“Psycho.” “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Dressed to Kill.” What do all of these classic films have in common? They feature a transgender or gender variant person as a psychotic, deranged, murderous villain. The pesky trope began with “Psycho,” in what would become a favorite theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s, and proliferated throughout some of the most iconic thrillers of the last fifty years. Then there’s the “trans deception” narrative, which originated with dramas like “The Crying Game” and “M. Butterfly” but soon became a mainstay in comedies like “Tootsie,” “Bosom Buddies,” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
There are countless troubling examples of trans characters being portrayed as evil and duplicitous or sad and pathetic, far more than the average cinephile realizes. Most of the time, trans characters die before the end of a movie or TV episode. They’re all discussed in “Disclosure: Trans Lives Onscreen,” a new documentary from executive producer Laverne Cox that surveys the history of trans representation onscreen. When viewed all at once, this history is as surprising as it is troubling. From D.W. Griffith to “Law and Order: SVU,” “Disclosure” offers an accessible, moving, and in-depth account of trans representation in media.
The film features interviews with screen luminaries — all trans — who balance valuable information with intimate personal reflections. The author and professor Susan Stryker offers the film’s most scholarly insights, as well as Oscar-nominated documentarian Yance Ford (“Strong Island”). Stryker draws a fascinating parallel between D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” (1914) and a peripheral cross-dressed servant figure who acts as comedic relief. Film historians count the beheading scene as the first time a cut was used to advance a storyline, as the action shifts from the literal cutting of a body to the cross-dressed servant waiting outside. In this moment, “the cut trans body presides over the invention of the cinematic cut,” Stryker argues. “Trans and cinema have grown up together.”
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This is where Ford jumps in to explain the obvious issues in Griffith’s work, noting the notoriously racist “Birth of a Nation.” Ford points out Griffith’s use of blackface and crossdressing, in turns both comedic and vilifying, calling these his “twin fascinations.”
The film does a good job of situating each example in a wider context, and reminding viewers why depictions in media matter. “For decades, Hollywood has taught people how to react to trans people, and that is with fear,” explains GLAAD’s Nick Adams. In other words: Each time trans-ness is used as a murderer’s motive, a reason to recoil in disgust, or cause to laugh, the audience is given permission to react in the same way. Since 80 percent of Americans do not personally know a trans person, for many people media is their only experience.
That goes for trans people, as well. While all of the trans men interviewed acknowledge “Boys Don’t Cry” as a watershed moment, the film’s tragic ending was highly traumatic. On hospital shows and procedural dramas, trans women either end up dead, raped, and even sometimes get cancer from their hormone treatments. “I’ve died so many times I’ve lost count,” says Candis Cayne, who made history in 2007 as the first recurring trans character on primetime television, in ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money.” Such violent depictions, Cox says, made her think being trans was a death sentence. “This is what happens when we watch.”
There are rare positive portrayals, and they are just as profound. “‘Yentl’ was that story for me,” Cox laughs, filling the screen with her radiant smile. “I live for ‘Yentl.'” “Victor/Victoria,” “Hairspray,” and “Ma Vie en Rose” are singled out as landmark films with joyous and full realized trans characters. (This critic would add “Tomboy” and “Tangerine” to the list.)
On the TV side, there are the obvious contenders like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Pose,” and “Transparent.” More surprising are shout-outs for Bugs Bunny’s turn as Brunhilda in the 1957 animated short “What’s Opera, Doc?” as well as daytime shows like “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Maury.” Caitlyn Jenner’s short-lived E! reality series “I Am Cait,” in which many of the film’s subjects starred, also gets a special mention.
Director Sam Feder effortlessly weaves personal reflections from the subjects into the film. Writer and actress Jen Richards (“Mrs. Fletcher”), who is always thoughtful and eloquent, shares an uncomfortable story about a friend who brought up “Silence of the Lambs” when she came out. Cox’s account of the now-infamous Katie Couric interview when she asked Carmen Carrera about surgery is both candid and generous. (Couric has since apologized and educated herself.)
Those personal anecdotes are crucial, especially since anyone with more than a passing knowledge of film or trans issues will not find much new information on offer. The film would have benefitted from further critical analysis, like the kind spouted by Stryker and Ford. But “Disclosure” clearly has an audience in mind, and it seems aimed at folks who need a little help joining the rainbow fold. That’s a noble aim, but it doesn’t exactly make for transcendent filmmaking.
Perhaps what is most radical about “Disclosure” is the wide array of trans spirits both onscreen and off. In making the film, Feder and Cox are rewriting the very history they set out to tell, adding one more title to “positive representation” list. That alone is worth coming out for.
“Disclosure: Trans Lives Onscreen” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2020.