"I think for a very long time, the ways in which Trans people have been represented on-screen have suggested that we are 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." These are the words of Laverne Cox, an actress who rose to prominence after her role as Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black.
Disclosure articulately speaks of the history of Transgender representation in film and television since the beginning of film footage. With clarity, the documentary explains the intersection of race, gender and class and the way these elements play out on screen. With commentary from Transgender actors, writers, filmmakers, and activists, a number of different topics are discussed, all circulating around representation and why it matters.
When 80% of people do not know a transgender person in their everyday life, media portrayals become their only reference point. As the documentary shows, through a wealth of film and television footage, the portrayal of transgender people in film and TV in the past can be divided into three categories; comedy, violence and horror. Crossdressing men serve not only as the butt of the joke but also as mocking representations of feminity and a reinforcement of both masculine and homophobic ideals. Risky Business (1983), Twin Peaks (1990), and In Living Color (1990) all include aspects of this "comedy", essentially teaching audience that presenting as another gender is something to laugh at. Crossdressing characters can also be found rampant in the horror genre, especially after the success of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and is found in again in Dressed to Kill (1980) and Terror Train (1980). This creates an association between crossdressing and acts of violence and perversion. Meanwhile statistics says it is not Transgender people doing the killing but rather those on the receiving end of the violence. So far in 2020, 21 Transgender or gender non-conforming individuals have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means. This is something that the media began to represent more of in more recent years in shows like CSI. But what this means is that Transgender individuals consuming this media see a message, that as a Transgender person your life does not get a happy ending.
The documentary's commentators offer touching personal accounts about their own lives and how what they saw on the screen influenced their own perception of themselves. The poor representation of what it means to be Transgender and how society should react to Transgender individuals not only affects the way cisgender individuals think of and treat Transgender people but it is also an incredibly harmful message for Transgender people to internalize themselves. Being Trans on the screen has time and time again shown that being Transgender is something that people are afraid of, something that is not only unattractive but revolting. What does that tell every transgender individual consuming this media? In a new study by the American Academy of Paediatrics more than 50% of Transgender males participants in the study have attempted suicide and 29.9% of Transgender females.
The commentators, as actors themselves, tell tales of of their struggles with casting, stereotypes and discrimination. A common issue with Transgender characters is that they are frequently not played by real Transgender actors. Jen Richards, an actor and author, explains why this is so detrimental, "The public thinks of Trans women as men with really good hair and makeup, in costume. And that's reinforced every time we see a man who's played a Trans woman. And when we see Trans women playing Trans characters, it completely deflates the idea that they are men in disguise". It also helps employ Transgender individuals, who experience three times the amount of unemployment as the national average, four times for people of color.
In the end, what the documentary makes clear is that good, accurate representation is only the start. It is that representation that can then motivate people to speak out in defense of Trans lives and work towards making structural changes for their betterment. But this is something that comes first with not seeing Trans people as people to fear or hate but as people we can love, accept, understand and advocate for.
For more about Transgender representation watch Disclosure on Netflix now. You can also check out GLAAD, an organization that works through entertainment, news, and digital media to share stories from the LGBTQ community to accelerate acceptance.