Over the past few weeks and months in quarantine, a new light has been shone on dark places in ourselves and those around us, on many different topics. This period of time has made at least one thing quite clear, and that is that not everyone is assessed based on their compassion, honesty and kindness but rather on the basis of their external looks.
As it is Pride month, Transgender awareness seems like a fitting topic to touch on. I recently watched Disclosure; a Netflix original documentary directed by Sam Feder. In this documentary, prominent Hollywood personalities such as Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), Jen Richards (a writer on Nashville and Blindspot), and Rain Valdez (Razor Tongue) are just some of the few interviewed about their lived experience in the film and television industry as trans women.
Disclosure discusses Hollywood’s depiction and treatment of transgender individuals and the community in the past and present. It displays scenes from many of the movies we know and love as great cinematic pieces, but which come up short in accurate or appropriate portrayal of trans individuals. Some may wonder about what’s wrong with this, or why it matters.
Laverne Cox describes watching The Jefferson’s with her mom when she was a child. Cox’s mom would laugh at a cross-dressing character named Eddie Stokes. Cox describes how her identity at that time made her hate what she couldn’t identify with. For the cis population, there is a lack of attention toward the depictions being presented. In many cases, the cis population was never exposed to trans culture in a substantial way. Laverne gives a statistic from GLAAD, which stated that eighty percent of Americans don’t know someone who is transgender. Most of the information that people have about trans individuals comes from the media.
Rain Valdez describes her experience watching the film Soapdish (1991), in which there is a scene at the end where Dr. Franz (who identifies as a female) is exposed as being born with male genitalia. This scene, to Rain’s parents, was a frightening one and they did not say a word about it. The next morning, they started to dress Rain in male-identifying outfits because they knew how difficult it would be for Rain after transition. While Rain talks about this incident with the film, she becomes visibly and understandably emotional. This portion of the documentary captures the authenticity of how important accurate representation is to the transgender community.
Jen Richards opens up about a particular response she received when telling people about transitioning. As she describes her transition, Jen describes the reaction of her self-described “smart, cultured co-worker” responding with a remark about “Buffalo Bill”, a fictional serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs who skins his female victims in order to wear their skin, as one of the only points of reference for transgenderism. This is one of the portrayals often referred to by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF) in order to spark fear of the trans community and to suggest that trans women are appropriating the identities and spaces of cis women.
Earlier, I asked what is wrong with these outdated portrayals of the trans community and the answer is; everything. I have been aware for a very long time that trans or gender-fluid people weren’t accepted, even by themselves. What I wasn’t as aware of was that media portrayals of individuals or the community had such a derogatory effect on that community. The emotion when members of the trans community talk about their experiences in Disclosure drives a sense of urgency to examine and change those portrayals.
I walked away from this documentary telling myself that I still have much to learn. Disclosure tells audiences that each individual should feel accepted for wanting to express themselves as they wish, and for wanting to feel a wholeness of self when referring to who they are, and seeing their portrayals onscreen. Hollywood, and the media in general, can’t continue to perpetuate inaccurate and harmful narratives.