Disclosure: A whirlwind through Hollywood’s problematic trans representation

When I sat down to watch and review Disclosure (2020, Sam Feder), I couldn’t help but ask myself: could I have imagined this documentary at this calibre being made ten years ago? Five? Even one? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding probably not. And yet, as this film proclaims so loudly, trans people have existed on screen since screens became a thing. Disclosure is a wild ride through a chaotic history of dangerously cliched trans representation: from villains to violence, genital surgery and sex workers via transness as a vehicle for praising cis men (did they really need another one?). And we learn a lot from what not to do.

Top Tip: bring a pen and take notes

Every week when I write these, I take notes. This week, I found myself writing down the content, instead of evaluating it. This film is so damn informative and engaging. And the importance of what it’s teaching us screams through the screen.

We hear from a seemingly ever-expanding list of trans actors, producers, directors and academics. I want to give a particular shoutout to Jen Richards: for me, a shining highlight. She is called on a few times to talk us through what may seem on the surface to be complex concepts. When she explains how damaging the absolute prevalence of cis actors playing trans roles can be (particularly cis men being trans women), she is spectacularly articulate to the point of demanding empathy. Further still, she teaches us, very succinctly, why, not only is this problematic, it just straight up leads to bad acting.

Soundtrack Stand Out: You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Sylvester

We also get to hear from Pose star MJ Rodriguez. I wrote her down as a highlight, but I can’t recall now exactly what she said. She wasn’t even on screen for that long. All I know is that I looked into her eyes and I saw fire. Unfortunately we don’t get to hear from Dominique Jackson in the film, (though let’s celebrate the fact that with the 21 trans celebrities that appeared we didn’t exhaust the list), but this clip is always worth visiting:

A small aside: I know this is so ridiculously far away from the point of the film but can I just take this moment to say holy moly did they interview some beaUTIFUL people here. Shoutout to Elliot Fletcher. I see you.

Back on Jen Richards for a minute (sorry I can’t help myself…) as she graces us with another lesson via a broadened, complex discussion of structural violence. Through her aforementioned explanation, she convinces us that a cis male actor who receives an award for playing a trans woman and collects it wearing a suit and full beard (see: Jared Leto) in doing so constitutes an act of violence. We also learn that violence against trans people on and off screen inform each other in a kind of tordid self-perpetuating cycle. Laverne Cox (more on her next) talks about seeing trans lives as nothing but traumatic and violent on screen. Her quote speaks for itself: “after I saw that film [referring to Boys Don’t Cry] I thought ‘oh my god, I’m gonna die’”.

The film is intelligent in its approach and considerate towards audience members that may be less familiar with trans people on camera. You may not have seen Pose, Paris is Burning or even I Am Cait (as we learn, it has its moments, most of them when Jenner herself takes a (uncharacteristic) step back…) If you haven’t seen these, you’ll probably have seen ーor at least have heard ofー Orange is the New Black. Yes, it’s time to talk about Time Magazine’s infamous covergirl: Laverne “The Transgender Tipping Point” Cox.

Biggest Gay Mood: Laverne Cox winning talent shows as a child with self-choreographed jazz and tap numbers

In short: Laverne Cox gives the audience a familiar face, without having to use Eddie Redmayne in a wig. Her narration bookends the film as she plays her role as the world’s gateway into transness. And, just like in literally every interview I’ve seen with her (and I’ve seen a lot), she does it oh so well. As she is quick to point out, trans media ー which was, let’s face it, her and Caitlynn J*nner for the years 2014 through 17 ー is the ONLY point of reference on trans identity for the 80% of Americans who don’t know a trans person in real life.

Here, I also want to highlight the way the narration intersected trans representation with womanhood and with blackness. As we learn, the latter is unavoidable, as the history of cross-dressing and blackface in cinema are unavoidably connected. At a time when the word is waking up to the fact that Black Lives Matter, we are seeing far too much resistance to the idea that this necessarily includes black women, disabled black people, fat black people, and yes, black trans people. All Black Lives Matter now and in perpetua. This Netflix drop couldn’t come soon enough.

Unfortunately, the ending of the film is perhaps a little weaker than its cumulative parts. Although there is a very intriguing shot of Candis Cayne looking illegally iconic on a white horse…

Don’t worry, I googled this immediately and found it’s from S2E13 of Syfy’s ‘The Magicians’. She plays the Fairy Queen, of course. Image via eonline

…we get a somewhat deflated “we have more to do” to finish us off. Okay where? And how? With a clumsy fade to black, I was left feeling like there was a missed opportunity.

Still, the film’s merits can’t be overlooked. Overall, the detail is where Disclosure really shines. A lot of us have seen interviews with trans people on This Morning, but with this documentary we go deeper. Trans presence behind the scenes undoubtedly contributed to this. We get to see beyond the sensational, beyond what makes the headlines; we see beyond where the press (and thus the general public) tend to lose interest. For example, I only ever saw clips of Katie Couric’s show in which she asked trans celebrities about their genitals (yes really) ー I never saw her apology, I never saw her effort to grow and be better, because I guess that part of the story wasn’t interesting enough for my newsfeed. Yet, and here’s the True Tea, that growth is the best part! And I can thank Disclosure for showing it to me.

Britney Line Time:no thanks, I choose my own destiny

On the title, by the way: we do get the satisfying “oh that’s what it means” moment. It’s about halfway through, so look forward to that.

On a personal level, I appreciated Jen Richards’ point (again, sorry, but blame her for being so damn articulate): that you develop a critical intelligence as a marginalised person, precisely because of all the problematic representation. On top of that, the film has given me a much better lens through which to scrutinise trans portrayals in film going forward. Watch out Boys Don’t Cry, I’ll be coming for your wig soon. The answer to the question ‘did it feel important?’ has never been easier.

I want to take you back to the statistic that 80% of Americans don’t know a trans person in real life. This is really the crux of the documentary, and it fits my website’s ethos rather well: good, authentic trans representation on screen saves lives. It really is that simple. And it is really is that obvious when you watch Disclosure. In a word: powerful.

Click stars to view criteria

Header image via Disclosure

A note on the star rating: I evaluated the film based on my criteria, but please don’t take the fact that it’s not (in my cis opinion) 5 stars as a reason not to watch. This is the most “please watch this film” film I’ve reviewed so far, and I see it staying that way. To be abundantly clear: watch it. Now. Thanks xx

3 thoughts on “Disclosure: A whirlwind through Hollywood’s problematic trans representation

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