Jill Soloway’s original program Transparent abounds with firsts: the first TV series to feature a transgender character as its protagonist; the first transgender-themed series to win Golden Globe Awards for Best Series and Best Actor; the first online series ever to win a Best Series award, comedy or drama, at that same ceremony; and the first veritable hit for its production company, Amazon Studios. Now it’s up for multiple Emmy Awards, including Best Comedy Series, Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, with winners to be announced on September 20. The envelope, please! While we wait for those award results and for the premiere of Season 2, we’ve asked several scholars to offer us some essential historical and political context on the celebrated series.
—Susan Stryker: The New Trans Landscape
—Susan Murray: Transparent as “Very Special” Television
—Benjamin Kahan: Sparkly Star of David
—Tey Meadow: Gender’s Failure = Gender’s Truth
—Jeanne Vaccaro: A Transfeminist Archive of the Understanding Wife
In a previous geological era (about six months ago), Amazon’s binge-worthy streaming media comedy-drama Transparent was enjoying its proverbial 15 minutes of fame, as the tale it told of Maura Pfefferman—a late-middle-age, upper-middle-class white trans woman just beginning the process of gender transition—and of her squabbling, kvetchy brood of dysfunctional adult children, helped push the public conversation on transgender issues in the United States to then-unprecedented heights. Ah, those were simpler times.
Transparent’s pilot episode had debuted way back on February 6, 2014. That was the same month that saw Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness hit the bookshelves, setting a new standard in the largely lily-white genre of transgender autobiography for frank discussions of race, poverty, sex work, street life, and the barrage of often deadly violence steadily directed at trans women of color. Laverne Cox was by then already gaining a cult following for her work as a black trans woman playing a black trans character on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black, but she had yet to become a Time magazine cover girl, putting a face to what the venerable news rag breezily dubbed America’s “transgender tipping point” in its May 29 issue.
When the full first season of Transparent finally became available for streaming in September of last year, it offered perhaps the highest-profile evidence yet that something, indeed, had tipped. Transparent got far more attention than, say, the inclusion of transgender health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act and in Medicare, or long-overdue high court rulings that discriminating against transgender people would now be considered illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
The show garnered rave reviews (Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 98% favorability rating) and raced to the front of an increasingly crowded pack of recently talked-about trans-related topics: Chelsea Manning declaring herself a woman after her conviction and incarceration for being the WikiLeaks whistle-blower, for example, or Chaz Bono dancing with the stars.
Transparent already seemed to be leading this media popularity contest by several lengths in January 2015, when it was honored with Golden Globe Awards for Best Series and Best Actor—the first such honor for a transgender-themed show. Other awards and accolades have continued to trickle in over the last few months from the Directors Guild, Writers Guild, Critic’s Choice, GLAAD, and other arbiters of critical and popular success.
By now, of course, the media landscape has been utterly transformed, and what was once a pinnacle in the history of transgender representation in US mass media has been buried beneath the strata of events several orders of magnitude larger. Transparent’s antediluvian hot minute transpired in the B. J. Era: Before Jenner. Before Bruce talked to Diane, and cable news and social media talked of little else for days on end, before Caitlyn asked us to call her Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Before the New York Times started running “Transgender Today,” a series of high-profile feature stories published under the byline of the editorial board itself.
Transparent’s moment came before Eddie Redmayne won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and then only days later appeared in drop-dead gorgeous girl drag, in news outlets everywhere, as part of the advance publicity campaign for his forthcoming film The Danish Girl, a movie adaptation of the novelization of the real-life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first trans women to undergo surgical sex change in the 1930s. Before the Wachowski siblings launched Sense8, on Netflix, which features a trans leading character played by a trans actor, Jamie Clayton, in a role that doesn’t revolve around the character being trans, in plots that don’t hinge on her gender transition; she just happens to be trans and that’s it, no big deal. And it was before Rachel Dolezal’s outing as not-black by birth short-circuited the national conversation on the embodiment of minoritized identity, prompting endless bad analogies of race and gender, and much food for thought, by comparing her story to Jenner’s.
Where Transparent might fit into this new ecology of transgender media representation when its second season starts later this year is anybody’s guess, but let’s hope the writers have a crystal ball, or the budget for rewrites, if their intent is to keep current, or to get ahead of the curve.
The astute reader may have noticed by now that I’ve scarcely mentioned the actual content of Transparent. True. Although understanding the rapidly altering conditions of the show’s reception is inarguably important, I have indeed been dithering and dragging my feet because of the awkwardness I feel over liking the show but being uncomfortable with some dimensions of it.
I do find many pleasures in Transparent, not all of them guilty. The clip in the credit sequence from The Queen, a fabulous 1968 documentary about the onstage and backstage shenanigans at a transgender beauty contest in New York City, makes my trans historian’s heart beat a little faster every time I see it: we are a people with a past. I appreciate showrunner Jill Soloway’s earnest honesty about the autobiographical roots of her series, and the discombobulation of her family of origin when her former father entered a new chapter of life.
I like that she has smart, culturally savvy trans people consulting on the show to lend perspectives other than her own, and that she practices “transfirmative action” by hiring lots of trans folks as extras, crew members, even writers—pervasive employment discrimination against trans people is a brutal reality. The writing is strong, the acting good, the production values high, the respectful attention to trans issues laudable, the cameo appearances by trans living legends and community leaders fun. The show is admirably well-intentioned.
But I do squirm over elements of Maura’s characterization. I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that she’s a bit of an emotional doormat (though, ever the optimist, I hope she finds more gumption in Season 2.) Yes, she shows commendable inner strength in beginning her social gender transition, and a lot of everyday courage in suffering the slings and arrows of an often cruel and uncomprehending world—it’s not easy being trans, especially at first, even if you’re white and financially secure. The character has a public dignity, but in the name of love and the desire for connection she privately puts up with far too much crap from the people closest to her.
Take that scene in one of the later episodes where all the siblings have promised to show up for Maura’s big night at the talent show, and she walks onstage only to see the chairs she had reserved for them empty. I get it: there’s supposed to be a narrative arc to the show, where conflicts are staged early on and later resolved, but enough already, we’ve gotten the picture. The arc has been pretty flat so far with regard to Maura’s relationships with her kids—a constant trickle of misgendering, condescending attitudes, sly derisiveness, refusals to actually recognize and take seriously her new expression of gender. If my own adult kids persisted in acting toward me the way Maura’s persist in acting toward her, I’d tell them all to go away and come back later, after they’d learned some basic human kindness—or at least some manners—and then berate myself for not having brought them up better in the first place.
MAURA RISKS BECOMING THE PUNCH LINE OF THAT OLD JOKE ABOUT THE SELF-EFFACING JEWISH MOTHER WHO SAYS SHE’LL JUST SIT IN THE DARK RATHER THAN CHANGE THE LIGHTBULB.
One’s being trans should not authorize the bad behavior of others. I worry that leaving unchallenged the many microaggressions directed at Maura by members of her own family can subtly perpetuate the broader cultural assumption that casually mistreating trans people verbally and emotionally is socially normal, that we somehow ask for it simply by being trans, or that we deserve it. Experiencing such things is a consequence of structural transphobia—not the bash-your-head-in-and-leave-you-dead-in-a-dumpster variety of transphobia, but the more banal and quotidian forms of oppression through which the sociopolitical relegation of an entire category of people to conditions that render them more vulnerable to diminished life and premature death plays out, often unconsciously and unwittingly, at the level of interpersonal interaction. All the goodwill and sympathy in the world toward trans people doesn’t interrupt the circulation of that often lethal power through actual conduct. That power needs to be broken, in part, through the conscious unlearning of such behavior by non-trans people, and in part through the resistance of trans people, and our refusal to be complicit in our own mistreatment—even from people we love, who love us back. I call that self-respect.
Half of my own family and much of my friendship network is Jewish, and like many of the people in my life I think one of Transparent’s virtues is its willingness to play knowingly, and affectionately, along the seams of stereotypes of Jewish family life—the neurotic bickering that’s actually a form of intimacy and fierce loyalty. The series’ tag line is “One family. No apologies.” Indeed. When I complain about Maura’s treatment, I’m sometimes chided with remarks to the effect that it’s not unwittingly replicating structural transphobia, it’s just a Jewish cultural expression of emotional honesty, an affective connection no less deeply felt for being blunt and unwilling to engage in fake-smile niceties that ignore an elephant in the room. I’ll buy the latter half of that argument—that I’m perceiving a cultural difference in how the acknowledgement of Maura’s gender transition is being expressed—while continuing to insist on the former—that there’s something unsettling in the disrespect I perceive being directed toward that very transition. I wish that in addition to its many positive characteristics, Transparent would take the additional step of showing us a trans person who stands up for herself more. I wish it were more trans-centric in its perspective, rather than using a trans character primarily as a device through which non-trans people get to relate to each other; that risks producing another sort of “transparency” altogether, one that erases the actual conditions of trans lives.
For me, Maura risks becoming the punch line of that old joke about the self-effacing Jewish mother who says she’ll just sit in the dark rather than change the lightbulb. I think it’s high time that trans folks made more light and heat of our own in real life. Mass media has the capacity to amplify the just demands of social change agents, and it would be great to see Transparent go even further than it already has in contributing to the rapidly accelerating process of social transformation with regard to transgender issues. A fierce, take-no-shit-from-anybody Maura just might help the show keep its accustomed position ahead of the curve.
Jump to remarks:
Heralded as a watershed moment in representation, reception, and content delivery, Transparent has received an enormous amount of critical attention since its debut on Amazon Prime last September. Much of the praise for the show has been reserved for the character of Maura Pfefferman, whose sensitive crafting by actor Jeffrey Tambor and creator Jill Soloway is outstanding, and whose visibility signals increasing interest in transgender characters and performers on television.
Less discussed, however, has been how the show’s form both foregrounds and mitigates its presentation of transgenderism as a social issue. Transparent can be understood as a generic hybrid of the serial drama and the sitcom motif of “the very special episode.” The very special episode disrupts the normal routine and flow of the sitcom format in order to introduce a darker mood and underscore the significance of its engagement with a pressing social issue, thereby serving to spotlight the television’s performance of public service.
For the purpose of awards season and search engines, the television industry has labeled Transparent a comedy. This might come as a surprise to many viewers, since the series deals with serious issues, contains multiple dramatic scenes every episode, and rarely delivers laugh-out-loud jokes or overtly comedic performances. In fact, were it not for its half-hour length and inclusion of traditional signifiers of “quality television,” Transparent could almost be read as a soap opera. It has a soap’s serial structure, interweaving of multicharacter story lines and climatic plot points, and focus on ever-shifting identities and relationship configurations.
Even the series’ most plainly comedic moments are somewhat muted. Some are linked to uncomfortable, awkward situations, such as Ali and Dale’s failed attempt at a bathroom quickie during Maura’s performance in the trans talent show. Often the humor stems from situations in which Maura’s family members respond to her transition with outrageous self-absorption. Because its comic elements often focus on dysfunctional family dynamics, the series has been referred to by critics as a “black comedy” or “dramedy.” Stressing both its serial structure and the idea that it would likely be consumed all at once, Soloway has said that from the beginning she thought of Transparent as “like a five-hour movie … with an act break around episode 2 or 3, a climax around 7 or 8.”1
Transparent is obviously not alone in its generic hybridity or unexpected industry classification. More than a few recent critically acclaimed non-network series, such as Louie, Orange Is the New Black, Girls, and Shameless, seem to defy easy categorization despite being labeled as comedies. Indeed, the growing number of such programs has forced the Television Academy to reconsider the criteria for how particular programs are categorized. Starting with the 2015 Emmy Awards, a series is eligible to enter as a drama if it is 60 minutes long and a comedy if it’s 30. Orange Is the New Black, which competed as a comedy last year, will compete as a drama in 2015.
Duration has long been a defining feature of television genres, particularly dramas, as it is thought to help establish (or make room for) emotional tone. Television sitcoms have traditionally been defined as 30 minutes in length, with an episode becoming “very special” when it addresses an especially dramatic topic or serious social issue over the length of two episodes instead of one. Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcoms Maude, All in the Family, and Good Times, among others, were famous for being socially relevant. Almost every episode of each series was peppered with talk of politics, conflict, and the generation gap. Yet even Lear’s series told their most poignant and/or controversial stories, those involving abortion, mental illness, rape, death, or addiction, as two-part episodes. It is as though the structure and time span of a traditional television comedy simply could not bear the weight of the most psychologically, politically, or emotionally charged subject matter. The refusal to provide the usual return to the status quo at the end of a single half-hour sitcom episode signaled to the audience: this is serious.
There is perhaps no more relevant example of one of Lear’s very special episodes to bring into a discussion of Transparent than the 1977 All in the Family two-parter, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith.” In it, Edith’s close friend Beverly Lasalle, a “female impersonator” set to perform at Carnegie Hall, is killed in a mugging-turned-hate crime while walking to a taxi stand from the Bunkers’ house. Beverly had become close to Edith two seasons earlier after Archie saved her life by giving her mouth-to-mouth, a scenario that could have been left as a one-off joke about Archie’s homophobia. However, Beverly was brought back for two more episodes, giving the writers an opportunity to both challenge Archie and explore her bond with Edith, who thought of Beverly as “like a sister. Uh, no, I mean brother. Oh, well, both rolled into one.” After hearing the news of how and why Beverly died, Edith slips into an angry depression, losing her usual cheerful guilelessness as well as her faith in God. There is occasional comic relief, mostly in the form of Archie’s frustration with Edith, but for the most part the mood of the series has darkened, the pace slowed. We wait between episodes to see if Edith, and the tone and pace of the series, will return to normal.
Of course, Transparent doesn’t make us wait between episodes to see how Maura and her family are dealing with the issues generated by her decision to live as woman—we, the audience, control the pace of our viewing. Nor does the series ever suggest a return to how things used to be for the Pfeffermans or portend such an immediately tragic end for Maura. Each episode of the series does, however, build to small-scale cliffhangers, encouraging us to continue on immediately in our viewing, thereby extending duration through bingeing. And, like Norman Lear’s shows, Transparent positions itself in relation to authenticity and activism, since Soloway, whose own father came out as transgender late in life, has a personal stake in Transparent’s politics of representation. The “very special” structure of Transparent folds dramatic suspense and high political stakes into comedy, permitting the show to explore transgenderism from various vantage points and through overlapping subplots.
The mixed mood of the series allows for moments of reprieve from topicality and gravity. Its generic hybridity also highlights the show’s central theme—the mutability of binaries such as man/woman, father/mother, parent/child, secular/religious, straight/gay, together/apart, secrecy/openness. As Maura, Tambor plays a man transitioning into a woman; but Tambor the actor is transitioning across binaries as well—from comedic sidekick to serious dramatic actor. Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein has remarked that “when you take a ham like Tambor and a role that calls for frequent cross-dressing, the natural assumption might be that ‘Transparent’ will traffic in sight gags and slapstick. … But a few minutes into ‘Transparent’ and you might find yourself forgetting about Tambor’s lipstick and marveling how fluidly his face registers such a range of emotions.”2 Tambor’s ability to reference and even signify the comedic while embodying dramatic realism resonates with the larger generic and representational fluidity of the series. Midway through Transparent, in an attempt to relate to Ali, Maura describes her youngest daughter’s childhood “gender confusion” as “nisht ahir un nisht aher … neither here, nor there,” which also, of course, describes Maura, her children and ex-wife, and the innovative form and tone of Soloway’s series itself.
Jump to remarks:
The promises made by the act of coming out are enormous: transformation, transition, irruption, newness. It is a ritual closely related to time. Usually narrated as a complete break, with a clear before and after, coming out offers a potential revolution. As such, we tend to associate these narratives with the thrilling pop of self-discovery. After coming out to her daughter Sarah, for example, Maura tells her new friend Davina that she is feeling “so celebratory” and doesn’t “want to go back to the crappy old Palisades.” She doesn’t want to return to the old, the before; she wants to tarry in the new.
Yet the most exciting element of Jill Soloway’s new Amazon series about a trans woman coming out late in life is its resistance to this formula. Rather than dwell in catharsis, Transparent finds its drama in coming out as a long, slow, agonizing process that involves going back in time as much as boldly striding forward into a new life.
In Transparent, the ritual of coming out, with its specific rhythms and dramatic arc, competes with a second temporal structure—Jewish time.
Transparent feels profoundly Jewish, suffused with the continuities and traditions of Judaism, from the cultural “standing order” at Canter’s deli to the religious portrayals of Shabbat. The show doesn’t just depict details of Jewish life, it revels in their less familiar intricacies: purifying oneself in a mikvah, studying for bat mitzvah, covering the mirrors while sitting shiva, rending garments at a funeral. As much as Transparent has been lauded for representing the underrepresented trans community, it’s worth noting that one also rarely sees this kind of Judaism on television.
In this world, ritually organized Jewish time and the far less circumscribed time of transition clash. Maura, recounting her life to her friend Davina, describes the way Jewish time feels: “I grew up in Los Angeles. I did … the whole Jewish thing. It’s like musical chairs. You hit 25 and you just choose the one who’s standing closest to you. So we had three kids and we lived in two houses, we had so many pets, and then finita la commedia.” The sense of inevitability inherent in “musical chairs” and the expectations of middle-class life—rapidly summarized in quantities of kids, houses, and pets—suggest the way that Jewish life seems to foreclose the possibility of life as a trans person, to make someone like Maura seem impossible.
But to say that there is tension between the family-centered, pro-natal time of American Jewish culture and the queerer structures of trans life is perhaps not to say enough. The show tells a far more complex story, one where the transitions and transformations of trans existence amplify the meanings of Jewish life and vice versa. The opposition between Jewish expectations and trans existence seems starkest in the context of Ali’s canceled bat mitzvah. When Maura attempts to persuade her friend Marcy to come with her to a “sleepaway camp for cross-dressers,” she realizes that the camp occurs on the date of her “daughter’s fucking bat mitzvah.” When Ali expresses uncertainty about the existence of God, Maura (selfishly) convinces Ali to cancel the bat mitzvah so that Maura can experience all that the camp has to offer.
THE RITUAL OF COMING OUT, WITH ITS SPECIFIC RHYTHMS AND DRAMATIC ARC, COMPETES WITH A SECOND TEMPORAL STRUCTURE—JEWISH TIME.
While the show doesn’t quite take place in a fully secularized world, it is a world where Judaism has lost much of its stature. At a Shabbat dinner, in episode 6, “The Wilderness,” Maura quips that she is “semi-chosen” and “[at] one time chosen.” The conceptual underpinning for this Shabbat dinner is drawn as much from the magazine Real Simple as it is from a religious belief in not working on the Sabbath. A few minutes later in the same episode, Rabbi Raquel says of what she calls “ye olde timey mikvah” that “it used to be, I think, about life events, transforming.” While the Rabbi’s reference to what “used to be” suggests the mikvah’s need for renovation, it also summons a spiritual past, the way in which these rituals no longer carry the same resonance as they once did.
Maura’s youngest daughter, Ali, in particular experiences this as a profound loss. The season finale features her accusing Maura of leaving her flailing, without religious guidance, by canceling her bat mitzvah; she shouts sarcastically: “Who wants to be Jewish? Who needs guidance in life? What on Earth would I do with God?” In a flashback to years earlier, Ali performs a private bat mitzvah for the caterer, Jules, who arrives on the scene, never notified that the event has been canceled. Ali’s performance makes Jules feel “totally transformed.” But that transformation doesn’t extend to Ali. Later that same day a despondent Ali, looking for trouble, can’t convince an older suitor that she is 17, nor does he provide her with the sexual awakening that she half-desires. The show implies that by missing her bat mitzvah, the Jewish transition to womanhood, she is left instead with what Maura calls her “gender confusion,” never “maturing” into one sex or the other, but remaining a tomboy.
For Maura’s other daughter, Sarah, however, Maura’s transition carries a religious charge, numinously re-enchanting the world: “It’s inspiring. I’m so glad you [Maura] get to be who are. That’s what we should all be.” Similarly, when Sarah explains to her children that “grandpa now dresses as a woman,” one asks, “Is grandpa magic?,” to which Sarah answers, “Yes. Yeah. He’s … She’s magic.” Maura’s transition is for Sarah the talismanic guide that Ali is missing. Like so many possibilities that for Ali hold unrealized potential, the idea of trans life as something fantastic with transformative properties exists in the show’s only phantasmic sequence, when a trans man’s ordinary house becomes a lumberjack cabin, and then fizzles shortly thereafter.
Maura, though, does not seek absolute transformation but rather change within the continuities and stabilities of Jewish life; a change into what she has always been. That is, while her trans friends tell her that soon she won’t have any family around her, such a prospect is unlivable to her. The time of Maura’s transition and the time of Judaism for her do not oppose so much as enrich each other. This is perhaps made clearest in the sparkly Star of David Maura wears to a funeral in the season finale. Ali says to Maura as they shovel dirt onto the coffin: “Sparkly Star of David you’ve got. Since when are you into Judaism?” Maura replies: “For a while now,” without specifying how long “a while” has been, though we suspect that the interest is timed to her transition.
The sparkliness of the Jewish symbol recalls Maura introducing herself to Marcy for the first time as “Daphne Sparkles.” Perhaps this name feels wrong upon its first utterance because it captures trans-ness but lacks Jewishness. The sparkly Star of David is a symbol of a new trans life, a symbol of change and transformation. It is also in its very Jewishness a sign of tradition and connection to the past. When discussing her transition, Maura responds to Shelly at one point: “It’s still me.” If the “still” summons all of the newness, the Jewish “me” is there providing continuity. The two competing temporalities now work together, beating in time, creating something new, something like Jewish trans time.
Jump to remarks:
When I logged into Amazon to watch the pilot episode of Transparent, I was fully prepared to hate it. By now, most of us who seek out representations of gender nonconformity in entertainment have learned that typical trans protagonists are, at best, one-dimensional and, at worst, murderous. They exist solely to make a point about gender and are typically denied the nuance of other characters. While Transparent surprised and entertained me, I’m of two minds about the show: on the one hand, its depictions are deeply humanizing; on the other hand, they trade on consumerist demands that transgender characters be sanitized, asexual, and emotionally impervious. It’s a precarious compromise.
The Pfeffermans exemplify what sociologist Judith Stacey called the “postmodern family condition.” No single relationship form or configuration of desire predominates. Among the characters’ myriad marital infidelities, covert abortions, and trips to score “medicinal” marijuana, Maura’s transgenderism barely seems exceptional. Her kids can’t stay focused on their collective response to their father’s gender transition for a moment before getting narcissistically sucked back into the quagmire of their own lives. In the midst of the churning emotional landscape, Maura quietly wades into her new gender identity—a borrowed estrogen pill, a makeover at the cosmetics counter of a department store. Her careful self-styling is a poignant reminder that competent femininity takes a lot of practice, and that it is not necessarily the sole bailiwick of women. Maura is rational, empathic, (almost) morally unimpeachable. The people who surround her claim the lion’s share of the dysfunction.
Transparent’s depiction of Maura’s solemn self-discovery puts the show at odds with a long tradition of queer performance, which appropriates the iconography of the mainstream but simultaneously reveals it as artifice and promotes an alternative queer cultural imaginary. This is not Transparent’s project. Maura’s investment, as a character, and the source of the show’s poignancy, is in a simple declaration that authenticity resides in the self, rather than in the eyes of significant others. And it is quite successful at this identitarian project. In the second episode, right after Sarah unexpectedly encounters Maura in full feminine dress, they sit down on the side of Maura’s bed for her confessional. Awash with nerves, Sarah asks her father, “Are you saying you’re going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?” Maura shakes her head, a mix of deep melancholia, courage, and kindness, and says in a gentle tenor, “No, honey. All my life … my whole life, I’ve been dressing up as a man … This is me.” In the intense emotional saturation of the exchange, the audience expects to hear something we already know, that Maura is transitioning. But what that ultimately means is a surprise: Maura is not “changing genders”; she will not just start wearing “lady clothes” all the time. Maura, like perhaps countless other trans women, had long appropriated the male gender assigned to her as a place of hiding. The tragedy of that revelation—and the relief that it brings her to make it—is that she had become so dexterous for so many years in presenting herself as something she is not and never was: a man.
The show’s depiction of Maura’s solemn self-discovery puts it at odds with a long tradition of queer performance.
But what kind of woman will Maura be? Months before Annie Leibovitz’s photographs of Caitlyn Jenner incited a wave of popular commentary on the politics of hyperfemininity, the astute writers of Transparent explored the scrutinous context into which trans people like Maura come out. In the aptly titled seventh episode, “Symbolic Exemplar,” various Pfeffermans treat both Maura and a newly introduced trans male character, Dale, like disappointing failures at iconic gender. While Maura prepares for her stage debut in a be-sequined “Trans Got Talent” show, Ali shops for an outfit for her first date with Dale, the teaching assistant in her gender studies class. Though we later learn that much of Ali’s impression of Dale is a hallucinatory fantasy, we initially experience him through her eyes as a hybrid lumberjack meets Tom of Finland leather daddy: über-masculine, sexy, and dominant. One hardly needs training is psychoanalysis to interpret this as Ali’s attempt to recapture some exaggerated version of the actual daddy she feels she has lost.
Much like all the other sexcapades Ali bumbles through in the show, she is ill-prepared for this date; Dale, a man’s man, likes his women “high femme,” and Ali is, in the words of her friend Syd, more like “mole people femme.” Ali gets right to work repackaging her own gender. She manages to shove her bosom into a red corseted cross between a cowgirl costume and a dime-store burlesque cigarette hawker uniform. Dale picks her up by the side of the road in a dusty, rusted-out pickup truck. He addresses her as “little lady” and she goes wide-eyed and swoony as they pull into the driveway of his rustic log cabin. Ali quietly takes in the plaid flannel window treatments, neon PBR bar sign and 1960s wooden-box television set, while Dale cracks open a beer and manspreads himself across his lounge chair. She removes her coat awkwardly but almost seductively; when she moves to sit, he reminds her sternly that “Nobody said you could sit down.” Dale actually instructs her to call him “Daddy,” uses the word “fuckin’” as an adjective several times, directs Ali to remove her panties, and then, aghast that she might have some pubic hair, proceeds to shave her with a straight razor. This is, of course, followed by the obligatory first date trip to a sex-toy store to buy a dildo. Ali chooses a “sparkle unicorn” model, in a move that is confusingly both hyper-femme and emasculating.
The pair proceed together to Maura’s talent show, where Ali initially scoffs at the gender-diverse audience. Dale, oblivious to this subtle humiliation, proclaims, “C’mon, these are my peeps!” Ali is so gobsmacked, however, that she needs to join her siblings who are hiding out in a back room getting stoned. They manage to drag themselves back into the auditorium for the show, where Maura and her gender mentor Davina don matching evening gowns and croon an atonal rendition of “Somebody That I Used to Love.” It turns out that Maura is less Broadway showtunes and more aged Jewish grandmother at a Boca Raton retirement community sing-along. Maura and Davina appear to be doing some version of drag, but it falls flat and appears vaguely mocking in the context of a show that is so charmingly earnest about its identity politics. Maura looks alternately determined and terrified, while her hateful children shift uncomfortably in their seats, joke that she looks like their Aunt Lily, and eventually walk out mid-performance. We watch Maura watch those empty seats from the stage.
This is a moment where the show attempts to join two incompatible versions of performance. One is identitarian and aimed at the mainstream; the other is campy, irreverent, and aimed at queer audiences. You can’t have it both ways. The two modes don’t mix and the scene doesn’t work; the audience cringes along with Maura’s children at the stilted theatrics and faint grotesqueness of its aesthetics. We hate the kids for leaving, but we also kind of wish Maura hadn’t done the show to begin with. It was all wrong. Maura is a woman, not a drag queen. We get conscripted into performing a kind of normative gender scrutiny: Maura can’t sing, Maura isn’t glamorous, Maura has a bad wig. It is unclear how much of her gender failure is intentional, architected for the sake of performance, and how much is simple incompetence.
Good camp makes its performativity obvious; it trades in the absurd, the abject. It mobilizes affective states like self-loathing, traumatic injury, rapacious sexuality. Maura can afford none of these things. After the show, her trans friends invite her out for drinks, but she demurs. We won’t see her drown her emotional pain in Long Island iced tea and end up makeup-smeared and tearful on the bathroom floor. She won’t have compensatory sex with a stranger to shore up her self-esteem. And she certainly won’t turn the experience into a darkly comedic self-flagellating lounge act. Instead, she will retreat to the awkward embrace of her ex-wife, Shelly, who features as a kind of platonic fallback life partner. Their relationship is easy and familiar, but it also resides mostly in shared memories of their heterosexual past. José Esteban Muñoz wrote that commercial depictions both sanitize and de-sexualize queer subjects. To make Maura’s gender transition more politically tolerable, she is leeched of all forms of libido. She cannot be voracious in any way. And what’s more, it appears she must be able to absorb with little visible impact tremendous emotional pain. Maura, we are told, will abide the ill treatment of her children while continuing to dispense checks, houses, and take-out barbeque.
While Maura croons her closing lines onstage, we discover in a parallel scene that hunky Dale is actually quite flaccid. In a bumbling, unsexy bathroom encounter, we watch him struggle to open the packaging on his newly acquired dildo (appearing never to have done so before), fail to notice Ali’s obvious lack of arousal, and haplessly drop the limp member on the dirty floor. While nothing is more hegemonically masculine than ignoring negative signals from a disinterested woman, in the final instance, a castrated Dale just can’t get it up. He doesn’t fuck her. And he won’t tell her to go to hell when he realizes she is a) uncomfortable with trans people, b) not attracted to him, and c) using him to work out her family drama. Only the cisgender characters in the show get to be desirous, get to have bodies that crave other bodies, get to be sexually competent, get to be dirty. Only they get to tell other people off. This sanitization seems necessary for the show’s message of benign gender pluralism. It’s a kind of “tolerance” narrative. Its trans characters trade in sincerity.
Transparent is an identitarian project that will not be diluted with uncomfortable affect. Maura won’t let feelings of anger or despair alienate the very people with whom she is trying to establish herself as a woman. The talent show scene is a jarring disruption. There is no room for ironic gender, no give for play in Transparent. As Muñoz might have put it, the show lacks that queer politics of “disidentification” that involves the mobilization of stereotype in all its abjection, in an attempt to rehabilitate it as part of a queer world. At the incipient moment where a trans person makes initial claims for recognition, identity is veridical. Its claim stands in direct relation to truth: I am a woman. I am a man. Camp, drag, the over-the-top sparkle and irony, those things are elastic. They stretch their audience into an understanding of the absurdity of gender, allow for questions of “realness” to be set aside in favor of experimentation. They capitalize on the pain of their subjects in order to recruit the viewer into a queer world where failure is beautiful. Maura cannot yet afford to think gender is absurd or failure is beautiful; she is still working to establish her realness. For the show to confront the abject in Maura would leave her vulnerable to etiological claims of character pathology. Cis people can afford to look off-center once in a while; trans people cannot.
If we walk away from episode seven of Transparent with empathy for Dale, the sweet, well-meaning, nerdy TA left holding his tea kettle when Ally’s hallucination ends; if we cringe at the thoughtlessness of Maura’s children, the heartbreaking stiffness of her stage persona; and if we find comfort in Shelly’s earnest sympathy for Maura, it is perhaps because we are learning something about the fantasies saturating cis people’s gaze at trans people. From Maura’s entrée into womanhood to Dale’s imagined hyperbolic masculinity, trans people must either embody iconic gender to its idealized extreme, to its ultimate fantasized perfection, or they will be dismissed as gender failures, as inauthentic. (Paradoxically, when trans women, in particular, demonstrate unimpeachable femininity, they are routinely denigrated by feminists as capitulations to patriarchal beauty norms.) This is where the show promotes a costly compromise. This is the precarious place where transgender people, in the interest of remaining palatable to the normative center, are asked to abandon their sexuality, their resistance to transphobia, their claims to their pain. This is where well-meaning others, by reason of their own emotional needs, psychic projections, or narcissistic fantasies, need trans people to be more successful at perfecting effortless gender than anyone ever can be.
Jump to remarks:
“Transvestites are not transsexuals. … They should be in a different place.” What sounds to us like transphobia and hate speech, Maura Pfefferman’s friend Marcy offers as a matter of fact, not judgment, over barbeque at Camp Camellia. Her remark is inspired by Ramona, who “had the nerve to bring hormones to cross-dressing camp” and was exiled. Everyone is in agreement about transsexuality (“that’s crossing the line,” “good riddance”) and cross-dressing (“we are men in skirts,” “this place is for expressing your femininity,” “we are cross-dressers, but we are still men”)—except for Maura, the show’s transgender protagonist, whose rift with Marcy stands in for a conflict about the taxonomies and temporalities of trans (“across”) and the multiple terms it modifies. Maura’s experience of misrecognition here in this moment helps her see herself as a trans woman and not a cross-dresser, though she won’t come out to her family as trans for another 20-some years.
“Best New Girl,” episode 8 of Transparent’s debut season, is a flashback to that weekend in 1994. Political scientist Maura, still called Mort, uses an academic conference and “access to pre-1952 Communist archives” as an excuse to abandon wife Shelly in the Pacific Palisades; she in turn abandons the kids to drink a bottle or two of white wine at “Aunt” Judy’s house. Mom tasks eldest daughter Sarah with ordering a pizza (“you’re in charge”), but Sarah bails for a college protest “against fruit pickers, and stuff,” because “it’s depressing here” (it is). Babysitter Rita and son Josh go for a drive and engage in some age-play seduction while youngest daughter Ali is left home alone after canceling her bat mitzah, providing an occasion for all the Pfeffermans to realize their fantasies of an alternative social and sexual order.
The flashback to Camp Camellia is a tender and earnest attempt to historicize a past that touches on an actual archive, as the Transparent crew discovered in a trip led by co-producers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst to USC’s ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives to research transgender history in print culture and ephemera. In 1961 self-identified “transgenderist” Virginia Prince organized The Hose and Heels Club, a sorority for local subscribers to her cross-dressing magazine Transvestia. The Los Angeles chapter evolved into the Foundation for Full Personality Expression (Phi Pi Epsilon) or FPE, an international sorority of heterosexual male cross-dressers with chapters in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Members paid dues to their local chapter and were assigned a confidential identification code and entered into a directory. ID numbers were used to connect members as pen pals, “to prevent much of the past isolation and frustration.” FPE solicited its members’ occupation, hobbies, and marital status, and occasionally distributed questionnaires on behalf of sympathetic doctors conducting research on gender identity and sexuality. The Femme Forum, a bimonthly newsletter of the FPE, contained chapter news and classifieds. Its inaugural issue articulated the organization’s agenda as “shedding new light in a wilderness of intolerance and ignorance, and also acting as a guiding beacon for those still in the outer darkness to come in and share with us.”
Although the sorority served an exclusively heterosexual male cross-dressing community and was not open to “transexuals, homosexuals, … those involved in bondage, punishment, fetishism for rubber or leather, nor those requiring female domination and humiliation,” by 1972 the members began to debate the boundaries of the organization. By extension, they also began to discuss overlaps between various categories of “trans,” a move that eventually culminated in the consolidation of trans and now sometimes trans* as an umbrella category able to accommodate a diversity of identities. Letters from national and chapter representatives examined the difference between “femmePersonators” and “Female IMpersonators, which is an entirely different word and concept.” While some acknowledged that “they [transsexuals] too need the satisfactions of social activities,” FPE members ultimately concluded that transsexuals “must seek their expressions elsewhere.”
The Femme Forum ran a regular column, “Troubled Wives,” which was “designed to help wives to understand their husband’s need to cross-dress,” and local chapters encouraged FPEs to hold socials for girlfriends and wives in “pleasant surroundings.” To Maura, however, an understanding wife is an enigma. She can’t imagine Shelly at Camp Camellia, no matter how “pleasant” it might be, but she is nevertheless in search of an Understanding Wife, and there is an exemplary one at Camp Camellia waiting for her: Connie. She just happens to be married to someone else.
The weekend in 1994 when Ali declined to become a woman in a religious ceremony and Maura took a risky step toward becoming one at Camp Camellia is a critical archival referent for Transparent. “Best New Girl” is not just an origin story for Maura’s gender identity, it is also one for Ali. Representing social formation as a series of botched pageants, Transparent represents both transgender and Jewish rituals as opportunities for failed gender performance. Maura declines to attend the camp’s pageant so she can stay in her cabine with Connie, while Ali performs her bat mitzvah haftarah, but only for an audience of one—a teen dyke caterer who didn’t get the message the party was canceled. Both would seem to prefer to perform their rituals of identity in transition (be it gender or age) in the private space of the domestic rather than on a stage or for an audience (of cross-dressers at a camp pageant or the Jewish community of the Pacific Palisades).
In the arc of Transparent, “Best New Girl” is singular. The apotheosis of the season’s archival imaginary, it departs from the dramedy of the Pfeffermans in the present to fully inhabit their past. As Maura and Marcy enter Camp Camellia, they are backed by the score typically reserved for the opening title sequence. As Stephen Vider has elucidated in Slate, the sequence consists of a mashup of archival footage from the 1968 documentary The Queen and a viral YouTube video of a bar mitzvah boy voguing, to which the producers affixed the timestamp “June 1, 1994.”3 With the title track committed to Maura and Marcy, the episode’s opening sequence is instead accompanied by Bob Dylan’s 1976 “Oh, Sister,” suturing the series’ archival desire into the sisterhood of folk music and gay liberation: “Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms, you should not treat me like a stranger.” This moment is a utopian reimagining of the series’ archival past as consisting not in the pageantry of the felicitous performance of gender (represented here by bat mitzvahs and drag balls), but rather a sisterhood of transvestites and transsexuals, brought together by the understanding wife who, in an alternate vision of liberation politics, symbolizes the possibility of a transfeminist politics of coalition.
Jump to remarks:
- Rick Porter, “‘Transparent’: Amazon’s Dramedy Is a ‘Five-Hour Movie’ Made for Bingeing,” Zap2it, July 12, 2014. ↩
- Andrew Wallenstein, “Look Out, Emmys: ‘Transparent’ Is a Drama Trapped in a Comedy’s Body,” Variety, September 29, 2014. ↩
- Stephen Vider, “Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?,” Slate, October 23, 2014. ↩