Netflix’s 2020 documentary Disclosure takes a close look at the heartbreakingly misguided representation of the trans community in Hollywood films and describes their existence in this heteronormative, white, cis world.
The documentary features several famous trans people from the modern film industry—Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Candis Cayne, Chaz Bono, Elliot Fletcher and others—sharing their experiences of leading trans lives, and how they in turn, molded their perceptions of the way their community has been depicted in American films over the years.
“Do you know that feeling when you’re sitting in a movie theatre, and everyone’s laughing at something, and you just don’t get it?”
Hollywood has repeatedly threaded trans identity in humorous plot lines and fictional contexts.
We’ve seen this in films like Flip (1971), The Jeffersons (1977), and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1959). In these films, gender non-conforming people were the butt of the joke in the story. As soon as a trans character appeared on stage, waves of deafeningly loud sounds of laughter broke endlessly among the audiences. However, the same jokes left the trans viewers unsettled and traumatized.
If we go back some years, cross-dressing was illegal. People who transgressed gender expectations—mostly for the purpose of comedy—were mocked, harassed, even arrested. In a different, more intersectional narrative, this portrayal of cross-gender acting also degraded womanhood and was stained with flecks of racism.
As shown in White Famous (2017), when a Black man wore a pink dress, it was perceived as an emasculating act. If we trace back history, Black men have typically been emasculated in American films, shrouded in similar contexts.
A couple of main subjects in the documentary say that such films made them wonder if the audiences were laughing with them or at them. Trans people were outsiders. They felt “othered”.
“Trans jokes. Really?”
Hollywood has taught people how to react to trans identity, and this reaction is mostly fear.
Trans characters in many Hollywood films are depicted as dangerous psychopaths, serial killers, deviants, and perverts. We’ve seen this in films like Dressed to Kill (1980), for example. As soon as Angie Dickinson stepped into the elevator, Michael Caine emerged in a wig, sunglasses, and a long trench coat and murdered her in cold-blood.
The ideas around trans identity and violence have mostly been erroneous from the beginning.
In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jodie Foster says, “there’s no correlation in the literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.”
To this, a subject in the documentary said that they’re not passive—they’re just not violent, psychopathic murderers. This shouldn’t be so hard to admit.
Other Hollywood films, such as The Crying Game (1992), propagate reactions to trans identity that edge on disgust, repulsion and riddance. When Jimmy found out that he made romantic contact with a trans woman, he retched in the bathroom. This created a ripple effect of men reacting with vomiting to trans people.
“It hurts. It just hurts.”
A study from GLAAD reports that 80% of Americans don’t personally know anyone who is trans—they learn about it from the media.
The same also holds for trans people. When they’re on the precipice of transitioning—there’s no one that they can turn to. They find themselves alone in finding their way and coming out to the other side. And that’s when media and films become their template for understanding their gender and sexuality. They learn ideas about themselves refracted through other people’s prisms.
The release of The L Word (2004) sparked feelings of excitement, anticipation, and hope among the trans community. It was going to bring a trans masculine character to the show for the first time. It was going to be different. Better. But then the lead character, Max, went from being nice and likable to raging and violent. His character was portrayed exactly like trans characters in other films—violent, frustrated, and dangerous. It spread transphobia.
Another problematic facet of trans depiction onscreen is the unequal representation of trans men and trans women. Trans women vastly outnumber trans men in terms of portrayals on media. In reality, however, the numbers are equally split, just like cis people. If anything, it shows that women are generally a more commodifiable asset.
GLAAD discovered after surveying 102 episodes of television that trans women are commonly shown as sex workers. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with making a living out of sex work, but it’s just not all that trans women are. They’re so much more than what they’re shown to be. They live normal lives like all of us.
“This is the paradox of our representation—the more we are seen, the more we are violated.”
Another aspect of being a trans that the documentary identifies is the questions that trans people are asked on private and public platforms. They’re personal, disparaging, and downright disgusting.
Interviewers have commonly been seen embarking on lines of questioning that revolve around surgery, cutting, and removing.
“The skin of the penis is used to create what appears to be a vagina. Is that correct?” “And is it acting like a penis?” “How do you hide your penis?” “What was your name before?” “Who do you have sex with?”
Isn’t this exactly why trans people feel afraid of disclosure—questions, violence, marginalization, unacceptability?
This is exactly what the documentary is premised on. It uncovers what disclosure means for trans people—coming out to the other side, revealing their identity, disclosing their sexuality.
The idea is deeply problematic per se. It presupposes that there’s something to disclose. It means that trans people have a responsibility to say what their identity is because other people might have a problem with it. It undermines their feelings. It makes them feel excluded, othered.
Netflix’s Disclosure gives meaningful insights into the ravaged lives of trans people. It emphasizes the destructive impact that Hollywood has had on them as a community. It highlights their struggles. It’s a step in the right direction.
It’s an excellent documentary—informative, real, and heartbreaking. I suggest that all of you watch it.
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