June 19, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sam Feder
Culture Representation: The documentary “Disclosure” has a racially diverse group of entertainers and activists (white, black, Asian and Latino) discussing how transgender people are depicted in movies and television.
Culture Clash: The documentary examines damaging bigotry that leads to confusion, hatred and untrue or misleading stereotyping of transgender people.
Culture Audience: “Disclosure” will appeal mainly to people who care about the rights of transgender people, but the documentary is also worth viewing for people who need to be more educated on why movies and television have a major impact in how transgender people are treated by society.
When the documentary “Disclosure” (directed by Sam Feder) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was subtitled “Trans Lives on Screen.” That subtitle was removed when the film made its way to Netflix. And it’s too bad the movie no longer has this subtitle, since this description needed to be displayed loud and proud to announce the documentary’s subject matter. By stripping the documentary of its original subtitle, “Disclosure” just sounds like a generically vague movie, based on the title.
Title changes are usually made by the movie’s distributor for marketing reasons, in order to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. Perhaps whoever decided on this title change thought that having the word “trans” in any part of the documentary’s title would scare off potential viewers. If that was the main reason for dropping the subtitle “Trans Lives on Screen,” then it’s an ironic choice, since the entire movie is about de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying what it means to be a transgender person, as it relates to how trans people are portrayed in movies and on television.
“Disclosure” does a very good job overall of covering these issues by giving the entire narrative to trans people. Everyone interviewed in the documentary is a transgender entertainer and/or trans activist. (“Disclosure” director Feder is also transgender.) People interviewed in the movie include Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Brian Michael Smith, Yance Ford, Zeke Smith, Lilly Wachowski, Mj Rodriguez, Michael D. Cohen, Chaz Bono, Jamie Clayton, Alexandra Billings, Jen Richards, Tiq Milan, Nick Adams, Tre’Vell Anderson, Trace Lysette, Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, Marquis Vilson, Chase Strangio, Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne, Susan Stryker, Alexandra Grey, Jazzmun, Ser Anzoategui, Elliot Fletcher, Bianca Leigh, Leo Sheng, Mickey R. Mahoney and Hailie Sahar.
However, the documentary (which has a traditional format that blends interviews with archival footage) doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining variances along the gender spectrum. There are many people in society who get confused between being transgender and doing drag. It’s a confusion that the documentary further muddles by bringing up examples of drag impersonations in movies and television and putting them in the same category as transgender representation. Some of the documentary’s examples include Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s “Tootsie” and Robin Williams in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as female personas created by male comedians Milton Berle, Flip Wilson and Jamie Foxx on comedy TV series.
Here is what “Disclosure” should have done from the beginning before going into the flashy montages of film and TV clips: Educate people on the different identities in the gender spectrum.
The documentary assumes that people watching the film already know what “cisgender” means. The definition of “cisgender” is when someone identifies as the biological gender assigned at birth. The majority of people in the world are cisgender and use the pronouns “he/him” if they identify as male and “she/her” if they identify as female. Most cisgender people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), while other cisgender people identify as “queer” (attracted to the same sex, both sexes or any gender) or “asexual” (not interested in any sex at all). It depends on the individual.
Transgender people are people who identify as the opposite of their biological gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have their own unique journeys on how and when they decide to present themselves as the gender they are. Many transgender people, for various reasons (usually pressures from society or family members), are forced to present themselves as the gender that is opposite of who they are.
Transgender people all over the world are fighting for the rights to be gendered correctly and to openly live their lives as the gender with which they identify, without being discriminated against for it. A transgender woman should have the pronouns “she/her” and a transgender man should have the pronouns “he/him.” Just like with cisgender people, sexuality for transgender people depends on an individual: Transgender people can be sexually attracted to any, all or no people on the gender spectrum.
Transgender people are often misidentified as doing drag. And that is a common misconception that the documentary really should have pointed out better. Drag is dressing up as the opposite sex. For transgender people, their gender identity isn’t “doing drag,” like a costume someone can put on and take off when they choose. The documentary really missed an opportunity to clarify between “doing drag” and “being transgender.”
Likewise, people can get confused over what “trans” means when there are transsexuals and transvestites. Transsexuals are transgender people who undergo gender confirmation surgery. Transvestites are cisgender people who dress up as the opposite sex. Transvestites are a subculture of drag culture, because transvestites are usually people who identify as straight or bisexual. None of that is explained in the documentary.
Also not mentioned in the documentary: There are some people who identify as “gender-fluid” and present themselves as male and female, depending on the situation. When gender-fluid people present as male, they want their pronouns to be “he/him,” and when they present as female, they want their pronouns to be “she/her.” Gender-fluid people are not to be confused with nonbinary people, who don’t identify as any gender and use the pronouns “they” and “them.”
Maybe the “Disclosure” filmmakers thought all of this information would be confusing to viewers. But a lot of people in the world don’t know that there is a gender difference between RuPaul (a cisgender gay man who does drag as a woman) and Laverne Cox (a transgender woman). A movie like “Disclosure” could have done a better job of educating people who are ignorant of these differences, instead of assuming that everyone who watches the film already knows what the differences are.
That being said, “Disclosure” has an impressive compilation of film/TV clips and personal stories from transgender entertainers who talk about how images on screen influenced (for better or worse) how they felt about themselves as transgender people. “Disclosure” also responsibly acknowledges the additional prejudice that transgender people can face from other members of the LGBTQ community.
There are also disproportionate levels of racism and sexism that transgender women of color experience, compared to cisgender queer white people. (Most hate crimes against transgender people are crimes against transgender women of color.) And because white transgender people get more representation on screen than transgender people of color, it causes limited stereotyping that can stifle the careers of transgender people of color. Actress/producer Valdez (who is of Filipino heritage and was raised in Guam) says in the documentary she’s spent her entire career trying to convince people that she can do roles other than the Asian “M. Butterfly” stereotype.
“Disclosure” offers a fairly comprehensive historical account of how transgender lives have been depicted in movies and television. The documentary includes examples of movies all the way back to the silent-film era. Two silent films released in 1914 are singled out in particular: director D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” and director Sidney Drew’s “A Florida Enchantment.”
But this is where “doing drag” and “being transgender” can get confused, since both films don’t really specify if the characters are really transgender or if the characters are cisgender people doing drag. For the first half of 20th century, the terminology just didn’t exist to make the distinction between the two types of identities.
Adding to the confusion is that many films from the silent-film era had shameful and degrading portrayals of women and people of color, with white men acting in those roles because white men were the ones usually allowed to get those roles in the first place. The practice of male actors dressing up as women goes back centuries before film was even invented, when women were not allowed to be actors.
Movies allowed roles for women, but early silent films still had a lot of men portraying women, simply because there weren’t enough women who were allowed to be actors. That doesn’t necessarily mean those characters were written as transgender or queer. It’s something that “Disclosure” should have put into better historical context.
However, actress/activist Cox (who is one of the executive producers of “Disclosure”) makes this noteworthy comment: “I think it’s fascinating that some of the earliest moving images were cross-dressed images. When you watch, it feels very much like womanhood is silly and is to be mocked.”
Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” director Ford says that he’s not surprised that movies from early filmmakers such as Griffith presented anyone who wasn’t a straight white male in a demeaning manner. Ford comments that he’s glad he didn’t go to film school because he would have walked out if they showed him Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation,” which is often taught in films schools as one of the most influential movies of the silent-film era. “The Matrix” filmmaker Lilly Wachowski puts it bluntly when she says of Griffith: “You racist piece of shit.”
Transgender representation in films obviously became more pronounced in the latter half of the 20th century, when transgender identities and gender confirmation surgeries became more openly discussed in society. Some of the films mentioned as being influential for transgender representation include 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” which were all nominees or winners of Academy Awards. For documentary films, 1990’s “Paris Is Burning” is praised as one of the most influential of all time for transgender representation.
However, even some of those films had problematic issues, according to some of the “Disclosure” interviewees. “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl” all had cisgender actors portraying transgender people. Transgender activists have been advocating for filmmakers and TV showrunners to hire transgender people for transgender roles. “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was based on a true story) also got some criticism in “Disclosure” because some people think that Jared Leto’s fictional Rayon character (a transgender female) was written for the movie to make the straight male protagonist of the story, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), look like the “heterosexual savior.”
In the “The Crying Game,” when transgender female character Dil (played by Jaye Davidson, who is transgender in real life) revealed that she has a penis, it caused her straight male love interest Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) to vomit. “Disclosure” criticizes films that resort to this negative and often unrealistic vomiting reaction whenever a cisgender person finds out that someone is transgender. The 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey, is cited as an example of this derogatory stereotyping.
The 1975 bank robbery film “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino, is mentioned as a mixed bag for transgender representation. This dramatic movie is based on a true story of a man who held a bank hostage in New York City so that he could get the money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his transgender female lover. The documentary points out that in real life, the transgender lover definitely presented herself as a woman in the way she looked, acted and dressed. But in the movie, the transgender lover was played by a very cisgender male-looking Chris Sarandon, who wasn’t even dressed as a woman in the movie.
Many people in “Disclosure” point to the Buffalo Bill character from the 1991 Oscar-winning film “The Silence of the Lambs” as an even more distasteful and offensive representation of a transgender person. The Buffalo Bill character is named as the embodiment of the worst negative stereotypes that movies have in portraying transgender women as homicidal people who act as vultures to femininity and hate cisgender women. It’s part of a shameful legacy of many transgender people being written in movies and TV shows as either criminals or tragic figures with medical problems. It’s also why so many transgender characters end up dying in these movies and TV shows.
But once again, “Disclosure” confuses “transgender” with “drag” when it goes off on a tangent to have people discuss movies like 1982’s “Victoria/Victoria,” 1983’s “Yentl” and 1985’s “Just One of the Guys”— each film had the main character doing drag, not being transgender. Although it’s interesting that some of the interviewees in this documentary were influenced by these films, the cross-dressing characters in those movies were cisgender, not transgender. As the saying goes about not causing confusion: “Don’t get it twisted.”
Many of the interviewees say that the TV industry has been more progressive than the movie industry, when it comes to representing transgender people, but there is still room for improvement. Christine Jorgensen (the first widely known transgender American woman to have a gender confirmation operation) is considered a pioneer for transgender representation in the U.S. media, since her transgender journey was a big story in TV news in the 1950s, and she was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and news programs for years afterward.
And the LGBTQ activism of transgender women Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson that began in the 1960s—although not as frequently covered on TV as the activism of their white cisgender male counterparts—is mentioned as highly important and underrated. Some of the interviewees in “Disclosure” say that bigotry within the LGBTQ community has a lot to do with why transgender activists are often held back and overlooked in their own community.
The Emmy-winning FX drama series “Pose” (about New York City’s drag/trans ballroom culture in the late ’80s/early ’90s) is cited by many people as the gold standard of all transgender TV shows, in terms of accurate representation. But “Pose” (which debuted in 2018) is an anomaly, since it’s the first and so far only scripted TV series to have a transgender-majority cast. “Pose” co-star Rodriguez says that the show has had a tremendous positive impact in how people view the transgender community.
Janet Mock, who is a “Pose” writer/director, is not interviewed in “Disclosure,” but she’s mentioned as an important trailblazer for transgender people who work behind the scenes in television. In 2019, Mock signed an exclusive first-look deal with Netflix to be the showrunner of TV programs, becoming the first transgender person to get this type of TV deal. “Disclosure” includes some archival clips of TV interviews that Mock has done.
Other TV shows that are mentioned as having positive representations of transgender people are Netflix’s 2013-2019 dramedy series “Orange Is the New Black” (which had Cox as one of its cast members); Amazon Prime Video’s 2014-2019 comedy series “Transparent”; and the TLC reality show “I Am Jazz,” starring transgender female Jazz Jennings, who was 14 when the show premiered in 2015.
ABC’s 2007-2009 primetime TV soap opera “Dirty Sexy Money” had Cayne as the first openly transgender character in a U.S. primetime TV series, but she says that this milestone was marred when the decision was made to lower her voice octave in the show’s audio, to make her sound more “masculine.” Cayne says she was horrified when she saw the show’s premiere and found out that her voice was changed without her permission.
The documentary also points out that writers and producers are capable of evolving and improving representation of transgender people. “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy (an openly gay man) was also a showrunner of FX’s 2003-2009 drama series “Nip/Tuck,” which had a disturbing episode in 2004 that featured lead character Christian Troy (played by Julian McMahon) raping a transgender woman named Ava Moore (played by cisgender actress Famke Janssen) and finding out during the sexual assault that Ava is a post-operational transgender woman. In “Disclosure,” Cox gets emotional and teary-eyed when she remembers what it felt like to watch that “Nip/Tuck” rape episode.
The reason why Ava got the operation is also problematic: She previously lived life as a gay man, but got the operation to become a woman so that she could to try to get the love of a heterosexual man who wasn’t in love with her. It’s unlikely that Murphy would put that type of transgender storyline in any of his shows today.
“Disclosure” briefly mentions Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” and her coming-out journey on the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the documentary also mentions that within the transgender community, Jenner is a controversial figure because she is an outspoken conservative Republican who supports political candidates who are against civil rights for the LGBTQ community.
TV talk shows are mentioned as being very important in showing transgender people on television. A transgender man named Reno, who was a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show” in 1998, is named as someone who was influential in particular to black transgender men, according to actor Vilson. “To see this image [of a black transgender man] on TV was really empowering,” Vilson says. “The Jerry Springer Show” was notorious for people revealing controversial “secrets” to their lovers, in the hopes of causing a fight on TV. On the show, Reno revealed to his girlfriend at the time that his true identity is being a transgender man.
Speaking of controversy, “Disclosure” seems to want distance itself from scandal-ridden actors who portrayed transgender people on screen. “Disclosure” doesn’t mention any of the sexual harassment allegations against award-winning “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (a cisgender man who played a transgender woman on the show), who was accused of sexually harassing women who worked on the show. Tambor denied the allegations but left the show in 2017.
Transgender actress Lysette (one of Tambor’s accusers, who guest-starred on the show) and “Transparent” co-star Billings (who is also transgender) are interviewed in the documentary but don’t mention the allegations. Either they talked about the scandal and it was cut out from the film or they didn’t talk about it all all. We might never know.
Also not mentioned at all in the documentary: the 2005 dramatic feature film “Transamerica,” starring Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman. Huffman (a cisgender actress) got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Transamerica,” but the “Disclosure” filmmakers probably don’t want people to be reminded that Huffman is part of transgender film history, because Huffman became a convicted felon in 2019, after she pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.
And speaking of transgender women on screen, “Disclosure” also mentions that there is disproportionately more representation of transgender women in American movies and TV than there are of transgender men, even though the number of transgender women and transgender men in the United States are about the same. Unfortunately, most of these transgender female roles in movies and TV are portraying sex workers, murder victims, sexual-assault victims or people going through some kind of medical drama. Transgender actor Smith has this theory: “I think we don’t see as much representation of trans men as trans women because people don’t think of trans men as sensational.”
The documentary points out that people’s attitudes toward trans people have a lot to do with traditional stereotyping of masculinity and femininity. Anything that challenges those stereotypes is often laughed at or despised. In 2011, transgender man Bono (whose famous mother is Cher) was the first transgender contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” In “Disclosure,” he talks about how most people were accepting of him on the show, but there was still considerable backlash that he experienced from bigots.
Showtime’s 2004-2009 drama series “The L Word” was the first American primetime TV series to have a transgender male character as part of the show’s cast. The character Max Sweeney (played by nonbinary actor Daniela Sea) started out as a “butch” lesbian but then transitioned to living life as a transgender man. Max’s coming-out journey on the show highlighted the prejudices that cisgender people (straight and queer) can have toward transgender people, as Max found that some of his lesbian friends had a hard time accepting his identity as a transgender man.
Some people in “Disclosure” say that the lesbian team of writers and producers of “The L Word” did a disservice to the transgender community because the Max character was portrayed as confused, and the female characters’ bigotry against Max was acceptable. Transgender people say that if a transgender writer or producer had been part of the show at the time, Max would probably have been written as transgender from the start, since most transgender people are not confused about their identity but are often forced to hide it because of pressures from society.
“Disclosure” also mentions how gender roles and race can intersect when it comes to black men in comedy. Cox points out that many black male comedians dress up as women to emasculate themselves in a society that often demonizes the masculinity of black men. “Putting a black man in a dress, in some people’s minds, takes away the threat,” says Cox.
Although Cox says that the Geraldine character from “The Flip Wilson Show” had a big impact on her, as one of the first cross-dressing characters that she saw on TV, it’s an example of confusing “doing drag” with “being transgender.” A better example of an influential black transgender TV character mentioned by Cox is the Edie Stokes character on CBS’s 1975-1985 comedy series “The Jeffersons,” played by Veronica Redd (a cisgender actress) in a guest-starring role in 1978. Edie was a character who actually lived life as a transgender woman instead of just playing dress-up.
“Disclosure” also points out that transgender people are often at risk of being ridiculed in being represented on screen. Actress/writer Leigh says, “As a trans person, you have the most sensitive radar to tell if you’re laughing with us or laughing at us.” Media maker/writer Milan adds, “If I’m not laughing, is it a joke?”
Actress/writer Richards (who is known for her roles on the TV series “Better Things” and “Mrs. Fletcher”) says: “There is a one-word solution to almost all problems in trans media—’more.’ We just need more [representation].” But as many people point out in “Disclosure,” more representation should also mean better representation. And that should also include educating people better about what it means to be transgender, so that being transgender is not easily confused with people dressing up in drag.
Netflix premiered “Disclosure” on June 19, 2020.