Sam Feder explains the complicated history of representation in Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, reminding audiences of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
The recent upsurge in transgender representation can make it easy to forget that trans narratives have been on screen as long as film has existed. From the early days of D.W. Griffith in the 1910s all the way to Pose a hundred years later, trans people have a complicated history with the way film depicts our community. Sam Feder’s Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen takes a journey through the complicated emotions brought out by these narratives, which until recently rarely included serious creative input from actual transgender people.
The film covers a lot of ground over the course of its runtime, from the silent era to this modern streaming age. Older films that focused on cross-dressing as a source of comedy sent the message that gender variance was a source of humor. Others painted trans women as psychotic murders, driven to madness by their feelings of dysphoria.
Feder uses a series of interviews with trans actors and filmmakers including Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards, and Chaz Bono to break down the damaging effect that these depictions have had on the community as a whole. The same nausea-inducing panic shown in films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is allowed as a justifiable legal defense in many states. Disclosure paints a damning picture of how these so-called gags have cost actual trans people their lives and damaged society’s perception of the community as human beings deserving of dignity.
A particularly telling sequence showed the recurring themes that mainstream network procedurals used in trans-centric episodes. For medical dramas, trans women got to pick between testicular cancer, breast cancer, or any other condition tied to one’s sex designated at birth. Cop shows were a bit more limiting to the role of dead sex workers, meant to lay there while the detectives cracked dated jokes. For too long, this was what “representation” looked like.
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The highly disproportionate representation for trans women on screen versus trans men, even though the actual population divides pretty equally, exposed a lot of industry sexism. Trans men were erased for the same reason trans women weren’t allowed to play trans roles. If you didn’t look “othered”, you didn’t matter. This dynamic walked a thin tightrope, as trans actors of color were also excluded for looking too different. You’re never enough when you don’t have a seat at the table.
Using extended archival footage from an impressive chunk of trans films, the interviewees pick apart their problematic elements. At times, it’s almost hard to believe that the studios allowed the footage to appear in Disclosure, a film designed to shine a critical lens on their material. The subjects never dunk excessively on past films, instead using the scenes as teaching moments. It’s a lot of history for a cisgender audience to absorb, but a helpful tool to understand the transgender perspective regarding many American classics.
The L Word was responsible for television’s first recurring trans male character, but Max was often framed as a villain for being trans, a traitor to lesbians. Ryan Murphy helped shepherd Pose into existence, but his first series Nip/Tuck often used transness as a cheap plot device, night and day from his later work. The pattern of one step forward, two steps back is a common theme.
Feder also recognizes the complicated relationship that trans people have with older trans films. For many, the decisions in these films of trans people played by cisgender actors carry a heavy amount of cringe, but there’s also the reality that these narratives were many of our first experiences encountering people like us. Problematic or not, these stories mattered.
While Disclosure includes almost every prominent trans film, there’s one omission that seems kind of odd. Though Lilly Wachowski appears in the film, there’s no mention of The Matrix. Directed by Lilly and her sister Lana, also a trans woman, the film is ripe with trans narratives. Given that Lilly and her sister Lana (who doesn’t appear in Disclosure) directed the film together before either had come out, it certainly would have been interesting to hear that perspective addressed.
Feder can hardly be faulted for not wanting to pick fights with Hollywood, but Disclosure doesn’t spend much time diagnosing the current problems with representation that exist across practically every major film franchise. The film does try to address a flaw in its presentation toward the end, namely the fact that the representation it celebrates only includes a handful of trans people. It’s a little wishy-washy at the end, but the film does a good job acknowledging that there’s still a lot of work to be done on the representation front.
Disclosure is a spectacular visual history of transgender people on film. Crafted with obvious love, Feder beautifully guides the audience through the many pitfalls transgender people have faced along the road to representation. People looking to understand trans perspectives will find much to enjoy in listening to the ways that film has shaped our lives.