Perhaps, if I recall correctly, the first time I saw a trans character on television or film was on the sitcom Two and a Half Men, when I was around 12 or 13. In that particular episode, a transgender man, after their sex reassignment surgery, visits an old, pre-surgery boyfriend to reconnect. Now, remember, this is a sitcom, so, it is rather easy to imagine what takes place after that — the humour surfaces and at the butt of the joke, is a trans character, entirely drenched in transphobia and homophobia. I hadn’t thought of the perniciousness of this, or countless other shows and movies I have seen since that adopt a similar tone of disgust towards trans folks, before this documentary — Disclosure (on Netflix).
At the helm of this documentary, are trans artists — actors, directors, singers, writers — who recount their experiences watching movies and shows that even remotely include trans characters, from Bugs Bunny to The Danish Girl. All these artists offer different accounts and angles on trans depictions — Laverne Cox talks about the intersectionality of queerness, blackness, and transness, Lilly Wachowski lambasts D. W. Griffith’s works, and Candis Cayne reflects on the times they played trans victims on cop dramas, “I’ve died so many times, I can’t even count, on camera.”
As Disclosure opens with clips from The Flip Wilson Show, Soap, The Jeffersons that exploit trans characters for entertainment, we are shown how mass media used (and still uses) trans identity as an object of humour. But the documentary is not barren and purely academic. It borders between academic and emotional conversations, oftentimes alternating between the two. And the truly jolting moments in the documentary are when these artists talk about the deeply personal and visceral shame these stories brought them — how it got etched into a universal understanding of trans identities. When Jen Richards, another actor-writer behind the camera, describes how they came out to their colleague about their transition, the latter’s response was, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?” The only template their musician colleague had for trans people was of a psychotic killer from The Silence of the Lambs.
On the face of it, it is a simple rendition of a complex history surrounding marginalisation. But as director Sam Feder braids and coils these accounts together, the documentary, as a whole, exhibits an acute understanding and criticism of the entertainment business. This documentary also tempers its observations by calling out on the mass complicity and ignorance around harmful trans portrayals, and, at times, yours. You introspect and contemplate your decisions as a wilful consumer of such content. At the same time, it also takes a dialectic approach for quite a lot of shows and films — you can be critical of a film as well as appreciate its existence.
This documentary is essentially pitched to a cisgender audience. It never alienates and comes off as obtuse. Sam Feder gradually eases you in on the thoughts and views of the trans folk being interviewed. At first, following the 1960s era in Hollywood, we see how humour, by degrading trans characters, is derived, particularly in television shows. This, later, progresses to them being portrayed as victims, of either hate crimes or of medical mishaps, as their sex reassignment surgeries go awry (which, most of the times, is rather scientifically unsound). And the documentary escalates even further as it references films where trans characters are brutalised, chiefly focusing on Boys Don’t Cry. None of this cultural exposition is sudden. In a slow and successive way, Feder exposes retrograde Hollywood content, even the ostensibly innocuous ones — the problem with men playing transgender women. And amongst this extensive coverage of trans treatment in films and television, the documentary is scrupulous in making sure that its analysis is approachable for cis viewers.
A similar prism, through which Disclosure reads Hollywood’s films, can be applied to Indian films and series’, where some can be lauded for their efforts and some denounced. Most recently, there was Paatal Lok with Cheeni as a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi’s Shilpa in Super Deluxe, and several crass sex comedies that, like a lot of Hollywood’s content, relegate and debase trans folks. Despite it targeting only American content, the documentary’s voice remains universal, and forces you to look at everything you consume, through a critical lens. And this is simply the start of a conversation. There is much more left to talk about, and much more left to do.
Disclosure initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2020 and is now available on Netflix.