender identities.

To talk about transsexualism, it is necessary to mention to queer theory. The word 'queer' can be known as a general term for gender and sexuality. It could be said that gender and sexuality are explained as the element of the person as a man or woman who plays a male or female role. Queer theory considers that human sexuality is socially established. The conventional perception of sex and gender usually gives the idea of heterosexuality. Judith Butler can describe the deviation from this conventionalism through gender performativity.

Judith Butler's gender performativity theory was proposed in the 1990s in the context of contemporary feminist theories and movements. Through this theory she questions the apparent naturalness of the binary sex / gender system and analyses its effects in terms of power. Broadly speaking, he proposes that, in the dominant binary system, gender is created through a series of acts deployed through categories such as 'man' or 'woman.' In the words of Butler (1999), although we live as if 'woman' and 'man' were done with internal reality, and therefore unquestionable, it is the behaviour itself that creates gender: we act, talk, dress in ways that can consolidate an impression of being a man or a woman. Gender, then, is not an unquestionable and internal truth. It is rather a phenomenon that is constantly produced and reproduced. Thus, to say that gender is performative implies that no one has a given gender from the beginning, but that it occurs during a constant implementation. “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate 'act,' but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.

The novel ‘The Danish Girl’ shows from different sides the tension that occurs between the gender identity and the sexed body in a transsexual person. In this section, central elements of the novel will be analysed, such as the gender performativity of the protagonist and the effect of medical discourse on a gender identity contrary to the sexed body.

Einar Wegener, the protagonist's male name before being Lili, is a landscape painter who lives in Copenhagen with his wife, portrait painter Gerda Wegener. Gerda, after the lack of one of his models, asks Einar for help, so he can dress in the model's clothes and thus be able to finish his work.

It’s just that Anna’s canceled again. So would you mind trying on her stockings?” Greta asked. “And her shoes?” 

“Does that mean you don’t want to try on her dress?” , “Do you like it?” “Greta,” he said, “what if I…” “Just take off your shirt,” she said. And he did. 

At that time, there is the 'click' situation in which Einar feels like a woman enjoying dressing in the model's clothes. From that point on, the novel narrates the different changes that take place in Einar's gender identity, the performative characters of gender identity begin to be visualized. The moment of the 'click' of Einar implies the beginning of gender identity disputes in relation to the body.

One of the codes in the performativity of gender identity more developed in the novel is cross-dressing, thanks to which Einar “hides” or Lili “lets himself be seen”. On the next quotation, the character confirms that the act of cross-dressing occurs repeatedly and that it is his wife who encourages him to do so: “Was Lili here?” “For an hour. Maybe less. Can’t you smell her? Her perfume?” “Is she coming back?” “Only if you want her to” “It’s up to Lili. It’s whatever she wants to do.” (Ebershoff, 28). Thanks to this performativity of gender identity, this game of being between Einar and Lili begins to have severe effects when the “creation” of Lili Elbe questions Einar's gender identity. Each gender of each sex can cross over and act like another gender. This happens because being masculine and feminine are only terminology and gender perception. Every time there is an act of cross-dressing, the gender also changes automatically.

Nevertheless, the first steps of Einar's gender change in the identity of a woman, are thanks to the socialization by his wife, in all the codes and roles with which he must act to be a woman. Moreover, Einar wants to be Lili at all costs, so he goes to a place for men to observe carefully the physical appearance and behaviour of women.

For almost six months Einar had been visiting Madame Jasmin-Carton’... He only wanted to watch the girls strip and dance, to study the curve and heft of their breasts, to watch the thighs. He visited Madame Jasmin-Carton’s to examine women, to see how their bodies attached limb to trunk and produced a female.

Gender change is the continuation of the act of transvestism. In the novel, the detachment of the protagonist of his masculine identity and that give rise to appearances in his feminine identity is traced very well, through the observation and performance of women's behaviours which also helps to make the gender change.

In the course of the novel, the consequences and effects are represented within a performativity of gender identity and the disputes around inhabiting the mismatch between the sexed body and the sensitive and voluntary aspects of another gender identity. There are many scenes that represent this aspect of living between one gender to another. But a scene in which the protagonist hides his penis between the legs is the most significant:

Einar pulled his penis back and taped it up in the blank space just beneath his groin. He could hear his heart slow. He gasped as goose pimples ran down his arms, down the knuckles of his spine. With a shiver, he was Lili. Einar was away.

In this scene there is the biggest dispute over the symbolic construction of his body-man. It is the first time that Lili removes her male genitals, metaphorically, and can appreciate in her naked body the contour of a woman's body. It shows the greatest dispute and transgression against the norm of the correspondence between gender identity and a sexed body.

If up to now, the performative acts of gender identity have been seen through a heteronormative education of the body, the novel also goes into detail in how the medical discourse with its classification of sexed bodies combats the imbalance to the heterosexual norm.

Doctors treat Lili's situation as a pathology that results in confusions of her masculinity, infertility and chemical imbalances and that seek to solve it through radiation since “That’s the beauty of the X ray, it burns away the bad and keeps the good”. However, medical discourse treats pathology, in the first instance, as a chemical element and that can be solved with a chemical reassignment solution. After the radiation operation, the doctor goes to see Einar to ask him how he feels. Einar replies that he has hurt Lili. Therefore, the doctor blames Gerda for encouraging her husband's pathology:

“Do you keep a lock on your wardrobe? To keep him out of your clothes?” “Of course not”. “You should do so immediately”. “What good would that do? Besides, he has dresses of his own”. “Get rid of them right away. You shouldn’t be encouraging this, Mrs. Wegener. If he thinks you approve of it, he might think it’s all right for him to pretend he’s Lili.”

When the medical devices do not produce the cure, a social aspect of the pathologies is sought, in this case, in the marriage bond between Gerda and her husband, where there is a blame for the woman's bad practices, reproducing the perversion and confusion of her husband. This means that the pathology of a chemical nature is not so much and comes from a social factor.

After the first medical failure, Einar decides to turn to psychiatry to find out who he really is. Psychiatrists attributed pathologies that have to do with the confused identity, homosexuality and schizophrenia.

“I’m afraid you are a homosexual,” Dr. McBride eventually said. “But I’m not a homosexual. That isn’t my problem. There’s another person living inside me,” Einar said, rising from the chair. “A girl named Lili.”  “The doctor wants to admit you to the hospital.” “For what?” “He suspects schizophrenia.”

For this reason, Lili Elbe understands that she lives a pathology, “Should I listen to Dr. Mai? Do you think maybe I should stay with him for a little while?”, portraying her identity as a madness. Lili Elbe is exposed to hard treatments and operations for the reallocation of her gender and to allow the correspondence between her feminine identity and a feminine body.

This novel leads to a reflection on gender identities. It is true that there are many modalities of gender identity in contemporary societies that seek to criticize gender dualism based on sex/gender, but I think it offers the possibility of thinking about the performative nature of gender. As Judith Butler said, 'gender is what we do and how we produce it performatively, as a result of the regime that normalizes gender differences' (Butler, 1999). In this sense, the novel also offers reflections on the performative nature of identity and the role that the body plays in the constitution of an identity. It shows very well how the body allows a flexible configuration of the being, through the different practices that are carried out with it, and its speech-acts alter the identity and is not considered as a stable and permanent place. On the other hand, the novel also opens a reflexive line on the medicalization and pathology of transgender people, which demonstrates how medical discourse reproduces a binary logic of sex to treat these cases as diseases classified as gender dysphoria (contradiction between gender identity and biological sex) and / or identity disorder.


  1. Butler, J. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 1999.
  2. Caughie, Pamela L. 'The temporality of modernist life writing in the era of transsexualism: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Einar Wegener’s man into woman'. Modern Fiction Studies, 59 (3), 2013, 501-525.
  3. Caughie, Pamela L. “Passing as Modernism.” Modernism/modernity, 12, 2005, 385-406.
  4. Caughie, Pamela L. “Passing’ and Identity: A Literary Perspective on Gender and Sexual Diversity.” God, Science, Sex, Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics. Ed. Patricia Jung & Aana Vigen. University of Illinois Press, 2010. (Page).
  5. Caughie, Pamela L., Datskou, Emily & Parker, Rebecca. Storm clouds on the horizon: feminist ontologies and the problem of gender. Feminist Modernist Studies, 1 (3), 2018, 230-242.
  6. Caughie, Pamela L., Sabine Meyer, Rebecca J. Parker, and Nikolaus Wasmoen, eds. Lili Elbe Digital Archive. Web. 2019. .
  7. Ebershoff, D. The Danish Girl (1st ed.). Penguin Books, 2000.
  8. Julie L. Nagoshi and Stephan Brzuzy. Transgender Theory: Embodying Research and Practice. Journal of Women and Social Work, 25 (4), 2010, 431-443.
29 April 2022
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