Sam Feder’s documentary provides an empathetic if slightly uneven look at the trans community, voicing its beauty and understanding its anger.
When I was seven years old, my parents took me to see Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed. Late in the film, there was a scene where Matthew Lillard drank a potion, which briefly turned him into a woman. At the time, I had no real idea why, but I tried to hide that I leaned forward in my seat. The rest of the crowd was laughing, but all I could think about was how beautiful “Shaggy Chick” was. It would take 14 more years for me to admit to myself that I was a woman, and another year to tell anyone or change my name to Dorothy. But that one sight gag unlocked my transness.
Moments like these take center stage in Sam Feder’s Disclosure, a new Netflix documentary about the history of trans people in media. The documentary examines not only transphobic gags and hateful talk show segments, but also the rocky road to representation. Feder’s film doesn’t shy away from any part of this conversation, including the fall of false idols like Caitlyn Jenner, and examining the darker sides of landmark moments in trans representation, such as Paris Is Burning and Transparent.
Disclosure has a lived-in intersectionality that permeates throughout its near-two hours, which only brush the surface of the wealth of films and television that have othered the trans community since the mediums were invented. The film centers the voices of the most vulnerable in our community, letting trans women of color like Sandra Caldwell and Laverne Cox speak at length about their personal experiences in both living in stealth and living very visibly in a public sphere. Feder remains committed to reminding and educating us about the struggle of black trans women, who find themselves facing the brunt of transphobic violence.
It’s difficult to write about this film without reflecting on my own lived-in experience of transphobia as a masculine-presenting woman. Feder centers the more binary, passing trans celebrities that the monoculture has thrust into the spotlight in the past five years. But as I thought about it, nonconforming public figures are few and far between. In a time when billionaire young adult authors are writing essays debating the basic rights of trans people, Feder and their team are fighting to provide a basic understanding of our history and struggle, and their slipups can only be attributed to not having enough time to delve deeper into this massive subject.
The most upsetting and powerful part of the documentary comes midway through, with archival footage of a speech by New York trans activist Sylvia Rivera being booed and jeered by a crowd primarily made up of cis gays. In the moment, Rivera is a goddess, a being completely consumed by righteous rage. So often, trans women aren’t allowed to be angry. Examples in Disclosure show trans women forced into dignity and grace in the face of jeering talk show audiences, but for one moment, Feder allows the viewer to access our anger.
Disclosure has a lived-in intersectionality that permeates throughout its near-two hours, which only brush the surface of the wealth of films and television that have othered the trans community.
The rage felt in Rivera’s speech hasn’t gone anywhere, and when combined with depictions of trans violence in films like Boys Don’t Cry, it reminds the viewer that this rage hasn’t gone anywhere. Worse yet, things haven’t gotten safer for us in the near-50 years since. (In the past week, two trans women, Riah Milton and Dominique Fells, were murdered in cold blood.) Feder pulls no punches in their use of emotion, begging the viewer to consider both how long we’ve been around, and how sick we are of being treated this way.
In the lives of most trans people, there has been a struggle to exist since we could form thoughts. Long before our Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed moments, there exists a small, nagging voice telling us that there is something slightly wrong with the body we are born into. Then the way we are portrayed in the media starts to turn that voice nastier, internalizing feelings of monstrousness and confusion.
Feder questions, If we hadn’t seen those jokes, if we’d been completely invisible, would we have ever had the tools and language to figure ourselves out in the first place? The question has no clear answer, because transness is an incredibly personal thing. For me, the answer is that Shaggy Chick is still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
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Disclosure hits Netflix this Friday, June 19.
- “The Short History of the Long Road” is a quick journey worth taking - June 18, 2020
- “Disclosure” lets trans people speak up for themselves - June 17, 2020
- “Ramy” goes to messy places in its strong second season - May 30, 2020