According to a study by GLAAD, 80% of Americans have not met a transgender person in real life. This means that for 80% of Americans, everything they know about transgender people comes from the media. That is hundreds of millions of people who are basing their opinions on an entire group of individuals off of what they see in films and television. Sometimes art is just fun entertainment. But other times it’s anything but. Representation matters because the wrong representation can have deadly consequences. The documentary Disclosure does an incredible job of explaining how this happens.
I actually went into this film with a fair bit of knowledge on this topic. I am extraordinarily lucky to have several incredible transgender men and women in my life who have all been wonderfully open and giving about their lives and experiences. And yet even then, this film revealed just how much I still have to learn. Disclosure interviews dozens of prominent transgender actors, actresses, and activists as it traces the history of trans narratives in the media. From some of the earliest representations in the silent film era, to recent groundbreaking shows like Orange is the New Black and Pose, Disclosure painstakingly reveals the hard won path it’s taken for transgender people to see themselves positively represented in the media.
It’s important to note that I mean hard won in the most literal sense. I knew that the history of trans narratives on-screen was insidious at best, but Disclosure lays bare just how bad it’s been for over a century. These are not just frivolous stories being told. The vast majority of these narrative portray transgender people as sick, mentally ill, psychotic, revolting, and worthy of ridicule, scorn, and violence. If this is the only message out there, is it any wonder that transgender people face horrifyingly disproportionate levels of violence, assault, and murder? These are not just stories. They are representations of an incredibly marginalized group of people, and when done wrong, the consequences can be, and tragically often are, deadly.
For myself, the first representation of a transgender person on-screen that I remember was in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Otherwise known as the incredibly popular comedy that basically launched Jim Carrey’s career. A film that ends with an entire room of men reacting violently out of revulsion to the idea that they were attracted to a transgender woman. It is a horrifying scene to watch today, but I vividly remember being very confused by it back in 1994. As a child, I didn’t understand why it was a bad thing that a woman used to be a man. To be clear, I’m not saying I was an exceptionally woke kid. It was just my first time watching a transgender character. I hadn’t been indoctrinated into the standard Hollywood narrative just yet.
As much as some people would like to pretend otherwise, stories matter. Representation matters. And if you don’t believe me, watch Disclosure and then we’ll talk. The media is filled with scenes of characters reacting in revulsion to the reveal that another character is transgender. This exact same scenario happens every day in real life, and can result in violence, assault, and death. And it has to stop. These stories are literally killing people. Again, don’t believe me? The average lifespan of a black transgender woman is 35. If there’s anything you should be repulsed by, that’s it.
Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!