The subject of representation is an interesting one. For those who don’t understand it, it can seem like a forcing of certain groups or minorities into narratives or roles. I’m sure we’ve all seen arguments made before along the lines of ‘these characters are only included to tick a box’, or ‘why make a character gay if it adds nothing to a story’. It’s easy to jump on the offensive when people say things like this, to condemn those kinds of views as homophobic, or racist, or transphobic. It’s easy to see condemnation of inclusion as hatred of minorities.
What might not immediately come to people’s minds is that to some this inclusion seems forced because they’ve never experienced it before. They’ve never has someone in their shows, films, or comics who wasn’t white, or straight, or cis, or able bodied. But the thing that might make them see inclusiveness as tokenism is that they’ve never had to look for people like themselves in the media before. They’ve never been starved of positive representation, so they don’t understand why it’s important.
Netflix’s new documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen goes out of its way to show why representation matters, and it makes important points. Most people might not realise that so many representations of trans people in media are as sex workers, murder victims, or killers. They might not realise that there are trans actors and actresses whose entire resume is Hook #1, Stabbing Victim, and Prostitute #3. And I’m sure that they don’t understand the impact that such representation can have on people.
Disclosure doesn’t just feature trans voices, it centres them. You won’t find a narrator guiding you through the history of trans people in film; you learn about it from trans people themselves. And you learn the effect that had on them. You get to hear how certain examples showed them that those feelings they had weren’t abnormal, that they weren’t alone in the world and could live as themselves, but you also see how they were told time and time again that society would grind them down, would mock and ridicule them, and how all they could expect was fetishisation or murder.
Thankfully, things are changing in the world. Trans people are finally, after decades without, getting positive representation on film. There are documentary series that follow real trans people, and trans narratives are getting centre stage, acted by trans people and not cis actors in drag. Disclosure will show you where progress has been made, but also where so much more still needs to be done.
This is a documentary that will appeal to trans people, and the friends and family of trans people, but I think those aren’t the ones who most need to watch it. It’s cis people who need to see this documentary. It’s people who probably have never thought about representation, or if they have think poorly of it. It’s not just informative, it breaks down a long and complex issue into an understandable thing, and shows you the real human impact that it has.
There’s a moment when Jen Richards talks about a father to a trans child who appeared on a television show, and spoke with joy about his kid. He loved his child, he said that having a trans kid was like being the father to a unicorn, something special, rare, and amazing. Jen, and a lot of trans people, never had that kind of relationship with a parent. Some parents don’t understand when their child is trans. They can hate their child, they can reject them. Even if you eventually get some form of acceptance those moments where you see hatred and disgust in your parents’ eyes will always be burnt into your memories. Jen says that she never knew that a parent could love their trans child the way that man did until she saw it on television, and it made her realise that maybe she never realised she could love herself that much either.
That’s what representation can help do. It can show you that there is a good world out there, that people can find love and acceptance, that they can have some joy. I knew that representation was important before I watched this film, but it never really hit home until I saw that moment; and it broke me too as I realised I was the same as her, that I’d lived through some of that as well.
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Disclosure is an important film, especially now. Trans people are one of the most at-risk minorities in the world, and Black trans women especially. The murder rates of trans people are disproportionately high for the population. Trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed, have a suicide rate of close to 50%, and homelessness and rejection are a constant fear. Governments around the world, including here in the UK, are in very real, serious debates to take our rights away.
This documentary isn’t going to stop these awful things happening to the trans community, but it might help people understand some of the struggles we go through. If even one person watches this and understands the importance of representation, and changes how they feel about trans people, it’s worth it.
So please, go and watch this film. Show it to people you know. Recommend it to people who might not understand the subject. It might not change the world, but it could help to save someone’s life if people begin to understand that we’re not monsters, we’re just people like you.
Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen is out now on Netflix.