“The start of a mainstream conversation that trans people have been having for years.”
Sam Feder and Laverne Cox’s documentary Disclosure arrived on Netflix at an opportune time. Transgender people’s healthcare is at risk, jobs are now protected, and long overdue media attention is being given to Black trans women, who are disproportionately affected by state and interpersonal violence. With trans people entering more and more mainstream discussions, there is great possibility for education and change. Disclosure aims to educate its audience about transgender representation in the media using the voices of trans people themselves.
The documentary was made by nearly all transgender people and, if a trans person was not available, a cisgender (a.k.a. non-transgender) person mentored a trans person. Most often in media, transgender characters are used as a punchline or a villain and are almost always played by cisgender actors. Through film clips and interviews with trans people in media and research fields, Disclosure attempts to sum up transgender media representation in a 100-minute documentary. Naturally, there are some gaps. So many trans voices are shared in the film, yet a massive amount are left out. The film would benefit from more trans film historians, indie filmmakers, and film critics.
In discussing transgender representation, Disclosure focuses on visibility in mainstream media. Most of the films discussed, including Psycho (1960), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and A Fantastic Woman are fairly well known. These films and others affect how trans people are viewed in real life because, according to GLAAD, 80% of people in the United States said they do not know a trans person in real life (with the caveat that they could very well know a transgender person but not know they are transgender). The films discussed are typically made by cisgender people and assumed to be for a cisgender audience, leaving out the very people they are reappropriating on-screen.
Because trans characters have historically been written and portrayed by cisgender folks, the stories tend to over-emphasize the character’s transness and fall short in sharing the complexity of the character as a whole person. Discussing this issue in the documentary, actress Jen Richards points out that men who play trans women in films get Oscars (Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club) while in real-life, trans women are often abused, violated, and even killed by men. In drawing attention to this issue and others, Disclosure names and explains the main issues of trans media representation. However, viewing this film as a transgender person, it feels like an introductory film for cisgender people because it focused on well-known films and left far too many issues unexplored. The documentary breaks new ground but feels like an incomplete project.
Disclosure is the start of a conversation in the mainstream that trans people have been having for years. It is far too easy to watch the documentary and leave thinking, “I did it. I watched the transgender representation film and now I get it.” Disclosure is worth the watch but it should not be the end of the conversation. The film’s large scope and short length make it feel like it’s trying to do too many things at once. Consequently, non-Western films and non-binary perspectives are not given the necessary time and space. Now that Disclosure has helped bring the conversation to the mainstream, hopefully the conversations can be pushed beyond representation toward liberation.
Dir: Sam Feder
Prod: Laverne Cox
Cast: Laverne Cox, Jen Richards, Yance Ford
Release date: 19 June 2020
Available on: Netflix