Film review: Disclosure (2020)

I watched this recently released powerful documentary from Netflix a couple of days ago that has members of the transgender community talk about their life experiences.

DISCLOSURE is an unprecedented, eye-opening look at transgender depictions in film and television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender. Leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, share their reactions and resistance to some of Hollywood’s most beloved moments. Grappling with films like A Florida Enchantment (1914), Dog Day Afternoon, The Crying Game, and Boys Don’t Cry, and with shows like The Jeffersons, The L-Word, and Pose, they trace a history that is at once dehumanizing, yet also evolving, complex, and sometimes humorous. What emerges is a fascinating story of dynamic interplay between trans representation on screen, society’s beliefs, and the reality of trans lives. Reframing familiar scenes and iconic characters in a new light, director Sam Feder invites viewers to confront unexamined assumptions, and shows how what once captured the American imagination now elicit new feelings. Disclosure provokes a startling revolution in how we see and understand trans people.

DISCLOSURE shows audiences that decades-old stereotypes, memes, and tropes in the media both form and reflect our understanding of trans issues. They have shaped the cultural narrative about transgender people, and inform everything from dating and domestic violence, to school policy and national legislation. Since 80% of the population have never met a transgender person, all they know is rooted in media depictions, which are predominantly problematic and have rarely included participation by actual trans people. Disclosure is aimed at that 80%.

Laverne Cox plays a major role but there are many others who are also given a voice. Most use as their reference points the many portrayals of transgender people in films and TV and the film has many, many clips going back a very long time, to the beginning of films itself.

They spoke about their mixed feelings about seeing these depictions on the screen as they were growing up. On the one hand, since as transgender people they had to hide their identity for so long from their family and friends, many did not know any others personally and so it was affirming to find people like them shown on the screen, to know they were not alone. On the other hand, the portrayals were almost uniformly negative, with the transgender character being played for cheap laughs as broad slapstick farce, or as a sex worker, or as a victim of brutal violence. The writers, actors, and directors were not transgender themselves and were just not able to present the experience of transgender people in an authentic way, as fully fleshed-out human beings. Often, the revelation that a character was transgender was accompanied by revulsion and disgust on the part of the other characters.

Many of transgender people in the film industry, like those elsewhere in society, spent most of their lives fearful that being revealed as transgender would result in losing their jobs, ostracism, or worse. It is only in the last decade or so that some have been able to be open as to who they are and have actual careers. But they too have been subjected to cringe-inducing interviews that focused on the narrow issue of physical transformation and not about what their life experience is like. It would be unthinkable for non-transpersons to be asked the kind of personal questions they are asked. It was heartening to see some of the interviewees pointedly rebuff this line of questioning as simply not appropriate.

One thing I noticed is that the film largely focuses on portrayals in American films and TV and largely ignores the UK stage and TV world that has a long-standing tradition of highly caricatured, over-the-top presentations of men dressed as women that can be found in pantomimes and in TV comedies such as The Benny Hill Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and, for all that I know, continues to this day.

Those who are now able to be open remind us that many others are still fearful of doing so. Furthermore, some of the increased public acceptance and the high visibility of some members of the transgender community may generate anger among transphobes that can lead some of them to commit violence against those who do not have the fame to provide at least a partial protective shield.

Surveys show that 80% of the public has never met a member of the trans community. It is likely that some of the 80% may think they have never met one but have and do not know it. That is a major part of the problem. Ignorance often leads to stereotyping and prejudice, since it is hard to relate to people whose life experience is different from yours. I hope this film goes some way towards filling that need.

Here’s the trailer.

Note: For anyone who may be considering carefully parsing my words in order to seek out any sign that I do not fully support the right of the transgender community to equal treatment in society, I refer them to my earlier statement on this issue.


  1. says

    There’s also Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”. Enlightened people got it, but murricans reacted to it the same way they reacted to Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight”. The videos were career killers.

    the film largely focuses on portrayals in American films and TV and largely ignores the UK stage and TV world that has a long-standing tradition of highly caricatured, over-the-top presentations of men dressed as women that can be found in pantomimes and in TV comedies such as The Benny Hill Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

  2. sonofrojblake says

    @Intransitive, 1:

    Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”…The videos were career killers

    1983: “I Want to Break Free” recorded.
    1984: “I Want to Break Free” released.
    1985: Queen headline Rock In Rio and play two nights, each to a crowd of about 300,000. Later the same year they ‘win’ Live Aid, with a performance voted in 2005 as the greatest rock performance of all time.
    1986: “A Kind of Magic” album, featured in Highlander -- five times platinum in the US. More than a million people see the tour.
    1989: The Miracle album released.
    1991: Innuendo and Greatest Hits 2. Freddie dies.
    1992: Bohemian Rhapsody appears in Wayne’s World, and spends five weeks at number 2 in the US, winning an MTV award. “Classic Queen” goes triple platinum in the US.

    I wish someone or something would kill my career like that.

  3. robert79 says

    “Since 80% of the population have never met a transgender person”

    I *seriously* doubt this percentage… Perhaps 80% of the US population hasn’t met a transgender person whom they *know* to be transgender.

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