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The things Hollywood taught us to think about trans existences

“I never thought I’d live in a world where trans people would be celebrated on or off the screen. Now look how far we’ve come. We are everywhere.” — Actress Laverne Cox

About 80% of Americans don’t personally know someone who is transgender, according to a recent study by GLAAD, a non-governmental lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex organisation that monitors the media. It was founded by queer media practitioners in 1985 with the goal of collating information that would promote social change for queer people. Without proximity to trans ways of being, the only access the majority of the American population has to transgender people is through films, television shows, cartoons, music and news. 

This is addressed in a new Netflix documentary, titled Disclosure. Directed by Sam Feder, Disclosure is a series of interviews with 30 trans and non-binary actors, writers, directors, activists and scholars about their experiences of trans existences as influenced by the films and television shows that have represented them over time. The cast includes Laverne Cox (actress), Lilly Wachowski (writer and director behind the Matrix Trilogy), Tiq Milan (journalist and media consultant) and Susan Stryker (professor of gender and women’s studies).

Under this format, the subjects in Disclosure demonstrate the ways Hollywood has upheld white, cisgendered, capitalist and transphobic standards by invalidating anything that didn’t fit the mould.

The documentary addresses this through comedic portrayals as seen in the Geraldine character on The Flip Wilson Show (1971) and Edie Stokes from The Jeffersons (1975). In these and many other films and series, including How I Met Your Mother, the trans characters are used as a fictional spectacle designed to be laughed at. The viewer knows the trans characters are meant to be the punchline of a joke, not only because of the way they are directed to portray themselves, but because disclosures of their transness are always accompanied by a laughing track. “People have been trained to have that reaction,” says Cox, who relates this to times early in her transition where people would laugh at her. 

Hollywood’s transphobic legacy can also be seen in the fixation on trans people’s genitalia and gender reassignment surgery, misrepresenting trans existence as cross-dressing, casting cisgendered actors to play trans roles, the excessive reuse of the transgender victim tropes as well as the monolithic hypersexualisation of transwomen.

While conducting a study about the professions that trans people have been cast in, GLAAD used 134 episodes of television shows where trans characters appeared as guests. The study found that the most common profession for transfeminine people to be cast in was that of a sex worker. The decision for directors to mostly portray them as sex workers without character development speaks to the stereotypes that Hollywood is comfortable perpetuating. “I’ve been prostitute, prostitute 1, prostitute 2, call girl, hooker, you know? At a point, I felt limited,” says actress Jazzmun (Nichcalo Dion Crayton) about the roles she has had over the years. 

Things seem to be getting better. The past six years have built up to a time of unprecedented trans visibility. Not only are we seeing positive trans characters being played by trans actors on television dramas such as Orange Is the New Black, series like Pose have trans people in decision-making positions as writers, directors and leading roles. Although this marks progress, it is a small win because transforming representation is not the goal in the fight for trans rights. Disclosure is impeccable for managing to dissect Hollywood’s depictions of trans people from as early as 1901 all the way to 2020. By choosing to examine almost 120 years of film, the documentary’s length makes sense. Sitting with a duration of one hour and 47 minutes, Disclosure is packed with valuable information from the opening sequence to the closing credits. With 30 subjects and 12 decades of footage to reference in this limited time, Disclosure has little breathing room. Although it would have benefited from being a three-part doccie-series, it is a stellar example of how to use mainstream pop culture as an educational tool.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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