The new Netflix documentary Disclosure explores the topic of transgender representation in TV and Film through a very intersectional and nuanced lens. The documentary was executive-produced by Sam Feder and Amy Scholder, and consulted a lineup of trans talent that included Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, M.J. Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, Trace Lysette, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Chaz Bono, Rain Valdez, Brian Michael Smith, and many others to reflect on the many ways that the representation they saw of trans people in the media growing up has evolved and shaped how they view themselves.
Similar to how The Celluloid Closet explored the evolution of gay and lesbian portrayal on television and in film, Disclosure begins with the earliest and more unsavory depictions of trans life by filmmakers like D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm) who was not only racist, sexist and homophobic, but also wrote his gender nonconforming characters on screen as the butt of the joke and not to be taken seriously.
The most striking part of the film was when they delved into the exploitation of trans people on talk shows like Maury and Jerry Springer. Most of the trans people who went on those shows were there because it was an opportunity to get paid and survive the week, which made the commodification and mockery of their bodies sting a little less for the trans people watching. The most poignant moment of this portion of the film was the footage of model Caroline Cossey being confronted by an audience member on Phil Donahue who asked if she needed to change in order to feel more like a woman, and without missing a beat she said “I don’t need to feel like a woman, because I am a woman.”
The hardest part to watch was the reel of cis characters reacting to trans characters with violence and revulsion, as well as trans people being portrayed as psycho killers in Hitchcock movies and films like Silence of the Lambs. The victim narrative is particularly horrendous in Boys Don’t Cry, where Hillary Swank played a trans-masculine teen, Brandon Teena, who was raped, brutalized and murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska in 1993. What was even more gut-wrenching was the revelation that Teena’s friend–who happened to be a black man–Phillip Devine, was also murdered on site and was completely written out of the film. “[It’s saying] you can’t have queer trans people and blackness in the same space, so what does that say about my queer, trans, black ass?” writer and filmmaker Tiq Milan expressed in his confessional.
The most heartbreaking revelation was the way this negative representation has translated into the ways that trans people get treated in the real world. According to a study by GLAAD, only 16% of Americans know a transgender person personally, which means that the other 84% are getting their knowledge of trans people from the media, which has historically portrayed trans people as objects to be exploited, vilified and mocked.
The first time that the audience gets to see any semblance of positive trans representation in film is with documentaries like The Queen (1968) and Paris is Burning (1997), which both documented the ballroom and vogue culture in New York that was pioneered by black trans people. These films also had their flaws because the trans talent in those documentaries never benefitted from it, but it was also the first time trans people weren’t being objectified on screen, which was a major step forward.
The 2010s introduced shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Sense 8, and Pose, with trans writers, producers, and directors who were telling what felt like genuine, accurate stories of trans lives with these shows. And as off-putting as Caitlyn Jenner’s world views and politics are, that doesn’t negate the fact that her show gave many amazing trans women like Candis Cayne, Kate Bornstein, and Chandi Moore a platform to tell their stories on a global stage.
But with hyper-visibility has also come a lot of pushback. 2019 was the deadliest year on record for black trans women, one in five trans people don’t have access to housing and employment, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that has outlawed employment discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity only came after the Trump administration enabled healthcare workers to refuse treatment to transgender patients. The most that we can hope for with increased visibility on screen is that it will eventually translate into more trans people being treated with respect in the real world, and there is clearly still a long way to go.
Disclosure is available to stream on Netflix.