Disclosure: Behind Laverne Cox’s Netflix Documentary About Trans Portrayal | Documentary films

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In June 2014, Time magazine featured Laverne Cox, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black star, on a blanket who proclaimed America’s “Transgender Tipping Point”. Cox, a black transgender actor, was at the forefront of a wave of mainstream media portrayals of transgender people, from the critically acclaimed Amazon Transparent series, to Janet Mock’s bestselling memoir, to Barneys fashion campaigns featuring transgender models. In the six years since the cover of Cox’s Time, mainstream representations of trans and non-conforming gender have proliferated – there’s Hunter Schafer in HBO’s coming-of-age drama Euphoria, the non-binary character Taylor Mason in Showtime’s Trillions and the Netflix show Pose, set in the 1980s New York City ballroom scene.

But while mainstream visibility is welcome and influential, especially for a community as historically marginalized as transgender people, one should be wary of celebrating the portrayal in which “a few people are high and the majority of people still struggle,” says Cox in Disclosure, a Netflix documentary she produced on the history of transgender portrayal in US media.

“My own life is such a profound example of what representation can do,” Cox told The Guardian, noting countless stories of trans people she’s met who have made the transition, or gone out with their friends and their family, or have decided to stop living stealthily, after seeing her. the character of Orange is the new black. But in the same context, “trans people have experienced unprecedented levels of violence, and this legislative aggression in state legislatures and at the federal level that is unprecedented.”

Disclosure describes the often gruesome and distorted mirror of transgender portrayal in American movies and television, a story full of damaging stereotypes and double-edged swords. With a scarcity of performances, the representation, often insidious or played for jokes, takes on a disproportionate meaning. According to a Glaad Study, 84% of Americans do not personally know someone who is transgender; most news and impressions about transgender people therefore come from the media, including transgender people sorting through their own self-perception. More roles, greater visibility, means more and potentially better information; it may also mean a faster reaction for the roughly 1.5 million Americans who identify as trans.

This visibility paradox was evident during Disclosure’s release week, which began with a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in New York City attended by tens of thousands and 25,000 on a march. in Los Angeles – an unprecedented public demonstration of solidarity in the face of systemic violence against transgender people of color. The previous week, two black transgender women were killed within 24 hours – Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Philadelphia and Riah milton in Liberty Township, Ohio.

The Supreme Court this week upheld federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ + citizens, barring 26 states from still allowing employers to fire trans employees for their gender – days after the Trump administration announced it would cancel health care protections for transgender people.

The news swing tests the usefulness of visibility, because “we see time and time again that as marginalized communities gain the attention of the general public, a backlash follows,” said Sam Feder, the Director of Disclosure, at The Guardian. While the process of re-examining decades of trans media representation for disclosure was “really cathartic,” particularly “seeing it in a context held and driven by trans people,” Feder said he “didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that visibility is not the goal, it is just a means to an end ”.

Yet, by deploying over a century of representation, Disclosure reveals how tropes, stereotypes, and recognition blend into the present, for better or for worse. With commentary from a host of transgender entertainment figures including Trace Lysette, Jazzmun, MJ Richardson, Candis Cayne and Tiq Milan, Disclosure revisits the early days of Hollywood, when cross-dressing was illegal, but many silent films showed men. dressed in women’s clothing. Deceptive, dangerous or problematic representations and stereotypes have been around for just as long, such as the terrible trope of trans characters as psychopathic killers – of Murder! in 1930, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970 and Psycho in 1960 to serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs in 1991 – which prompted audiences to react to transgender people with fear.

A photo of Psycho. Photography: Ronald Grant

This historical thread is clearly reflected in another headline in recent weeks: the transphobic disinformation essay by Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Having previously called Rowling’s comments “deeply problematic” and the burden of representing a marginalized community in public: “The ‘divide and rule’ method of pitting women’s rights against trans rights has been a very effective tool for divide marginalized people, “she told the Daily Beast –Cox declined to say more about Rowling’s essay, other than supporting actors in the Harry Potter franchise, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne, who have publicly refuted Rowling’s views.

“Come on Emma, ​​come on Daniel, come on Eddie,” Cox said.

Disclosure, as a film about the history of anti-trans or deceptive portrayals in popular culture, could “shed light on JK and like-minded people on the roots of their patriarchal fantasies,” Feder added.

In numerous examples, the cumulative effect of which is devastating and overwhelming, Disclosure reveals a minefield of representations swinging between the extremes of tragic victim, joke piece, or spectacle, but rarely grounded person. Tropes range from dangerous and destructive to well-meaning but awkward, including: the narrative of the victim of transgender violence on police and medical shows; an obsessive focus on talk shows and news programs about surgery and body parts, and public assumptions that any question, no matter how invasive, is fair game; the assumption that disclosure – revealing oneself as transgender – must be a scenario, accompanied by feelings of betrayal and mistrust; men react to trans women with visceral disgust; and cis actors playing critically acclaimed trans characters, such as Oscar-winning Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, and Oscar-nominated Redmayne’s in The Danish Girl.

What to do with this litany of problematic representations, often downright transphobic? Feder and Cox called for context, not censorship, in light of the conversation recently rekindled by HBO Max’s decision to temporarily remove Gone with the Wind from its streaming service, pending a note from black historians on the racist portrayals of the film and the glorification of Confederation. Problematic representations are “an educational opportunity,” Cox said. “I’m not a fan of throwing art aside. I’m a fan of critical engagement with her and having conversations.

Both said it was important to understand the origins of ideology and stereotypes as a roadmap to correct and dispel them. “It’s so important for us to be clear where this is all coming from,” Cox said. And looking to the future, Feder said: “What we need is more – the more we have, the less harmful these awkward representations will be.”

Natasha Lyonne, Kimiko Glenn and Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black
Natasha Lyonne, Kimiko Glenn and Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. Photograph: Netflix / Courtesy Everett Co / RE

“We need more trans people working behind the scenes – realizing, producing, below the line positions, just Following“Cox added.” And more representation in positions of power. “

Janet Mock’s multi-million dollar Netflix contract, for example, is a step – “but it’s only one person.” We need more of this.

The scale and visibility of the recent protests gives Cox “a tremendous amount of hope,” she said, “but it’s about what comes next. It’s about keeping that energy to change. policy, to reorient our budgets and our cities away from the police and towards education, housing, employment opportunities for those who are most marginalized.

Representation, Cox said, can “change some hearts and some minds, it can inspire people, but it must be combined with efforts to change ideology, institutions and public policies – and, again, them. people’s material living conditions ”.


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