Review: Netflix Doc 'Disclosure' Takes a Detailed Look at Trans Representation in Movies, on TV

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 19, 2020


Sam Feder & Amy Scholder's documentary "Disclosure" examines Hollywood's trans representation across the last century, and the impact those depictions have had on the wider culture — as well as on trans people, many of whom had few ways, until recently, of finding others of the same community.

If the media situation around trans representation has improved over the last few years, that's in large part to the long-overdue inclusion of trans voices and performers in the telling of trans stories. Many openly trans actors, writers, and producers participate in this film — Laverne Cox (who also executive produced), Chaz Bono, MJ Rodriguez, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards, Candis Cayne, Jamie Clayton, Lilly Wachowski, and that's far from a complete list.

The doc starts in film's early years, looking at the presence of what seems to be a trans character in D.W. Grffith's 1914 film "Judith of Bethulia," and progressing form there. Griffiths' "The Birth of a Nation," from1915, serves as an anchor point for another line of investigation: The intersection between trans representation of the depiction of African Americans, in particular, African American men, whom the movies have both demonized and emasculated.

It's this latter point that the film's contributors point to as a leading cause for the epidemic of violence directed at transwomen of color. But cisgender men of every ethnicity have targeted and assailed trans people, and even gay men have been guilty of extreme examples transphobia. We learn, for instance, that Christine Jorgensen — who famously transition in the 1950s and sparked a global fascination, much of it less than celebratory, with trans people — was, even in those pre-social media day, trolled by a gay man with an invitation to kill herself.

Neither is the problem of prejudice and violence confined to only one gender. In a fascinating — and disheartening — exegesis, the doc looks at how the original run of "The L Word" treated a transman: He was depicted as a perpetrator and, worse, a traitor to womanhood. (His point, of course, would likely have been that he was not, in fact, a woman despite his physiology, and therefore was not "giving up" womanhood but rather achieving an alignment of body with mind in transitioning. Evidently, the series didn't give him the chance to make that argument.)

And though television (broadcast and streaming alike) may now be a cultural leading edge when it comes to trans representation, with shows like "Pose" and the recently-concluded "Transparent," it was also, for much of its history, given to telling stories about trans poeple that trans people themselves now scoff at. Comedies ("The Jefferson," "Barney Milller") made trans poeple into material for one-liners; dramas (especially police produrals and medical dramas) relegated trans people to two categories of victimhood: They were either killed in hate crimes or paid the price for transitioning by suffering health problems related to their transitions. One particularly scurrilous example is how the same trans actor appeared on "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" in the same season, playing a trans character with testicular cancer in one show and a trans character with breast cancer in the other.

The doc is rife with plenty of similar "WTF!" moments, including clips from 1980s daytime talk shows that treated trans people like they belonged to "a circus" or else focused on the prurient surgical details. Another jaw-dropper is the character from the early Ryan Murphy cable drama "Nip/Tuck" that portrayed one character not only as a transwoman (whose secret was revealed thanks to a rape) and also as a paedophile.

Murphy went on to mend his ways, of course, by creating "Pose," staffing and casting the show with many trans writers, directors, actors, and crew. Another drama that served as a milestone was that other afore-mentioned program, Amazon's "Transparent," which at the time was groundbreaking but which now — and it hasn't been so long — seems like a curiosity, the show having been created by a cisgender woman and its main character portrayed by a cis man.

In a way, the most grievous error of all is the one that's finally been corrected and, in a significant sense, allowed the trans media's trans narrative to start turning a corner. When trans characters were portrayed by cis men, an inherent problem arose, and it's explained eloquently here with the observation that when even the most gifted cis actor plays a trans role, their screen time in that persona stands apart and in contradiction to the balance of their career and media appearance — a prime example we're given is Jared Leto winning an Oscar for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club." When a bearded, cisgender Leto accepted that Oscar, it was a laudatory moment but it also created a cognitive dissonance that reinforced the idea that somehow trans people are only performing, not actually living, their "transness." That dissonance disappears when trans people play trans roles, because trans actors are trans both on and off screen.

This representation matters not just for audiences as a whole, but for trans people who, like everyone else, go to the movies, tune in to TV, and watch the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Many EDGE readers may remember the shock and thrill of first seeing gay, lesbian, or bisexual representation (especially if it transcended the rote confines of serial killer / mental patient / comic relief), the sense of feeling understood and part of the media landscape in a more participatory way. Trans people need that same experience to feel embraced by the culture at large — and they also need to see that there are subcultures that not only welcome them, but are them.

One of the biggest advances in the culture is the way trans people were once rejected and reviled by the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. (As one commentator puts it, assimilation is the American way, and some feared that trans people would hinder the assimilation, and therefore the equality, of sexual minorities.) There was a moment, in 2007, when one of the largest GLBTQ equality organizations in America seemed to be considering leaving trans people behind in order to secure legal advances toward equality for the rest of the letters in the LGBTQ community. That appearance of wavering toward such a devil's bargain sparked excoriation, and rightly so, by many in the LGBTQ community.

That's not a matter of media representation, but the film — which does not cover this event — makes it clear how deeply entwined stories, culture, and politics are. Who tells the stories, and the kinds of stories they tell — including narratives of what's acceptable, what's honorable, and what's right... and what's not — are essential not only to how others see us, but to how we see ourselves.

It's for that very reason this brisk, illuminating film is essential viewing, no matter where on any scale of gender or sexuality the viewer might happen to fall.

"Disclosure" is now streaming on Netflix.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.