With everything going on, it’d be easy to miss Laverne Cox’s latest project Disclosure.
The powerful documentary takes a deep-dive into how the representation of transgender people in film and television has greatly impacted the way trans people are treated in the real world.
Over the years, “Representation” has become one of those buzzwords that we love to throw around without really talking about what it means or the ramifications it has on society. We demand that we have more representations for under-served communities and yet we rarely delve into the true effects that it has in the long term.
But that’s what separates Disclosure from other documentaries. It not only examines the way trans people have been portrayed since the beginning of film, but also the real-world consequences it has had.
Specifically, the documentary connects the dots between representation and why society has become so fearful of trans people, particularly trans women. It explores how film and television play into those fears and has even manifested them over the years. Disclosure also makes a direct link between the way trans people are portrayed in entertainment and the growing violence against black trans women.
Long before the word “transgender” was in our vocabularies, trans people were present in film. But trans characters, particularly trans female characters, fit squarely into two categories: the butt of the joke or the psychopath.
Both are problematic, but it’s the murderous, mentally-ill characters that have instilled real fear in the public. When only 20% of Americans personally know someone who is transgender, the media’s representation holds even more weight than it would otherwise.
All you have to do is look at movies like Dressed to Kill (1980), Psycho (1960), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) to see trans-women portrayed as deranged serial killers.
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Trans Media and Representation, explained in the documentary,
“For decades, Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans people. And sometimes, they’re being taught that the way to react to us is fear. That we’re dangerous, that we’re psychopaths, that we’re serial killers, that we must be deviants or perverts. Why else would you wear a dress if you’re a man?”
It’s this fear that has fueled conservatives’ obsession with keeping trans women out of women’s bathrooms and has them calling parents of trans children “abusive.”
But sadly, this isn’t even the worst consequence of trans representation in the media. Many trans people in Hollywood believe that increased visibility has put their community at even more risk for violence and even death.
As Sense8 actress Jamie Clayton said,
“The more positive representation there is, the more confidence the community gains, which then puts us in more danger.”
Trans activist Tiq Milan added,
“The paradox of our representation is, the more we are seen, the more we are violated.”
Because even as Hollywood gives more screen time to transgender stories, there still remains the incredible problem of precisely who is telling those stories: cis white men.
Actress/writer Jen Richards explained it best in the documentary and said,
“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 playing a trans woman, off-screen.”
“Having cis men play trans women, in my mind, is a direct link to the violence against trans women. And, in my mind, part of the reason that men end up killing trans women [is] out of fear that other men will think they’re gay for having been with trans women, [and] that the friends, the men whose judgment they fear, only know trans women from media and the people who are playing trans women are the men that they know.”
Advocates have been saying for years that trans characters need to be played by trans people and yet Hollywood continues to cast cis men and women in those roles instead. Think Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015), and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent (2014).
Because no matter how sensitively a trans character is handled on-screen, viewers are still seeing the actors behind the characters take off their dress and their makeup and go back to their lives as cis men after the credits roll. Hollywood makes it seem like being a trans woman is merely “a role” one plays, something that can be reduced to a pair of heels and some lipstick.
But being transgender isn’t a costume you can take off when it’s convenient for you — it’s an identity that people have fought hard for years to be seen as valid by society.
By continually having cis men play trans women, that identity is being undermined. It reinforces the idea that trans women aren’t real. And, as Jen Richards said, this brings a real danger to trans women who have become increasingly vulnerable to fatal violence. In 2019 alone, at least 27 trans people — mostly black trans women — were murdered in the United States. (I say “at least,” because the murders of trans and non-conforming individuals are notoriously underreported).
As Richards theorized, one reason that men kill trans women is because of homophobia and the idea that they would be perceived as gay should they ever be seen with a trans woman. Because, according to the media, trans women are secretly just dudes, right?
So, for film and television to perpetuate the idea that trans women are actually men by having cis men (in particular, famous cis men) portray trans women onscreen only serves as ammo for fragile cis men to take out their insecurities in their masculinity on trans women.
There are so many people who don’t understand why the representation of transgender people in film and television matters, why it matters that trans people get to tell their own stories. But Disclosure answers all of those questions and more. It makes it abundantly clear why we need to be so deliberate in the way we portray trans people on screen and that representation in the media has real, tangible consequences. And sometimes those consequences can mean the difference between life and death.
Disclosure is currently streaming on Netflix.
READ THIS NEXT
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and The Challenge. When she’s not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her taking an absurd amount of photos of her tuxedo cat Tom.