'Disclosure': A fascinating (if flawed) look at the history of trans representation on screen

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 7:38pm

NOSELL

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“If you are a marginalized person, most film and television is not made with you in mind,” Laverne Cox says about 20 minutes into Sam Feder’s new documentary, “Disclosure.” “If you are a person of color, an LGBTQ person, a person who’s an immigrant, if you’re a person with a disability, you develop a critical awareness because you understand that the images that you’re seeing are not your life.” 

This critical consciousness is what “Disclosure” aims to impart on its viewers. Through a thorough survey of on-screen depictions of transgender people, Feder captures a long history of scapegoating and misrepresentation. If the viewer was previously unaware of the pervasiveness of transphobia in cinema, Feder’s editing style quickly makes the viewer aware of it. Over a hundred films are included, most of which are presented without explicit commentary in clips of a few seconds. Small moments of transphobia abound in American cinema, ranging from work by esteemed directors like Alfred Hitchcock to lesser-known pop-cultural specimens in talk shows and B-movies.

This whirlwind montage is interspersed with commentary by trans “creatives” — actors like Laverne Cox, Zackary Drucker and Jazzmun as well as filmmakers like Yance Ford and Lilly Wachowski — which serves to counterbalance the work by cis wirters and directors. These trans commentators also offer insights on the role of representation (good and bad) in shaping their own self-perceptions alongside the broader cultural consciousness. In one of the first sequences in the film, Laverne Cox unpacks the character of Geraldine in “The Flip Wilson Show,” which her mother would watch. “(She) would laugh at that character,” Cox says, which relegated anything trans to “the realm of humor.” 

Many of the other insights from the trans commentators work like this: on-screen representation doesn’t match up with the actual lived experiences and inner lives of trans people. For a trans viewer, this leads to cognitive dissonance or a feeling of being misunderstood. The actress and writer Jen Richards recounts a coworker asking her about Buffalo Bill (the transfeminine serial killer and necrophile from “Silence of the Lambs”) when she said she was going to transition. — “her only reference point was this disgusting, psychotic serial killer,” Richards says. “That was her only template for understanding … It hurts, it just hurts.” 

The critic Willow Catelyn Maclay notes in her review of the film that “Disclosure”’s “political consciousness is that of common sense or common decency.” As such, “Disclosure” focuses mostly on culturally dominant portrayals of trans people that are shocking and violent. We see a geneology of the psychotic man-in-a-dress trope, that originates in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” as well as the trope of the trans woman as murder victim in cop shows like “CSI” and “NYPD Blue.” Elsewhere, the film unpacks other tropes — transmasculinity as a packaging for women’s empowerment in films like “Yentl,” revulsion and violence at the revelation of a trans woman’s body or history in films like “The Crying Game.” While more nuanced (if still problematic) films such as “Ma Vie En Rose” and “Breakfast On Pluto” are discussed, the scale is overwhelmingly tipped toward shocking, stereotypical depictions that circle around essentialism and violence. The trans commentators frequently say of a clip that it’s “hard to watch.” 

This history is worth confronting, but is that all there is? Maclay aptly points out that representation is only one aspect of what can be considered “transgender” cinema, and that “Disclosure” thus has a narrow scope. “Because the film mainly wants to offer an antidote to negative representation and analyze how these images of the past have informed modern perceptions of transness, there’s no room to address what transgender cinema may look like in the future,” she writes. The film only passingly touches on trans-made cinema (focusing on recent work by Lilly Wachowski and recent television like “Pose” and “Transparent”) and it feels as though a more thorough discussion of how trans people represent ourselves might have rounded out the film better. 

Even barring that, I wish the film was better at indicating what negative representation means. The commentators too often stop at calling transphobia what it is, which should be obvious to any remotely self-aware cis person. Self-awareness doesn’t transform into a broader consciousness, and so the film can take on the tone of an HR-style sensitivity training. Why do cis people want all of this? The tropes “Disclosure” discusses don’t point toward anything in the cis imagination that created them. Doing so would undermine the project of respectability the film is pursuing, one that assumes that “inclusion” in the system that created these images is the goal. It can’t help but be self-defeating.

Nowhere is this more apparent in how the film discusses “Transparent,” Joey Solloway’s Amazon show that starred Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman. “Disclosure” frames “Transparent” as a unique opportunity for trans people to get in the room as writers and producers rather than simply consultants — Tambor’s sexual harassment of Trace Lysette on the set of the show is unsettlingly glossed over. There are a couple clips of a 2018 roundtable including Lysette and Cox. Lysette, when asked whether she’s surprised that Tambor is continuing to work, says “No, because we’re trans.” Clearly, trans producers and writers aren’t enough here, a fact that’s glossed over. The ways that the film industry systematically excludes and tokenizes trans women isn’t discussed, in favor of a rosy narrative of progress.

Even given my misgivings, I liked “Disclosure.” Even if I wanted more from it, it provides an invaluable recap on cinematic representation from the outside of our community. It’s worth watching, if nothing else, because of the magic that happens when a group of trans people are asked to talk candidly about their experiences. The film has what the journalist Harron Walker calls a “B-plot” of trans-on-trans criticism and personal histories of trans creators finding themselves (or not) in media. We get to see Marquise Vilsón discussing the existence of transmasculine people in ballroom, Sandra Caldwell’s reflections on a closeted acting career, Laverne Cox and Jen Richards expounding on the “hustle” of getting interviewed about being trans, Susan Stryker musing on the implications of D.W. Griffith using a eunuch in one of his films. Too often, these scraps of compelling insight are buried by the documentary’s overly-busy editing style. 

The film is probably of its time: We’re living in a moment where trans politics approaches a juncture of mainstream acceptance. While the film doesn’t point toward the future, I see in it a document of burgeoning trans self-definition and creativity. “Disclosure”’s narrow scope and tone of moralistic advocacy corresponds to the Overton Window opening wide enough to let trans people into the liberal establishment that guides the mechanisms of representation, even as our actual existence remains tenuous and contingent. One can hope that we move past the need for films like this at all.