Netflix documentary film “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” gives us an enlightening look into how transgender people have been regarded and represented on the media. While never overlooking how unfairly they have been misrepresented in numerous movies and TV shows for many years, the documentary also observes the recent big progress for them, and it will surely make you reflect more on their presence and basic rights to live.
At first, the documentary draws our attention via a bunch of various notable transgender figures, each of whom has lots of things to tell in front of the camera. All of them had each own personal struggle with their gender identity, and they were particularly sensitive about how negatively transgender people have been depicted in movies and TV shows. Watching transgender characters mainly used for laugh or shock on screen, they felt more awkward and ashamed about their gender identity, and they were certainly not so willing to reveal themselves to others around them.
As shown from a series of archival video clips and photographs, the misrepresentation of transgender people was prevalent even at the beginning of the movie history. For example, while he has been infamous mainly for the shameless racism in his monumental silent film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), D.W. Griffith was also guilty of another kind of prejudice as shown from one of his notable works, which has a silly caricature of transgender woman as one of its minor supporting characters.
And we see how the trend of depicting transgender characters as laughingstocks or monsters was continued during the next hundred years. While “Psycho” (1960) and “Dressed to Kill” (1980) are naturally mentioned as the prime examples of this misrepresentation of transgender people, the documentary looks around a wide of range of TV shows and movies ranging from “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “NYPD Blue” to “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (1994) and “Married… with Children”, and it certainly makes a sharp point to us.
Many of the interviewees in the documentary frankly tell us on how they were often frustrated with their deficient representation on the media – and how happy they were to come across the rare occasions when the media paid some attention to transgender persons. While most of these occasions were gaudy and sensational, they were glad to see their existence illuminated in public via the Jerry Springer Show or, yes, “Paris Is Burning” (1990), an iconic documentary film which vividly captured the lively cultural world of sexual minority dancers.
Around the late 1990s, the progress was started bit by bit, and then there came “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), an Oscar-winning drama film which is based on the tragic story of a real-life transgender man. Although it should be mentioned that the movie erases the presence of an African American man who was another victim in the case, the movie is still a painfully powerful work nonetheless, and Yance Ford, who was recently Oscar-nominated for his documentary film “Strong Island” (2017), reminisces about how difficult it was for him to watch a certain horrific moment of violence in the movie.
However, the depiction of transgender people in TV shows and movies were not improved much even during the 2000s. Many transgender characters in movies and TV shows were unfortunate victims of terrible fate or crime, and there is an amusing moment when one transgender actress recollects when she happened to work in two different TV medical drama series where she played basically same transgender characters without much difference.
In addition, there have also been the imbalance in the representation on the media between transgender women and men. Transgender women draw more attention because they are, well, a more sensational subject, so they are usually the ones associated with transgender people in other people’s mind, and transgender men accordingly have not gotten much spotlight in comparison while often marginalized even among other sexual minority groups.
Fortunately, things have gotten better for transgender people during recent years as many of them have kept trying to show themselves more and fight more for their human rights, and their images on the media have been considerably improved as a result. While we see more transgender characters appearing in movies and TV shows these days, many of these characters are played by real transgender performers, who surely bring unsurpassable authenticity to their roles. For instance, Laverne Cox, who is incidentally one of many transgender interviewees in the documentary, steals the show every time she appears in Netflix TV series “Orange Is the New Black”, and it goes without saying that Oscar-winning Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” (2017) depends a lot on the strong presence of its wonderful lead transgender actress Daniela Vega.
On the whole, “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” presents its main subject with considerable respect and thoughtfulness under the competent direction of director/co-producer Sam Feder. Yes, as mentioned around the end of the documentary, the world still needs to be changed a lot more for more inclusion for many transgender people out there, but the progress has already been started, and, despite many uncertainties in our world at present, I am hopeful about that.