The Netflix Documentary Disclosure features a cast of trans actors discussing the portrayal of trans characters throughout entertainment history. With Laverne Cox (Orange is the new black) behind the project, she uses the documentary as a teaching opportunity for others in Hollywood as well as viewers. Across the entertainment landscape, a myriad of tropes have been used to create distance from the group in question. Often when groups talk about the evil that the tropes perpetuate, it’s taken as an attack. Yet the path to better representation, especially of trans people, is to confront the past with objectivity.
One of the most important themes of Disclosure is the portrayal of trans people as the butt of the joke and the implications of those punchlines. A common casting choice for trans people is to have them as a murdered sex worker, opening the door to real violence against trans people. Additionally, many stories that celebrate the trans experience fall victim to appropriation when cis-het or cis-gay writers fail to de-center themselves from the story. Whereas Disclosure can be hard to watch because it’s trans people talking about their experiences, there are shows and movies that highlight the trans experience that are written, produced, directed by trans people and starred.
The implications of the trans punchline
The producer of Disclosure, Laverne Cox spotlights other trans actors and producers in the documentary, letting them talk about portrayals of trans people based on their own experiences. Cox speaks several times in the documentary about certain themes. Specifically, she talks about one of two ways trans people are portrayed: “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been in the public space, especially at the start of my transition in New York , when I got into a subway car, and people were laughing, like my being in that subway car was just a joke, and I think people were trained to have that reaction.
While this may seem like a nonsensical reaction from strangers, the truth is that when trans people are portrayed on TV or in movies, they’re presented as a joke. A trope, like TV tropes explains it, is ‘disguised as a drag’. The trope is used when a straight/cis character uses drag to disguise themselves. When movies and television implement this, the scenes in question tell viewers that being in drag is fun. Yet this form of humor is a micro-aggression. According Seattle Holocaust CenterIn the hate pyramid, the first stage is “the bias,” where microaggressions become socially acceptable. When society elevates comedians who use hard-hitting humor towards trans people, society becomes complicit in the violence that occurs towards trans people. If you want to support trans comedians, Their collected some jokes about trans people written by trans people.
Recognizing trans actors as sex workers
Another harmful stereotype Disclosure discusses how trans people, when cast in major productions, are portrayed as sex workers. Actress and producer Trace Lysette said of this casting choice/representation of trans people: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with doing sex work for a living, but it’s just isn’t all we are. And as a former sex worker, I feel like I can talk about that. And if you just see us as one thing, with no life outside of that, people will never see us as a whole person.
TV Tropes calls this trope “transgender fetishization,” meaning that the trans character(s) are more desirable than the cis characters. Much like making trans people into a punchline, turning them into sex workers creates a canyon-sized gap between trans people and society. Sex workers, especially on television, are viewed as shameful. Again, the suggestion with this trope is twofold. First, if the sex worker is transgender, she is portrayed as doubly ashamed not only of being trans but also of being a sex worker. Second, since the transgender sex worker is often murdered on the show, violence towards trans people is normalized since most cop/detective shows view trans people and sex workers as subhuman. The Human Rights Campaign publishes an annual report on trans people killed, indicating that each individual was killed by a partner, acquaintance or stranger.
Celebration versus appropriation
For connoisseurs, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez is the IT girl right now. She is the first trans woman to win a Golden Globe and will star in a comedy series, Bootyopposite SNL alum Maya Rudolph, an AppleTV+ series premiering in June 2022. Prior to these major milestones, she appeared on Disclosure to talk about the prolific film, Paris is burning: “I had seen Paris is burning when I was 11. But I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. I just saw beautiful people on screen. I did not hear the words. I just saw happiness and joy. When it completely dawned on me, I thought to myself, Oh my God, these are my sisters here, but the struggle is real.
According to TV Tropes, the trope of “trans tribulations” shows that the trans experience is tied to suffering and trauma. This trope is pervasive in the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in media, hence the importance of happy endings in queer stories. The underlying message is that gay lives are filled with struggles, so even though gay people are out, happiness is just a dream.
Of course, the irony is how the trans community is appropriated by cis-het individuals. Drag vernacular like “Yas!”, which was coined from Paris is burning, is used so often in cis-het circles that they don’t even realize they are using language invented by trans women. The same thing happens with makeup; the harsh face makeup made “popular” by the Kardashians is actually rooted in the trans and drag communities. To reiterate, we can celebrate trans and gay people, but when cis-het people are at the center of those celebrations, that’s not progress, it’s appropriation.
Trans stories by trans people
Like many documentaries, Disclosure is a beautiful blue, pink and white puzzle piece that shows the trans experience from the perspective of trans people. Producer Chase Strangio discusses the impact of trans people in Hollywood in Disclosure“The trans person on the red carpet, or the trans person on television and in the movies, these kinds of representations of transit can provoke rage in a viewer. And that viewer doesn’t have access to the character; they have access to the person on the street. I think that makes it especially important for us to push for material redistribution, otherwise all we do is elevate certain people into the sphere of the powerful and in no way work to disrupt the systems that exclude most trans people from material survival.”
While shows like Laid brought the ups and downs of drag ball culture to the mainstream, it’s still run by two gay men and one straight man. However, the impact of the show is not lost, especially since drag ball culture can be central to the LGBTQ+ experience. Although many independently produced films by trans and non-binary people are available. As Transfinite, a sci-fi film by non-binary director Neelu Bhuman. A short film by transgender filmmaker Jake Groff titled Spacer features two trans people who find out the other is trans, can be viewed on Youtube. One last movie, at least here, is for horror fans. Assassination Nation features trans actress Hari Nef, which can be rented or purchased on Amazon.