When movies work their magic, the screen becomes a kind of mirror, reflecting dimensions of our identities or experience back to us in profound and emotional ways. When the characters aren’t so familiar, it serves as more of a window, offering insight into the lives of those who are different from ourselves. Now imagine how agonizing it can be for those who gaze upon the screen searching for something they can recognize, only to find unflattering, inaccurate and scornful representations staring back.
Transgender audiences know that feeling all too well. For them, cinema can be a cruel mirror. But if the concept of trans identity somehow frustrates or confuses you, it’s likely that you haven’t considered just how significantly television and movies may be to blame. That’s where Sam Feder’s essential, thoroughly engaging documentary “Disclosure” comes in, retracing the ways that gender-nonconforming characters have been depicted on-screen since at least D.W. Griffith’s 1914 silent “Judith of Bethulia.” (The movie doesn’t take into account live theater, where female roles were long played by male actors, or art history, which offers clues to just how far back such expressions really trace.)
Clearly inspired in its approach by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s definitive 1995 doc “The Celluloid Closet,” which did the same vis-à-vis gay and lesbian characters a quarter-century earlier, “Disclosure” is enormous fun for film fans. Rather than making audiences feel bad about trans-themed movies they may have naively enjoyed in the past, it educates on the larger issues while unpacking a legacy of problematic representation. “Problematic” has become a virtually meaningless catch-all euphemism of late, retroactively applied to work that no longer aligns with contemporary values, so it helps that Feder has assembled such a diverse — in every way imaginable — range of talking heads, interviewing actors, creators and culture critics of nearly every color to participate in this gleefully queer reinterpretation of classic films, from “Dressed to Kill” to “Yentl.”
If anyone’s being left out of this particular conversation, it’s the so-called cisgender contingent — or those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, who have largely monopolized the depiction of gender expressions that the public sees. “Disclosure” doesn’t allocate time to defining much of this vocabulary, or focusing too closely on the history of trans identity. There’s simply too much to cover in terms of how the media have dealt with nonconforming characters, who’ve “been around as long as footage,” as actor Alexandra Billings puts it.
“The ways in which trans people have been represented on-screen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist,” explains actor and advocate Laverne Cox, also a producer on the film, who recalls Geraldine Jones from “The Flip Wilson Show” as a personal reference point. (Note: “Actor” is an all-purpose term formally adopted by Variety in late 2019 to avoid perpetuating the separation of performances along gender lines. “Actress” is used only in relation to awards categories so named by organizations that insist on making the distinction.)
Geraldine’s character may have been an early example of an African American comedian cross-dressing for a laugh, but Cox makes the case that things aren’t much better when cis male actors Jared Leto or Eddie Redmayne do it for their more “respectable” roles in “The Dallas Buyers Club” or “The Danish Girl” — especially when those same actors appear on the Oscar telecast looking their most masculine, or in a beautiful gown, the way Hilary Swank did for her “Boys Don’t Cry” win. When they do that, it reinforces the perception that trans identity is a kind of performance, like Robin Williams slipping in and out of his “Mrs. Doubtfire” getup, rather than a lifelong commitment to embracing one’s true identity.
Returning to the mirror metaphor above, many of the people who appear in “Disclosure” share how difficult it was to accept their own identity because they couldn’t relate to those that existed in film and TV at the time (no doubt compounded by the fact so many of these stories are R-rated, as are many of the clips in this doc). “Disclosure” achieves something so few other movies do: By showcasing strong, confident trans celebrities, the film offers a stark alternative to the homely portrayals audiences see when actors like John Lithgow (“The World According to Garp”) or Chris Sarandon (“Dog Day Afternoon”) are cast as trans characters. And lest you think a documentary as celebratory as “Paris Is Burning” fixes things, the movie delves into the tricky politics of that film as well.
“When I play a trans woman, I don’t have to play the transness,” says Jen Richards. Similar to actors with disabilities or those who hail from nonwhite cultural backgrounds, trans performers feel that they should be considered for virtually any character — although casting directors nearly always default to considering white, able-bodied cisgender actors, unless the role designates otherwise. Movies with trans parts are downright obsessed with the characters’, er, parts, while talk show hosts can’t help asking trans interviewees what they’ve done about their genitalia.
That’s a specifically cis-centric fixation, “Disclosure” argues. So too is the idea of disclosure: the act of sharing one’s trans status for the benefit of a fragile, binary-minded partner. Editor Stacy Goldate plays this cliché for comedy, although it’s clearly one of the most troubling tropes in trans representation — as shown in a montage of cross-dressed female actors ripping their shirts open to reveal their breasts, or the infamous twist in “The Crying Game,” after which the
“betrayed” character immediately runs to the sink to throw up. “Hollywood is teaching people that the way you react when you see a trans person’s body is to vomit,” explains Cox explains, reinforcing earlier sound bites about the damage done by dismissive comedic portrayals.
This critique isn’t entirely fair, as the “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” parody of the “Crying Game” scene reveals: When pushed to such a comedic extreme, Jim Carrey’s overreaction registers as absurd, rather than appropriate. Though it never pushes for outright censorship, the documentary seems to suggest that negative representations (à la “The Silence of the Lambs”) are directly responsible for suicide and abuse in the culture at large. That’s a serious charge, though there’s no denying that trans lives are at disproportionately high risk, or that greater sensitivity (via shows such as “Transparent” and, yes, even “I Am Cait”) is shifting public opinion in a positive way.
As “The Matrix” co-director Lilly Wachowski wryly observes, older films are reflective of more conservative times, and yet, many of the harmful tropes they introduced persist. “Disclosure” is right to challenge them, although Richards is being more practical when she argues that “more” trans portrayals could be the solution. “And that way,” she concludes, “the occasionally clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much because it wouldn’t be all that there is.”