Popular culture is a crucial source we constantly draw from to configure our perception of self and others. This makes looking at projected narratives from a critical standpoint of the utmost importance, as media portrayals can be just as empowering and enlightening as they can be detrimental and misleading.
Our dependence on the media to learn about communities we are unfamiliar with is such that movies often act as a vital mediator. According to GLAAD, “multiple polls show that approximately 20% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender”. This implies that for most, the entertainment industry is an essential place they base their own stances on gender from and conceptualize the transgender community. The ways Americans view transgender rights have developed throughout the years; according to a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute published in 2019, around 62% of Americans were believed to have become more supportive of transgender rights compared to five years ago. However, around 25% say that they are now even more opposed to them than before.
Anti-transgender violence, especially towards trans women of color, is still prevalent in America. As the Human Rights Campaign foundation shows and elaborates on in their “Dismantling a Culture of Violence” report, trans people are heavily discriminated against due to societal anti-trans stigma that is seen in the lack of family acceptance, hostile political climate, and cultural marginalization. They are also denied opportunities, such as access to education, jobs, health care, social services, and are often mistreated by the criminal justice system. These factors are all entwined and intensified by racism and sexism.
Newly released on Netflix last month, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is a documentary directed by Sam Feder and produced by Amy Scholder that brings light to the Hollywoodian history of transgender representation from the very beginnings of filmic discourse to our current 21st-century context. The conversations are led in a talking-head format by some of the most important trans creatives and activists of today, such as Laverne Cox (who is also an executive producer in the project), Bianca Leigh, and Jen Richards, all of whom provide insights into their own experiences regarding movie depictions of transgender identities. An array of movies, shows, and television appearances are referred to and candidly discussed.
Each cast member’s firsthand accounts on their personal journeys in forming their careers and understanding their gender identities are intrinsically linked to how they have seen themselves being depicted by the media. Common damaging clichés and historically perpetuated stigmas are dissected, such as the common tropes of transgender women being prostitutes, and transgender or gender variant people being dangerous or/and deranged. On the other hand, nuanced victories are examined, namely the milestones of trans people distinctly seeing themselves on-screen. More behind-the-scenes issues, like the offscreen consequences of cis actors taking up trans roles, are also analyzed.
Disclosure is an excellent counterargument to the common dismissal of the nuisances of under- and misrepresentations which often tried to highlight the idea that diversity in the media does exist and is increasing. The documentary provides pieces of evidence of how this talk of visibility is often used as a ground to brush off the problems of (amongst others) tokenism, stereotyped stories, and typecasting, all of which have only relatively recently been denounced and whose condemnation has slowly elicited a few shifts in attitudes.
The progress that has been done towards accurately characterizing transgender lives on-screen is impressive, but there is still a long way to go. As writer Jen Richards beautifully puts it, “the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much because it wouldn’t be all that there is.” The documentary is a corroborated informant that highlights the immense personal and societal impact positive and negative representations project onto our society. Disclosure is simultaneously eye-opening and deeply personal. It is a good place to start for one to learn and self-reflect on potential internalized inadvertent assumptions.