Media has a long history of erasing and misrepresenting marginalized groups, and the transgender community is no exception. The Rainbow Center and Dodd Human Rights Impact’s screening of ‘Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen’ on Thursday, Nov. 19, gave attendees a space to learn about the impact media has on public perception of trans people, as well as discuss the importance of such issues.
“Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” is a documentary that tells the story of trans representation in media, from the era of silent films to modern movies and television shows. It features several trans people who work in media and discuss their experiences watching and acting in plots with trans characters. Between interviews, the documentary shows scenes from movies and television shows that corroborate the anecdotes.
The film highlights several problems trans people face, which are reflected in and perpetuated by the way the media portrays trans characters. Media representation of trans people has an enormous amount of power over reality. According to “Disclosure,” 80% of people say they do not know any trans people, meaning media is often the only contact most people, including other trans people, have with the trans community. Because of this, the media is often the frame of reference for how trans people “should” be treated, despite the prevalence of negative portrayals of trans characters.
The screening also touched upon how media often treats transness as comic relief and creates a mentality that trans people themselves are to be made fun of. During the film, Laverne Cox, who is known for her role in “Orange is the New Black,” recounted she would be laughed at when she took the subway in New York. She believes people are trained by the media to believe this is an appropriate response. Cox’s experience is one of many examples of how transness has been mocked both in media and reality.
“That representation felt like it existed as a joke,” said Cox during the documentary, referring to the first transgender character she saw on television.
When not treated as comedic, trans characters are often portrayed as villainous or “disgusting.” This manifests in reality as well, both in violence towards trans people and as internalized transphobia. In films starring trans characters, particularly trans women, the characters are “revealed” to be trans and are met with repulsed reactions from others. Several of the interviewees said they had to fight through similar feelings throughout their lives and struggled to accept and love themselves for who they were.
In addition to negative portrayals, trans people are also removed from their own narratives. Stories including trans characters do not often star trans actors, or the stories are not told at all. Several roles for trans characters have been passed over from trans women to cisgender men. In the case of Elizabeth Coffey, she was denied a role as a trans woman because she looked too much like a “real woman,” according to those responsible for casting.
“That representation felt like it existed as a joke,” – LAverne Cox
The solution to these problems, “Disclosure” proposes, is the incorporation of more trans people in stories. By giving trans people a wider platform with more narratives and diverse storylines, having some “clumsy” representation would not have such heavy implications, since it would not be the only media available with trans characters.
However, sometimes visibility can create worse backlash. If more violence, fear or comedic relief is built from trans characters, it can create a more dangerous reality for trans people. This dichotomy puts the media in a position of power, showing it is imperative to recognize the problems within the media we consume.
The film proves that media and reality intersect and impact each other in many ways, so treating the characters with respect is a gateway to creating a safer and more positive reality for the trans community.
The discussion following the screening of the documentary gave all attendees a time to share their thoughts and experiences with representations of trans people in the media. Questions and comments about the film were welcome, allowing participants to apply the information from the film to their own lives and draw from their own experiences.
The variety of opinions and comments was eye-opening, and hearing thoughts from peers brought the documentary into a different light. Each person brought their own view to the table, leading to a more well-rounded understanding of how the documentary fits into others’ experiences.
With Transgender Day of Awareness on Friday, Nov. 20, it is especially important to recognize how something as seemingly trivial as the media that we consume can heavily impact the trans community.