Dir. Sam Feder; Laverne Cox
[3 out of 4 stars]
Recently, we at Portland Film Review have been discussing Black directors and films while also reflecting on the fact that so much of the film industry and film criticism is predominantly white. As we focus on the lack of representation in Hollywood, I would like to also consider another group that has long been either ignored or poorly represented in mainstream filmmaking: trans people. Although trans people have been portrayed in media for decades, rarely has that portrayal been nuanced, accurate, or flattering; instead, films have frequently depicted trans people as crazy, hypersexualized, or comical.
The new Netflix documentary Disclosure (2020) concentrates on that fact, delving into over a century of film and TV clips to demonstrate the ways that trans people have been portrayed in media across the years. Of course, as one person interviewed in the documentary says, “We’ve been around since there was footage. You just have to look for us.” But just because trans people might have been present in a film did not mean that those representations were favorable or honest. More often than not, trans people have been depicted as violent serial killers (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs , Norman Bates in Psycho ), as the butt of the joke, or as prostitutes. Most often, they’re killed off before the end of the movie, even if they are the protagonist of the story (Boys Don’t Cry , Dallas Buyers Club , The Danish Girl ). As Laverne Cox explains in the film, we have been conditioned with the idea that we should either vomit when we see a trans person’s body (The Crying Game , Ace Ventura: Pet Detective ) or consider them to somehow be the punchline. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been in public space, particularly early in my transition, when I would walk into a subway car and people would just burst into laughter. And I think people have been trained to have that reaction,” Cox says. Seeing the clips in the documentary further establishes her point.
What was most illuminating to me about watching Disclosure were the decades of history that built to where we are now. The film displays countless depictions of trans people in film or television, going back as early as 1905. I had not realized that trans people had been represented in media — in some shape or form — so early on, nor that filmmakers have had over a century to get it right and still fail. There is such a rich history here, and it matters. As Cox explains in the film, a study from GLAAD found that 80% of Americans do not personally know a trans person, so everything they know about trans people and their lives comes from the media. Watching this history unfold drove home the point that the way trans people are currently portrayed in American media is the result of a variety of factors, and decades of faulty portrayals, that have all culminated in this moment.
Disclosure also touches on casting, and the fact that cis actors are frequently cast to play trans people in Hollywood. (Often, they win an Oscar for it (Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club) or are at least nominated for one (Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.) This type of casting can reinforce the idea that trans women, for example, are really just men in a costume with makeup because that’s what these actors are, no matter how good their performances may be. While off set, Leto and Redmayne move through the world as cis men, and that same dissonance is not present if trans actors are cast to play trans characters. “Laverne Cox is just as beautiful and glamorous off-screen as she is on-screen,” one interviewee explains, and seeing these women off-screen still as women “completely deflates this idea that they’re somehow men in disguise.”
The film moves through a wide variety of topics in an under-two-hour runtime, and I wouldn’t have minded if it were even longer. There’s a lot there to cover, and the interviews with trans writers, activists, and professors are rich and poignant. Of course, the solution to the problem is not to make a longer documentary; the solution is to have better, more frequent, more accurate depictions of trans people in media. That way, as one interviewee says, “the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much because it wouldn’t be all that there is.”