BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Back in May 2014, TIME magazine released an issue with a striking cover. Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the then new Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, an openly transgender woman standing tall, proud and defiant in a navy blue dress. Beside her in all caps, the words the transgender tipping point. For Sam Feder, director of the Netflix documentary Disclosure. It was a wonderful moment, sort of.
SAM FEDER I was so keenly aware that when that cover story hit the newsstands, the trans people I knew were certainly not at a tipping point. I mean, just the murder of trans women alone, specifically black trans women, had become an epidemic. And the rate of suicide among trans men had been surging. So I was excited about what Laverne would bring to the public conversation, but I was deeply concerned because whenever marginalized community gets mainstream media attention, backlash ensues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's interesting you call the film Disclosure, and it certainly seems like the moment of revelation in which a supposedly cisgendered person reveals themselves to be trans is one of the media's most recurring themes when trans characters are centered. One of the most memorable moments in media of Disclosure is in the 1992 movie The Crying Game, in which the twist that a character turns out to be trans is the plot point on which the whole movie hinges.
FERGUS Jesus, I feel sick
DIL I'm sorry, I thought you knew. [FERGUS caughs in background] [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER Do you remember when the crying game came out and all of the promotion around it and it was all about don't tell the secret. And I remember reading somewhere that the producers were working so hard to make sure the press did not reveal that secret. Quite honestly, it's a beautiful film. It really did not need that plot to make it as successful a film as it was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another recurring theme was the trans person as a psychopathic killer. We see it way back in Hitchcock's Psycho when Tony Perkins dressed up as his mother and kills someone with a knife. Certainly famously see it in Silence of the Lambs in the character of Buffalo Bill.
CLARICE Why does he place them there doctor?
HANNIBAL LECTOR The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis or pupa from thence into beauty.
CLARICE There's no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.
HANNIBAL LECTOR Clever girl. So close to the way you're going to catch him. Do you realize that? [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER If we're going to be allowed to actually exist, then we're crazy, then we're killers, that we're mentally ill.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your film also digs into the kind of trashy talk shows like Jerry Springer and Arsenio Hall.
WOMAN Baby, I know it's hard for you to understand because you know..
MAN So, you're a man?
WOMAN No, I'm not a man. I was born a boy.
MAN F*ckin Freak.
WOMAN So I'm a freak now? So this is what it is? Won't you talk to me?
MAN Freak. [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER There's a line in the film when Jen Richards talks about, specifically the talk shows, and how distorted and painful and violent they are, but would she had known she was trans had she not seen these early images? And I think that speaks to a sort of ongoing question of visibility at any cost. Is it better to be seen and laughed at or to not be seen at all? And I think the talk shows really speak to that, because for a very specific generation, my generation, you know, where I was born in the 70s and raised in the 80s and early 90s, that was my babysitter. Coming home and watching those talk shows. Those memories are so visceral.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you find any trans representations in the media that helped shape what kind of life you thought was possible?
SAM FEDER No, and I think that's why I started making films.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was intrigued by some of the moments of positive transgender representation. Bugs Bunny as a cross-dressing Valkyrie. Susan Stryker, the historian, said that that was very empowering for her.
SUSAN STRYKER When Bugs Bunny was doing girl, Bugs Bunny was desirable and was powerful.
ELMER FUDD Oh Brunhilde, you're so lovely.
BUGS BUNNY Yes, I know it. I can't help it [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER I have to say, I've seen Disclosure so many times at this point, you know, but that is the one clip that always made me laugh. And then when I interviewed Lilly Wachowski a few months later, she said the same thing. It was, it was so sweet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you have noticed in the past 7 years, a less limited vision of trans personhood. We've had Pose a series about ball culture in the 80s and the 90s.
PRAYTELL We have a challenge for the legendary children of the House of Abundance. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We had Transparent.
SARAH Are you are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?
MAURA [LAUGHS] Honey, my whole life I've been dressing up like a man. This is me. [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER You know, when Transparent first came out, I just didn't understand why it had to be a cis guy. I understand money and you have to get it greenlit. And, you know, Jeffrey Tambor is a good actor. He did a good job, but there's so much trans talent who could have done that role just as well, if not better, and not sexually assault people on set.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, there's that.
SAM FEDER And I think that's very real. And that's something we're very aware of as any marginalized person understands what safety means, and when you see the sacrifices made for the bottom line to make money on your back, you know you're not going to be safe. And I mean, this was a large part why, in making disclosure, we prioritized hiring trans people. We wanted everyone behind the camera as well as in front of the camera, as you see. But everyone behind the camera we prioritized to be trans. And if we couldn't hire a trans person, we mentored one. If you're so excited about telling trans stories, you have to really think about it in a holistic way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there something that you see particularly missing in how those characters are portrayed?
SAM FEDER I want complicated stories. You know, the antidote to negativity, I do not believe is positivity. I do not believe sterilized, positive stories will make the world a better place. I think complicated and nuanced, you know, messy that give a full picture of a trans person's life. We do not need to shy away from the horrors because they're real, but we need to show them in a universe that also has love and community and, you know, the full experience of being human.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Laverne Cox makes a point about cancel culture being used as an excuse not to take up this issue because good liberals don't want to look like they don't get it
SAM FEDER Through the entire making of disclosure. Laverne and I were very much on the same page. I think it's important that we're very critical of our cultural products and that people are held accountable to that critique, but I also think it's really important that people get second chances. That they're given the opportunity to learn and grow. You know, we used Oprah Winfrey as an example of that film. We open up with some really problematic things she said on her shows.
OPRAH How do you hide your penis? [END CLIP]
SAM FEDER And then we closed the film with literally saying she's evolved. With someone like her who is in such a position of cultural power is so important that we give people a chance to evolve. Not only when you're, you know, this megastar, but I think when we see a society that creates the room and resources for people to evolve and grow and be accountable, we're going to live in a much better place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What kind of impact do you think the film's had so far?
SAM FEDER We immediately were hearing from people in positions of power talking about how they saw the film. A-list celebrity like Ryan Reynolds or Tracee Ellis Ross saying that this has changed how they will see and make films. There was a press release about how Halle Berry was going to take on a role of a trans man, and then she or her team watched Disclosure and they walked away from the role. So it's become a tool to help the industry do better, and that's very exciting. Stuff I'm even more passionate about is hearing how a group of California judges used clips from Disclosure to educate themselves around the bias they might hold around trans people in their courtroom. You know, on our set, the second day we were shooting, our gaffer were so moved by our production model and she happened to be a chapter president of her union, the largest tech union in the world. She went to her union and helped to institute the first trans sensitivity training and that got copied across the country. So it's had a really vast impact, which, you know, is all a, especially a documentary filmmaker, could ever hope for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Congratulations!
SAM FEDER Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sam Feder is director of the documentary Disclosure available on Netflix.
That's it for this week's show! On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender. This week we say goodbye to our beloved intern, Alex Hanesworth. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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