There’s a brief but fascinating discussion towards the middle of Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen—a new documentary about trans representation and the cis gaze that hit Netflix on Friday—that veers away from the subject matter at hand to explore femininity, survival, and the subaltern origins of dominant aesthetics.
It begins with Laverne Cox, who features prominently among the Sam Feder-directed film’s dozens of talking heads, describing the street harassment she faced early on in her transition. The actress—who is currently in production on Inventing Anna, a show about noted New York scammerina Anna Delvey produced by Shonda Rhimes—talks about how she used makeup and other forms of feminine adornment to steel herself to the cruelties that awaited:
I was so viciously harassed on the streets of New York early in my transition. I would arm myself. [Makeup] was warpaint. Going out int to the world, [I just wanted] to feel at my very best because I knew that I would be misgendered. I knew that I would immediately feel unsafe just walking down the street, and that was certainly the case. So, I armored myself, and makeup was a way to do that.
Jen Richards builds on what Cox says, exploring how this feminine armor—truly, the aesthetics of transfeminine survival—is then mined by the ruling class for purely ornamental purposes, decontextualized of the struggle that prompted its creation. In other words? Cis women want to be us! The Mrs. Fletcher star explains:
I think that one woman’s armor becomes another woman’s adornment… [There’s] a kind of Kardashian aesthetic—this hyper-feminine, plump limps, the big hair, the extensions, the silicone-injected curves of the body—that in some ways might be a reflection of a change in aesthetics that comes out of the kind of gay men who are often doing the styling for celebrities. And that for them, [these aesthetics come] out of the street queens that they know from the clubs, and for them it comes out of, ultimately, the sex workers who have to hyper-feminize their body in order to compete for clients in order to survive… It kind of creates this ultimate cycle. A lot of people will look at trans women’s performance of femininity and see it as somehow reinforcing the worst patriarchal stereotypes of women, and I think it’s really unfair and ahistorical to foist that same perspective on people who are just trying to survive.
Watching this exchange, I recalled what filmmaker Elegance Bratton told writer Thora Siemsen a few years ago in an interview for Out—that when men are fantasizing about the “Kardashian aesthetic” that Richards talks about above, they’re really fantasizing about the Black trans women and trans Latinas in ballroom who originated those aesthetics back when Kim and Kylie were still pairing silky empire waist tops with bootcut blue jeans: “The thing that has become the crème de la crème is actually a femme queen body.”
Anyway, the whole documentary is worth checking out if you’re looking for something to watch this weekend. Take care!