John C Adams Reviews 'Disclosure'
Updated: Aug 12
Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen
(Sam Feder, Netflix, 2020)
I recently searched for trans programming on Netflix and found this documentary about the portrayal of the trans community in TV and film. As someone who is nonbinary, there is much to interest me in how trans people are portrayed onscreen.
The film is 100 minutes long, and it broadly follows a chronological arc looking at Hollywood films and mainstream American TV. It is peppered with inspiring actors and actresses from the trans community sharing their memories of the few trans characters onscreen when they were growing up. It didn't make for easy viewing, but in order to help us all set our house in order and ensure a fair and accurate representation of trans people onscreen the starting point must be that film and television hasn't in the past done a particularly good job in its depiction of trans people.
Amazing actresses like Laverne Cox and Jen Richards were just two of the trans women interviewed in depth. They were joined by many others offering a thoughtful perspective, not just on how trans women are presented onscreen but also how that links into the way society responds to that depiction. For example, the trope of showing men vomiting in response to a trans woman's sharing of her lived experience. This isn't just transphobic, and leads to violence and abuse out there in the real world, but it can also be labelled as homophobic. This doesn't arise because trans women aren't really women, far from it, trans women are women. Instead, the homophobia comes through in the fact that onscreen many male characters respond to becoming aware that their partner is trans by 'fearing' (honestly, in this day and age?) that people will think they are gay. Seriously guys, be better. Yet for so long, viewers have seen men responding in that way, creating a trope that trans women are repulsive. After a catalogue of truly terrible memories for trans women watching their portrayal onscreen, it was a joy to see the actors, writers, directors and producers interviewed share more positive experiences from recent depictions, which included the 2018 TV show 'Pose'.
Trans men also played a major role in this fascinating documentary. One of the interesting points made was that trans men are often treated as less visible because they are somehow less flamboyant or visible than trans women and therefore less likely to be portrayed onscreen. I was glad that a number of trans men were interviewed for this documentary, including actors I'd seen before and whose work I admired such as Chaz Bono from American Horror Story. Their stories were painful and inspiring in equal measure.
One of the topics that came up time and again was the tendency of interviewers to focus on the surgical aspects of transitioning rather than to ask trans people about their lives and experiences. Even some household names such as Oprah and Katie Couric were shown as examples of interviewers where this had happened historically but who had now grown as professionals and more recently conducted interviews where trans people felt much more at ease and were able to talk about themselves as people rather than just their physique. Trans people are so much more than the surgery they go through and this is starting, at long last, to be recognised in interviews.
The aspect of this thoughtful but honest documentary that I appreciated most was the discussions around the treatment of trans people of colour. Individuals whose lives involve an intersection of different minority groups, such as trans people of colour, face multiple challenges so this was incredibly important. Many trans people of colour were interviewed for 'Disclosure', which was profoundly welcome, and a genuine effort was made for their voices to be heard.
For the LBGTQ+ viewer or their families, friends and colleagues this documentary is essential viewing. Not just our understanding of ourselves but also the views of those around us (and of society as a whole) are formed from the fictional depiction of trans people. To say that much has been lacking in this regard historically is a huge understatement and the injustice is one that is going to take time to overcome. However, the general direction of travel is positive, and this moving and empowering documentary has played a central role in the debate.
Thank you so much for reading my 'Weekend Watchers' post. Please share your thoughts on this post or on any other LGBTQ+ TV show or film you've enjoyed in the comments section below.