“Something to disclose”—
Notes on Disclosure and the possibility of trans camp
In the 1964 essay that launched her career as a critic, [open endnotes in new window] “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag claims
“Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures. […] Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” …[…] Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. […] Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”
It is this tenderness I must highlight from the very beginning, as my own defense against what might seem to be the tastelessness or insensitivity of the argument I am about to make. That is, trans culture needs to nurture its own deep-rooted camp impulses, and Sam Feder’s highly acclaimed 2020 documentary, Disclosure, should be celebrated for the subtle manner in which it achieves an alignment between trans viewing practices and camp.
Failure and artificiality are signatures of camp (as noted by Sontag but of course so many others as well); it may seem to be reinforcing cisnormativity to associate these motifs with trans media. It is not that trans bodies are inherently artificial, nor that trans genders must necessarily fail, however. Rather, a mode of enjoying artifice and incongruity is a viable response to the inevitable failures of Disclosure’s object of scrutiny: trans representation in mainstream film and television. In the above quotation, showing us Sontag’s “Notes” nearing the sentimentality of a wedding vow, I highlight this combination of love, tenderness, and appreciation as a plausible way to live with a surge of positive representation that can only fail to deliver everything it seems to promise. The only other possibilities might be disappointment and despair at the happy endings or sense of belonging we are denied, bitterness toward the images promising the fulfilment of our desires, or anger at ourselves for desiring (love, acceptance, an end to gender normativity) in the first place.
I am not the first to apply a camp lens to trans media; Marissa Brostoff does so masterfully in a 2017 article on Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait. She provides an excellent review of the work of earlier scholars like Pamela Robertson and José Esteban Muñoz who have recovered feminist and decolonial meaning in the style often associated with gay subcultures otherwise privileged by gender, race, and class, while pointing out that “camp performance sometimes seems to be everywhere but the transgender body.” There are still scholars (like Halberstam) who argue that the irony of camp is an insufficiently broad affective repertoire to respond to all the pressing political (or antipolitical) projects of our time. As they claim, queer antisociality comes in many other forms which can deliver a much starker, “undisciplined” opposition to heteronormativity. Camp isn’t the best or only response to straight culture, though; it’s a strategy that is productive in particular contexts. It’s a subtle move, one that works best in the centre of enemy territory.
Camp is a defensive strategy, and while it might not produce the most radical of effects, it allows the organization of queer sensibility to take place with little resistance in highly normative spaces that we cannot avoid traversing. Esther Newton’s groundbreaking 1972 anthropological study, Mother Camp, makes this spatial aspect of “camping” quite clear. As one of the professional “female impersonators” whom she interviewed points out, we can understand a performer to be “camping” on stage when they banter with the audience, but the prototypical environment of a “camp queen” is directly amongst her audience at a bar—or, even more dramatically, on public streets:
“She’ll walk down the street and she’ll see you and say, ‘Hi, Mary, how are you?’ right in the busiest part of town . . . she’ll actually camp, right there. And she’ll swish down the street. And she may be in a business suit; she doesn’t have to be dressed outlandishly.”
Camp organizes queer pleasure directly under the nose of heterosexuality. I would argue that camp can serve similarly to enjoy the space mainstream representation allocates for transness while organizing dissensus with the underwhelming ends to which our stories and images are mobilized.
Before progressing into greater detail about how I understand Disclosure to engage in camp humour, it will be useful to address how this documentary has been generally understood (or rather misunderstood) by professional critics. In the following section of this essay, I will highlight how the film’s (typically glowing) reviews read a trans progress narrative of positive representation as Disclosure’s central message. However, these readings differ in important ways from the attitude made most explicit in the closing few minutes of the documentary and in comments made elsewhere by its director Sam Feder.
between the closet and Disclosure
When I was still an undergraduate student, in the awkward early stages of a medicalized transition that made graduate school the most obviously safe short-term career option, I made the mistake of discussing a planned project on trans road movies in terms of “positive representation.” After informing me that this was an outdated and unpopular framework among academics, my advisor graciously handed me a stack of photocopied pages from Out Takes to consult.
In Ellis Hanson’s introduction to that anthology, he describes a disjuncture between, on the one hand, queer activist demands of media “for so-called positive images, representations of sexual minorities as normal, happy, intelligent, kind, sexually well-adjusted, professionally adept, politically correct ladies and gentleman who have no doubt earned all those elusive civil rights for which we have all been clamoring,” and, on the other hand, scholarly critical investments in queer viewing or reading practices which (besides their greater formal, aesthetic, and political nuance) do not postpone queer pleasure in and identification with popular media images until Hollywood produces overt and unproblematic gays and lesbians. While acknowledging the value in outrage which produces an organized queer political community, Hanson disparages it as a form of criticism which “can ask only one question of a film: Does it offend me?”
To Hanson, Vito Russo’s 1981 monograph The Celluloid Closet and its 1995 documentary film adaptation stand in for the intellectual paucity of the entire “positive representation” approach. Out Takes is nearly two decades old now, and the filmic Celluloid Closet a quarter century old, but has all that much changed since then? The 2020 release of director Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Film is an appropriate opportunity to ask this question, as its formal similarities to The Celluloid Closet are so obvious that many popular reviews immediately note them.
The Celluloid Closet consists of film excerpts intercut with clips of interviews with actors, directors, and critics. Lily Tomlin provides some added voice-over narration, describing broad trends as the film advances through the decades, while the interviewees share their responses which often reference specific films. Disclosure likewise follows a loosely chronological and tropological progression but is much more tight-lipped. It lacks an overt narrator, yet the exclusively trans collection of interviewees suggests a relatively coherent perspective made possible in part through well-established areas of concern.
I will address a number of these concerns later in the essay, but I must emphasize, for now, that a shared area of concern does not mean a consensus of values or critical perspectives. As I explore in more detail below, a large portion of the film consists of interviewees discussing negative trans-related tropes in film and television of earlier decades, often in terms that suggest the influence of a number of trans critics who don’t themselves appear—Julia Serano, Talia Mae Bettcher, Jack Halberstam, and C. Riley Snorton in particular. However, these are nearly always accompanied by dissenting takes from other interviewees. With the absence of an overt narrator, it is harder to understand dissent as bracketed outside of an otherwise unified critical trans perspective.
The trans perspective that Disclosure presents coheres through agreement on the significance or intensity of certain images, but not on what they mean or what effect they have for trans subjects. Understanding the perspective of this multivocal documentary is made both challenging and worthwhile because we must reconcile the pain and pleasure that mainstream visual representation creates for trans viewers, even when strongly divergent affects are produced in response to a single image.
Disclosure titles some of its film clips, particularly those that are directly referenced by trans interviewees, but many arrive decontextualized and thus avoid narratorial presence while also weakening associations to their original context in favor of Disclosure’s narrative progression. This format makes a lot of sense for the heavily tropological approach that most of the film takes. One could, of course, dispute whether any particular film properly belongs to the representational cluster Disclosure uses it for. For example, Peter Debruge’s review of the film in Variety quibbles over the its critique of Ace Ventura’s (1994) “absurd” vomiting and the idea of “negative” filmic representation of trans characters being “directly responsible for suicide and abuse in the culture at large.” However, he does admit,
“there’s no denying that trans lives are at disproportionately high risk, or that greater sensitivity (via shows such as “Transparent” and, yes, even “I Am Cait”) is shifting public opinion in a positive way.”
The last portion of the Disclosure is most focused on trans representation enacted by actual trans performers, which also brings the film into the most recent history. There is a highlight on actor Sandra Caldwell’s early career and eventual coming out. A wide range of work by other performers is referenced, but the film uses Candis Cayne’s role in Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2008) as a major landmark, along with Chaz Bono’s award-nominated series Becoming Chaz (2011), and Laverne Cox’s role in Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019). Each major example is discussed in terms that suggest progress in terms of positive representation, yet other critical comments always make this ambivalent. For example, Orange Is the New Black garners much praise, Jazzmun notes that Cox’s character, Sophia, is “still a menace to society.” For all the comments that imply that these recent, high-profile images are in themselves a victory, the most unambiguous consensus among interviewees emerges as a recognition of shifting conditions of trans creative labor.
Where the juxtaposition of film clips and interviews becomes most complex is at the film’s end. After its survey of the recent, most celebrated work by trans performers in trans roles, the last couple minutes conclude with a more macroscopic discussion of the current and future social impacts of increased trans representation. During these final moments we are shown a montage of very brief, untitled clips depicting trans actors in recent trans roles. Most of these clips serve as direct and literal examples of recent celebrated work by trans performers in trans roles, but two notably longer clips suggest more figurative meanings.
The first is a scene from the award-winning film Una mujer fantástica (2017): an extended long shot of actor Daniela Vega walking along a sidewalk into an increasingly impassable current of wind, a visual metaphor for minority struggle and resilience. This is followed by another ten seconds of short clips, and then the last eighteen seconds before the credits are spent on a scene which is truly the most jarring of the entire documentary. This break in format suggests we might read these scenes as a narrating instance, framing and commenting on everything that comes earlier, especially given the degree to which the final scene enacts a dramatic genre shift.
A stony-faced figure appears in extreme close-up, zooming out to reveal white gossamer lace robes and a white horse. A reverse shot, continuing to zoom out even further, places this solitary pasty trans fae among a whole field of similar figures (some gently floating, some mounted on additional white horses, some carrying spears) waiting motionless, humourless, and exhaustingly digitally reduplicated, behind a gigantic closed wooden gate in an endless stone wall. My first thought when I finished watching Disclosure: what is up with all those transgender white walkers at the end? This analogy to Game of Thrones may be unhelpful inasmuch as it suggests undead horror, but there is something distinctly uncanny about the figures the film closes on, and they are made particularly striking because it is the film’s only particularly fantastical image incorporating a trans body, and it appears with so little helpful context. Following the scene of Vega struggling against the wind, and given that this scene accompanies a discussion of the present and future of trans media, one interpretation of this scene could be that these are not-yet-disclosed trans figures, waiting to be welcomed into our world through the gates of representation but still unmarked by the mundane struggles of contemporary trans life.
Is epic fantasy the next frontier of trans media representation? Why not? The genre appears a refreshing break from the tragedy and dramedy genres to which trans characters are currently most resigned in mainstream film and TV. Rather than making an argument for the value of specific genre movements in the future of trans representation, however, I’m claiming that this final moment in Disclosure is one of its most surprising and interesting, for anyone who wants to think about this film as a cohesive whole with a perspective of its own. At the conclusion of this paper I will return to expand on another possible reading of this ending, relying on intertextual and latent meanings of the fairies as well as subversive camp reading strategies Disclosure gestures to elsewhere.
|... standing before a giant wall ...||... as a motionless horde.|
For now, I simply want to draw attention to the shift in form in order to show the relationship it has to the moment in which the documentary was released. It’s a strikingly literal manifestation of what Lauren Berlant has been theorizing as “genre flailing,” a grasping gesture towards conventional forms and formulas that promise some defense against the intractability of ordinary crisis.
As Berlant herself describes it,
“Genre flailing is a mode of crisis management that arises after an object, or object world, becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes on one’s confidence about how to move in it. We genre flail so that we don’t fall through the cracks of heightened affective noise into despair, suicide, or psychosis. We improvise like crazy, where ‘like crazy’ is a little too non-metaphorical. We see it in the first gasps of shock or disbelief, and the last gasps of exhausted analogy. But it’s not always a wildly inventive action. When crisis is ordinary, flailing—throwing language and gesture and policy and interpretations at a thing to make it slow or make it stop—can be fabulously unimaginative, a litany of lists of things to do, to pay attention to, to say, to stop saying, or to discipline and sanction. Often in the pinch of a crisis we return to normal science or common sense—whatever offers relief in established clarity.”