Directed by Sam Feder and produced by Laverne Cox, DISCLOSURE (2020), is a truly eye-opening Netflix documentary on the history of transgender representation in media and how it has helped to form society’s ideas about who transgender people are. This film is stirring, eloquent, empowering, and informative, allowing both cisgender (non-transgender individuals) and transgender people to see the history of cinema from a new point of view.
“I think for a very long time the ways in which trans people have been represented on screen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist, and yet here I am, yet here we are and we’ve always been here.” Laverne Cox says, early on in the documentary.
According to the director, Sam Feder, this film’s intention was to explore the complex history of the transgender cinematic narrative in the same way that THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995) explored gay representation and ETHNIC NOTIONS (1986) explored black representation in film. Using clips from films such as ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994) and THE CRYING GAME (1992) and TV shows such as EUPHORIA and several late night talk shows, DISCLOSURE exposes the ways in which media misrepresents, exploits, and sensationalizes transgender people in an entertaining and truly poignant way.
One the best moments in the film is a series of interviews with some transgender actresses about the types of roles they play on screen. They explain that the majority of their roles are as prostitutes or as guest stars on shows like CSI or Grey’s Anatomy. In many of these roles, the characters are murdered from a violent hate crime, killed by a cancer that has something to do with their birth sex, or die from something to do with the hormones they are taking for their transition. One of these actresses, Candis Cayne, says in an interview “ I’ve died so many times I can’t even count on camera.” Alexandra Billings found she had the same experience, laughing and saying “ I was on a lot of hospital shows, I died a lot, they kept killing me.” This segment proves really successfully how the types of transgender characters that are shown on screen are often limited to certain stereotypes or sensationalized for dramatic effect.
“If you’re only seeing us as one thing,” explains actress Trace Lysett, “without any life outside of that, people are never gonna get to see us as a whole person.”
In another of my favorite moments in the film, a transgender actress elaborates on why a diversity of representation is important in media by revealing that when she first came out to one of her closest friends, that friend responded “oh, like Buffalo Bill?” This of course, refers to the infamous serial killer from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) who is a man obsessed with creating a ‘woman suit’ for himself by killing women and skinning them. Unfortunately, this is just one of many examples of certain harmful trends with transgender characters such as transgender psychopaths, perverts, or predators.
In a study done by GLAAD, 80% of Americans do not know a transgender person personally. That means that most of that 80% will form their thoughts and ideas about this community from the media they consume. Fortunately, with shows like EUPHORIA, BILLIONS, GLEE, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and SHAMELESS, and films like A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2018), the narrative for transgender people has started to change. They are appearing in more and more media however, we still have a long way to go. Therefore, I think films like DISCLOSURE are necessary viewing for anyone, especially those who do not personally know a transgender person and those creating media. Sam Feder’s film is entertaining but also incredibly insightful and will certainly create positive change for anyone who sees it.