"Disclosure" director Sam Feder on the trans TV experience: "People don't know what they don't know"

Salon talks to the director about his film's role in illuminating transgender visibility on entertainment

By Melanie McFarland
December 30, 2020 11:01PM (UTC)
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Laverne Cox in Disclosure (Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)

On June 9, 2014, Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine next to a headline that read, "The Transgender Tipping Point — America's Next Civil Rights Frontier."  In the mainstream's view, this was a signal of progress; Cox at the time was starring in "Orange Is the New Black" and received her first Emmy nomination that year for her work on the Netflix series, making history in doing so.

To "Disclosure" director Sam Feder, this supposed new era of visibility and acceptance wasn't being felt in his community. That led him to embark upon years of research about this disconnect between what the media was saying about progress for transgender people and reality as they're living it.

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"Very quickly I found out that 80% of Americans say they've never met a trans person, and that all they know about us is what they've seen in film and TV," Feder told Salon in a recent phone interview. "And when you look at that history, you see that we've been distorted and dehumanized in every way possible. And dehumanization always leads to violence."

"Disclosure," executive produced by Cox, is the stunning result of Feder's thorough inquiry, a one-hour and 47 minute examination of how film and television shapes how we see ourselves and how others see us, and more specifically how psychologically perilous that can be for marginalized communities.

For a century transgender men and women have seen themselves portrayed in film and TV as deceptive, as objects of mockery or disgust. The rolling impacts of that are all around us, evidenced in political attacks on trans rights and the rollback of legal healthcare protection for transgender people. There's also the miserable statistic reported by the Human Rights Campaign that so far in 2020, at least 42 transgender or gender non-conforming people have died violently, the majority of whom were Black and Latinx transgender women.

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But this also is the year that Elliot Page came out as trans, a revelation largely met with support. Feder's film is at the center of this discourse, thoughtfully examining the relationship between pop culture and real life through multiple perspectives and with ample reflection, moving contemplation and humor.

With awards season getting underway and nominations expected to be announced soon, we spoke with Feder about "Disclosure" and what it lends to the discussion of transgender portrayals and rights in 2020. As always, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you take me back to the beginning of this process? What made you decide that this was the film that you wanted to make?

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So, why disclosure? I think I've been ruminating on the ideas of disclosure for many years, probably for decades. You know, I grew up watching daytime talk shows. I saw "The Crying Game" in theaters in 1992, and I think I began to make films in my early twenties because I felt so alienated by it. And I really stopped watching what was out there for a long time.

And at the same time I'd been in conversations with most of the people you see in the film, right? This is my community. These are the people that I've come up with. I've known Yance [Ford] for nearly 20 years. Lilly Wachowski, her partner and I have been friends for almost as long. You know, I interviewed Susan Stryker and Jen Richards for, I don't know, probably two or three other projects along the way.

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And then suddenly 2014 sneaks up and mainstream media outlets are shining a light on trans visibility… but at the same time, the trans people that I was in community with were not at a tipping point, right? The people I was surrounded and living day to day with know we're still disproportionately unemployed, lacking access to safe and affordable housing and healthcare.   

I really wanted to understand why the mainstream media was declaring a change for a community it had so little connection to. And then I wanted to understand what led to this wave of visibility that we were seeing. And I thought creating a history of trans representation from the perspective of that unique moment could start to provide some of the answers I got.

So I was really wrapping my mind around this paradox of a celebratory increase of trans visibility, along with the increase of social and legislative violence. Along with that I wanted to see what the media taught the world to think about trans people and what we have learned to think about ourselves. It felt urgent that more voices within a historical context were added to this emerging public discourse.

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One of the things that makes this film so important is in the way it reminds the audience that so many trans characters are part of stories where disclosure is treated as the big twist, and the typical reaction of disgust is completely normalized. Even seemingly innocuous or well-meaning series or films have gotten this wrong.

Deconstructing these images and really researching all of this must have been quite an experience for you. What was it like to process all of this personally, as you were making this film?

You know, it was simultaneously excruciating and validating. Because when you see this history that points to the transphobia you've witnessed for so long, for me this was proof. "Here's the data, here's the proof."  And it's a bummer that the onus of proof is on the person experiencing it.

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But you know, so often every marginalized communities are told that they're too sensitive, that what they're experiencing isn't real. Here, we saw over a hundred years of this proof and all these images point back to the same thing that we're seeing arguments around transphobic legislation built upon today, which is that all of these images we see in one way or another say that trans people aren't real, that we don't exist. For that onus to be on the trans person is absurd.

It just immediately says that any trans person entering any space has to explain that they're not who they are choosing to be  and living as. That by simply showing up in that way, to have to have those reveal moments — to have to be relegated to being a joke, to being a psychopathic killer to having mental illness, having all of those be the reasons one is or isn't who they say they are — just erases us from being part of society. So while it was at times gut wrenching, humiliating and aggravating, it was also really validating to see this history that had not been talked about before.

And I imagine it must have been difficult to decide which footage would be included. There's so much of it, and you had a limited amount of time. 

Yes, you're absolutely right. There's so, so much we aren't able to include. I spent the first three years entirely focused on the research, harnessing a mountain of footage. And ultimately I wanted to base this film on personal experiences, to have the personal anecdote be what drives the narrative, moving away from the survey film that's either semantic or chronological. I really want it shaped by trans people's experiences and memories and perspectives.  

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So there's still a lot missing, but it was really based on personal anecdotes that show how people have ingested this material, how people have been able to love something uncritically and be in that uncomfortable space of understanding that this thing that they've been attracted to has also been hurting them. I think that is what also tends to invite a larger audience in, because we all share this nostalgia ... And I wanted to structure it in a way based on memory, in the way that we're reflecting on our past and projecting that onto our future, because progress isn't linear.

As I was watching, one thing that stuck with me was the way the film re-evaluates the delight of things like the Bugs Bunny opera scene [from the Looney Tunes short "What's Opera, Doc?"], and views it as something very empowering. I don't know a single person who doesn't love that character and that bit, so look at it in a different way was really wonderful. That's a very conscious choice in the context of this subject matter, to bring a little bit of levity into this discussion. Maybe 'levity' is not the best word…

No, that is the best word. That is definitely something that was constantly at my mind on my mind. I didn't want this to just be a hundred percent downer. There is no monolithic trans experience, as I'm sure you know, and our protagonists have very divergent views on the same thing.

Having in particular, the Bugs Bunny scene and the "Yentl" scene, having these sort of iconic images shown through a trans lens brings that delight and that excitement that can only be shown in this context. And it was those moments when Susan Stryker and Lilly Wachowski talked about Bugs Bunny, and then when Laverne Cox first told me the story about "Yentl," that I was blown away. Like, those are things that never occurred to me that could be seen in such a delightful way. And that is where so much of the tenderness in the film was held.

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One of the things that this film can do for people who are watching it is add context to a lot of the conversations we're having about identity right now. Obviously trans visibility didn't begin in 2020, but even the concept of people asking others to state their pronouns -- that's very new. And a lot of people remain resistant to it, if not outright refusing to do it.

I bring that up because one of the things that stuck with me from "Disclosure," and that I've paraphrased to folks since I've seen it, is the quote where Laverne counsels giving people the opportunity to learn, grow and change.  

You know, ultimately Laverne and I really committed to always believe in two things: One is that people don't know what they don't know. And the second is that everyone deserves a second chance. And we wanted to hold that nuance that the film holds, again, critiquing with love.

Even the most well-intentioned allies often struggle with conflict. And so they will often defer to silence rather than fear of making mistakes because our culture doesn't allow for second chances. And so I think something I've seen the film do is it's given people more confidence to be able really take part in these conversation they haven't felt prepared to take part of before. That now they feel they have this understanding and sense of history. Now they feel they know 30 trans people, right? That they just spent two hours watching and listening to them. I think it has allowed for a more complicated relationship to the issues and conversations that we were able to have before.

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That's why we highlight, you know, the evolution of how Oprah tells trans stories and how Ryan Murphy would tell trans stories. They both had a very problematic history, but now they're both leading the way with beautiful work.

And this has been such an important year for those conversations for so many reasons. As we were talking about before, the epidemic of violence against trans women of color continues. Then, recently Elliot Page revealed that he is trans. In viewing such developments there's a clarity, I think, that comes when the broader audience is identifying with trans men and women who are in the news for reasons other than a crime having been committed against them or, you know, not simply living their lives.

This led to conversations about deadnaming, for instance. So to return to that original point, from my perspective we've witnessed forward movement while at the same time learning how far we have to go. How do you view where we stand now?

When it comes to how the media chooses to report on trans people,  sometimes people don't know what they don't know and it's really innocuous. And I really feel like you just point it out and move on. ... Those who didn't know what they were doing, they're going to do better next time. What I saw that was really helpful to me was that most people didn't care that Elliot came out. They were just like, "Oh, cool, okay, next. What's the next headline for today?"

Whereas maybe a year ago, 18 months ago, the conversation would just be so much more scandalous and so much more salacious... People would just would have gotten so obsessed with things that are none of their business. And here the worst that we saw was that people were getting his name and his pronoun wrong. I was actually feeling really hopeful that it was not that big of a deal.

What do you think would be a true tipping point where you feel that we're actually in a place where we, as a culture, are evolving and things are getting better?

That story is one of them. And…I think when it becomes part of how we're looking at our local politicians Like when we're deciding, for one of those essential questions to be, "What do they think about trans rights. Do they think trans people belong in the public space? Okay. They get my vote." When that is just as important as everything else that we're looking at, then I think that that'll be a huge statement on how trans people are seen in the world. Right. Because right now we're just seeing one effort after another to keep us out of public view, to keep us from our fundamental human rights, to keep us from accessing health care, to limit our employment protections. And it is happening again and again and again.

So when we see that non-trans people are questioning that, then we'll know that we're really seen as part of society in the way that we deserve to be seen, in the fabric of every culture and society, for all time.

"Disclosure" is currently streaming on Netflix.

 


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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