Director Sam Feder’s new documentary Disclosure — a fascinating overview of transgender representation in film and television as seen through the eyes of over 30 trans actors, filmmakers and scholars — is so dense with historical insight and moving personal revelations that you may feel the need to watch is again soon as it ends. For non-trans viewers, gay and straight alike, this doc is sure to cause moments of consternation, as fondly remembered movies and TV shows, from The Jeffersons to The Silence of the Lambs to just about every TV cop show ever made, prove to have been hurtful to trans viewers hoping (and needing) to see themselves reflected onscreen.
A logical extension of the work historian Vito Russo began in his landmark book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies and the 1995 documentary it inspired, Disclosure connects the films of the silent era to the present. Actress Laverne Cox, director Yance Ford and historian Susan Stryker, among others, note that the easy laugh line of a comedian entering the room dressed as a woman, in an exaggerated, ridiculing way, actually began in the silent film era, particularly in the films of racist filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who may well have invented the joke for cinema.
“For decades, Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans people,” says GLAAD Trans Media Representative Nick Adams — and more often than not, that reaction is fear-based. From Psycho’s Norman Bates to Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, the gender confused character was typically shown to be a crazed psycho killer. In one of many emotional stories told in the film, actress Jen Richards recalls that when she was first transitioning, she came out as transgender to a co-worker, who said, “You mean like Buffalo Bill?”
In its artful mix of the scholarly and the personal, Disclosure forces a reconsideration of film moments that might once have seemed progressive, such as the trans character reveal in Neil Jordan’s Oscar-nominated The Crying Game. When Stephen Rea’s character discovers that his girlfriend, played by Jaye Davidson, is trans and has a penis, he runs to the bathroom and vomits, a scene that inspired years of such reactions in movies and TV, including, two years later, in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Writer Zeke Smith reports that Ace Ventura was his favorite movie as a kid but when he watched it again as an adult, to cheer himself as he was transitioning, he was stunned to discover that Jim Carey’s title character vomits, wails and weeps upon learning that he’s kissed a trans woman. This painfully extended sequence leads to a whole room of men vomiting at the sight of the trans character, right after Ventura pulls up her shirt and pulls down her pants. Feder shows the scene and then cuts to Smith, whose eyes still carry the pain of having been betrayed by his childhood movie hero.
There are bright spots, though. Cox loves Barbra Streisand’s Yentl and pings the song “Will Someone Ever Look at Me That Way?” as her “jam,” adding that “someone did eventually look at me that way.” And there’s promise in the evolution of filmmaker Ryan Murphy, who was accused of advancing transphobic depictions in the series Nip/Tuck but went on to create Pose, the revolutionary drama featuring trans women in the lead roles.
There’s glory too in the remarkable story of Sandra Caldwell, a trans actress who lived a life of “stealth” for nearly 40 years until she came out as transgender in a 2017 New York Times article. She’s a hero, like all the trans men and women in this movie, all of them remarkably eloquent about their lives and their shared history. One can imagine young trans people, still struggling, watching Disclosure again and again. It’s essential viewing for them, and for everyone.
Disclosure debuts on Netflix, Friday, June 19.