CW: Transphobia, Violence
On Sunday I watched Disclosure (yes I know I’m about a month behind most of you), and my feelings are … complicated. A lot of people talk about it being required watching, something that “everyone should watch”. I have a slightly different view.
First of all, there’s something that everyone watching this needs to understand. If you’re a cis person, you’re watching a very different show to me. For cis people it is important, educational, no doubt hard to watch for many of you – but it comes with a layer of detachment. You can’t understand how hard it hits. To see a compressed representation of the dehumanisation and danger that we live through as trans people.
Being trans I’m used to mostly seeing transness in media as a cheap laugh (look how funny it is when a man wears a dress), or as a character to be brutalised, humiliated, and killed. Knowing this this is the representation we can expect is one thing. It’s another to see a reel of clips which demonstrates this pattern of traumatic representation in TV, film, and chat shows. Seeing example after example of trans characters and celebrities being brutalised, degraded, and humiliated fucking hurts. I know that the point is to show this pattern, to prove the issue to those who don’t already know just how pervasive these kinds of representation are. But that doesn’t make it feel any less like a punch to the chest.
Part of the reason this hurts is that this media representation is not pure fiction. For many trans people trauma is the norm, and far too many trans lives are cut short by hateful brutality. It’s important for media to reflect the world we live in. But there are ways to do that other than uncritically reproduce the worst parts of trans experience. People often defend controversial films on the grounds that they are “based on a true story”.
But why is this the story we keep telling? Humans are natural storytellers, we understand the world through an endless series of interwoven narratives. Every person has a multitude of stories they could tell, there are millions – BILLIONS – to choose from. So why does so much trans representation boil down to brutalisation, humiliation, and dehumanisation? And that’s before we consider that the relationship between the treatment of trans people on screen and in real life isn’t a one-way street.
As part of this we must also consider the issue of trans hypervisibility. Trans people (or perhaps transness itself) are not lacking in representation on the screen or in the news. In the UK at least we are constantly in the spotlight, having our lives dissected and our experiences questioned.
Another topic touched upon is the importance of casting. All too often major trans roles are given to cis actors of the wrong gender (trans women being played by cis men, or trans men being played by cis women). When you see a cis man on the red carpet, accepting accolades for playing a trans women – that feeds into the idea that transness is simply about dressing up and playing a role, and it feeds into real life violence against trans people.
Obviously I think the best way to cast trans people is to cast trans performers. They understand the experiences they portray on the screen better than any cis performer can. But if this is too optimistic, then could we at least cast cis women to cast trans women? That would at least respect that trans women are women, and trans men are men. And if it feels weird for the actress to play a man in the pre-transition scenes, if it seem uncomfortable or wrong for them to dress up like that, well maybe they can use that to feed the performance. (Side note: can we stop obsessing over transition stories in general?)
Towards the end of the program, Disclosure begins to weave a hopeful narrative. And with shows like Pose, and characters such as Sophia in OITNB, things do seem to be getting better in US television. But I am cautious about being overly optimistic. Media trends can be fickle, and trans people still have to struggle against hateful opposition and institutional indifference. So while things have gotten better in the last few years, I am not so complacent as to assume this trend for better trans representation must continue. We must remain vigilant, and carry on this fight.
So who should watch this? Who is it for? People involved in the industry: the people writing, casting, and producing these stories definitely need to watch it. I think many cis people would benefit from watching it, facing the reality of trans representation in media and understanding a small part of how that feels. But I don’t think every trans person should watch this. We know what these issues are and we don’t need to see the distilled transphobia of decades to understand.