Film

Surveying Transgender History in Film and Television

The documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, now streaming on Netflix, focuses too much on representation, to the detriment of other aspects of the trans experience in cinema.

From Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020), dir. Sam Feder (all images courtesy Netflix)

The topic of representation has been discussed ad nauseam within the transgender community, because cinema has consistently failed us on this front. Still, representation is a limited framework for discussing or analyzing art and its effects on the mainstream. Transgender representation has been largely negative in film and TV, and the new Netflix documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is mostly interested in that negativity. It focuses on culturally dominant images, like revulsion at the trans-femme body in The Crying Game (1993), the psychotic man in a dress trope in Psycho (1960), and the stark invisibility of the trans-masculine experience, with transgender celebrities discussing why this has been harmful. Director Sam Feder’s sensibility of form, or lack thereof, is to use these voices to act as a counterbalance to images that are taken out of context and dressed up in the vagueness of social media’s favorite word: “problematic.”

Disclosure’s political consciousness is that of common sense or common decency. From the beginning it makes the fundamental mistake of positioning itself as an educational video for cisgender people who may not understand the extent to which transgender bodies have been neglected, punished, or mocked on screen. The result is that Disclosure feels more like a PSA than an actual movie. This is a common problem with documentaries about transgender experiences or histories. They are streamlined to appeal to the widest audience possible, and in doing so, they strip away the specifics that make gender identity such a fascinating topic.

Disclosure sees representation as the ultimate goal of transgender acceptance in the mainstream, which is foolish and naive. It’s definitely true that transgender representation could be better, and there could be more trans bodies on screen, but that does not automatically equal good art. None of the talking heads (which include creatives such as Jen Richards, Laverne Cox, and Chaz Bono) are asked what differentiates trans experience from the cisgender perspective of transness. Nearly every interview and clip functions through this worldview of cisgender dynamics.

Because the film mainly wants to offer an antidote to negative representation and analyze how these images of the past have informed modern perceptions of transness, there’s no room to address what transgender cinema may look like in the future. It briefly touches on this topic via the television series Pose, but then discusses Transparent in the same positive light, despite actor Jeffrey Tambor’s sexual misconduct on set. And the obvious is never suggested: that this would not have happened if a trans woman had been given that role in the first place.

From Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

There’s an inconsistency in the film’s arguments around cisgender actors playing transgender characters as well. It posits that actors like Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne playing transgender women is only unacceptable because it furthers the public misunderstanding of transgender women as men, without addressing the loss of job opportunities for trans actors or the specifics of cisgender men not knowing what it’s like to be transgender women. There are consistent problems of perspective and with who gets to speak. Actors like Jen Richards and Laverne Cox dominate the conversation, while filmmakers like Yance Ford and Lilly Wachowski are barely present, but largely have more interesting things to say as directors who don’t always tell transgender stories.

From Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

Disclosure is only worth considering as an archival tool, and even then, it fails to address something so specific to the way transgender people watch movies. Because of poor representation, we have been forced to chart our own paths to find outlets of transness that speak to us, ones that may not directly feature a transgender person. Our understanding of images and the power to relate to them is compromised, but there’s also a beautiful alchemy in taking something not intended for you and making it your own. Transgender cinema is as specific from person to person as gender identity itself, but Disclosure only opts for what’s out in the open. The lasting image is the same picture of what transgender cinema looks like that we’ve seen time and time again, with no wiggle room for a self-made definition of the empowering image. Ironic, considering we’re a self-made people.

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen begins streaming on Netflix today.

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