Juxtaposition and Mishegas in Amazon’s “Transparent”
A videographic essay exploring the trans narrative, Jewish identity, queerness, and the not-so-nuclear family
Juxtaposition and Mishegas is a videographic essay that explores the trans narrative, Jewish identity, queerness, and the not-so-nuclear family in Amazon’s Transparent. This videographic essay is a senior thesis project and the capstone of four years of studying Film & Media Culture and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College. Juxtaposition and Mishegas is both a critique of Transparent using the videographic essay as a visual communication tool and an exploration of the videographic essay as a form using Transparent as its subject.
The full video essay, below, should be watched first in its entirety before reading the accompanying written essay. I have broken up the film into eight separate video chapters for a more convenient multiple viewing and reading experience. I encourage you, the reader, to use Medium’s “highlight” feature to note certain sections in the written essay that stand out, so we can engage in further discussion and an active, academic critique of Transparent. Juxtaposition and Mishegas should introduce viewers to new interpretations of and new meanings within Transparent, and hopefully will inspire the continued use of the videographic essay as a tool to communicate what has historically been argued in written essays.
I hope Juxtaposition and Mishegas proves to be, at the very least, interesting and entertaining. It will make more narrative sense for those who have seen the entirety of Transparent. For those who haven’t, this videographic essay exists as a primary text and can serve as the beginning of their journey into Jill Soloway’s semi-autobiographical world.
Chapter One: Reflection
TThe first chapter of Juxtaposition and Mishegas centers on reflection. It is clearly exemplified in the thumbnail of the video above. If you’ve already started playing, the thumbnail is the penultimate shot at 1:01. In it, Elizah, the green-haired, black, trans woman that Maura attempts to connect with on a deeper level than is appropriate for an LGBT hotline, leans against a window outside. In the window — where Elizah’s reflection should be — we see Maura. Reflections and mirrors have become cliché in film, usually signifying some sort of connection (or disconnect) between characters. The use of reflection here is quite effective in evoking a sense of togetherness and unity. The sentiment that their trans status trumps differences in race, class, and ability is reflected by the emotion of the scene. It’s simple: Elizah weeps into the phone, and Maura listens, unsure of how to comfort or care for someone so similar yet so different from her.
Chapter One begins with a black screen and a voiceover. Raquel, a rabbi, practices for her Passover sermon:
“Thoughts on Passover. You wake up. Two words, emblazoned on your chest: ‘It’s time.’ You’re gonna make a break for freedom. You will not be a slave anymore.”
To start off the videographic essay, I wanted to show imagery that we — everyone — could relate to. Showing Maura waking up, from what clearly was not a good night’s sleep, humanizes her. Maura is at her most vulnerable here. Topless, she props herself up and sits there for a moment, taking in the morning light. Raquel’s words mirror Maura’s actions as we see her get out of bed and make her way into the kitchen, frantically searching for coffee. If Transparent is made for cis people who (think) they don’t know any trans people, this scene does that justice. We’ve all been there.
Raquel’s voice is backgrounded with light piano music, which makes it feel airy and spiritual and also helps to set the mood for the soft morning that we see Maura experience. When this suddenly stops, it is abrupt and cues the viewer to the fact that something important is about to happen: Maura asks, “Why am I so unhappy?” I made an intentional decision to sharply cut Raquel’s sermon and to interject it with Maura’s question because it is so important. It completely contradicts the tone of the scene, and forces us to reevaluate everything we’ve just watched in the last few seconds. Maura has lived her life. She had her children, she had her wife, she has money, and she has transitioned. What could she be unhappy about? Chapter One asks this question as Maura reflects on her life.
Raquel continues: “There you are. Free. The first light of day. Behind you is your past. Everything you came from. Everything that you thought you knew.” We see Maura later in the day at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, doing her feel-good volunteer work: talking to callers on an LGBT hotline. In a beautifully strange way, it feels like Raquel is talking to Maura, telling her it’s going to be alright — that if she fights on, it will all work out. This is the first of many examples of Judaism and Jewish history intertwined with themes of the show. As Raquel preaches about Passover — the story of enslaved Jews escaping ancient Egypt — Maura listens closer and closer to Elizah on the phone. She looks up for a second, and we flash back to when Maura was Mort, a professor of political science. We realize, then, that Raquel’s sermon serves to mirror Maura’s trans experience. Maura is escaping her past — her pre-trans self — through connecting with trans youth through the LGBT center, even if only through an anonymous hotline.
We flash back to Maura at the LGBT center, where she has gotten up from her chair and walked over to the window. She leans against the glass, listening to Elizah sobbing into the phone. Raquel asks, “What is that? Is that nothing?” and Maura says, “I’m here,” their voices overlapping. We cut to Elizah, leaning against a window somewhere else in Los Angeles. Here, we have the “thesis” shot — Maura appears where Elizah’s reflection should be. Raquel answers, “No. It is stillness.” Elizah trembles as she catches her breath, and we cut to Maura again, silenced, unsure of what to say.
Throughout the cuts between Maura, Mort, and Elizah, and under Raquel’s sermon, a French song plays in the background. It is titled “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” translating to “Do Not Leave Me.” In this context, we can understand this to symbolize a few things: Maura not leaving Elizah, Elizah avoiding suicide by calling the LGBT hotline (not leaving “us”), and Maura not leaving her family and still remaining a father — and a good one, at that.
Chapter Two: Enuf
The longest chapter in the videographic essay, Chapter 2 deals with a multitude of themes: race, sexuality, drugs, chance, fortune, multiples of three, and self-awareness.
Chapter 2 opens at everyone’s least favorite place: the dentist’s office. This is Ali’s second time visiting the dentist in season 3, and we’re not quite sure if she’s visiting because she actually needs her teeth cleaned or if she just likes the nitrous oxide trip. At this point, Ali has taken to teaching Women’s and Gender Studies, and speaks with the black dentist about Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf, which she is teaching for her class. She explains that she’s having her students compare Shange’s book with Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls and having them find similarities between the two different texts. Quite simply, she’s having her students compare black and white authors of different texts, which we see unfolding — on a small scale — here at the dentist’s office. The two of them bicker about whether the title of Shange’s book is When the Rainbow is Enuf or When the Rainbow isn’t Enuf. Ali’s evidence that she’s right is that she’s teaching the course on the topic, and the dentist’s evidence is that she’s, well, black: “No — I, I, I’m — it’s “When the Rainbow isn’t Enuf.” Ali responds with, “Well, we can argue about whether it is or it isn’t enough, but the title is… is… enough…” Taken aback that a white woman has just corrected her on a book objectively written for her — For Colored Girls — she responds: “So… are you flossing?”
This speaks to a larger issue in the show of lack of racial diversity. As we have seen, Transparent centers around a wealthy Jewish family living in the Pacific Palisades of Los Angeles — not a very diverse place today, and not a very diverse place in the 80s, where we flash back to many times throughout the show. But that’s no excuse — the characters of color on the show are almost always supporting roles who serve the central white Pfefferman family. Chapter 2 picks out the instances in which Transparent calls itself out on this problem (if we want to call it that). We’ve already seen Ali argue about a book for people of color with a person of color, and later in the chapter we’ll see the word intersectionality appear (in all caps, at that). Then the question becomes, is calling yourself out on your lack of intersectionality enough? When is it enough (or, shall we say, enuf)?
The still unnamed dentist hooks Ali up to the nitrous oxide mask as Laura Mvula’s “Is There Anybody Out There?” begins to play. The song choice was a conscious one — Mvula is a prominent British artist of color, and her music videos largely feature black performers. With a few kaleidoscopic shapes and trippy colors, we land on the Wheel of Fortune set. Ali is a contestant, along with Caitlyn Jenner and Ntozake Shange. The dentist is our host. Each contestant has $3,600 cash on their podiums to begin with — a recurring theme both in Judaism and throughout this chapter. Including Jenner in this short segment calls attention to the press that transgender bodies have been receiving in recent months. We can attribute this attention (for better or for worse) to Jenner’s popularized and sensationalized transition, the gender policing and enforcement of biological sex on bathroom usage in state and federal legislation, and Transparent itself as a piece of popular culture.
As her introduction, Jenner says “Well, I’m a much-televised parent of ten children.” She doesn’t say father and she doesn’t say mother — she says “parent.” In this way Jenner places herself out of Kris Jenner’s way, allowing her to remain the matriarch of the Kardashian/Jenner family, and placing herself as the gender-ambiguous p/m-atriarch of the Kardashian/Jenner family. Regardless, including Jenner in Ali’s fantastical nitrous oxide trip plays into the popular notion of Jenner’s transition as being sensationalized, a stunt, and over-exaggerated.
We then move to our first word in this round of Wheel of Fortune, which happens to be intersectionality. (Apologies for the German translation above — it came from the rip.) The man that acts as the showgirl presenting the word is Dale, a character we haven’t seen since Season 1. Dale is a transgender man, and placing him as the ultra-feminized and objectified role of the showgirl here is a subversive act and plays into our popular misconceptions of trans people as being hyper-gendered, that is, ultra-masculine or ultra-feminine. The Pfefferman children have this experience when Ali reveals to her siblings, in Season 1, that Dale is in fact trans. Josh asks, “Wait, that dude wants to become a woman?” remarking at his well-executed masculinity. Ali responds, “That dude was a woman.” Josh says, “No way.” Bringing Dale into the nitrous oxide trip reminds us of his and Ali’s brief sexual escapade, and the next cut in the videographic essay brings us even closer to that experience.
I repeated the sequence of Dale waving and saying “Hi Ali! Hi Ali! Hi Ali!” to bring us out of our confusion in this wacky sequence and to focus us on Dale, a cue that we’re going to cut out of the high trip. Music from the scene where Ali and Dale go to his house plays, and we’re suddenly in a flashback-in-a-nitrous oxide trip.
“When they arrive at his home, Ali sees Dale as hyper-masculine, despite his trans status. She sees a log cabin, insinuating that he built it with his bare hands (in LA?), decorated inside with a neon Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign, rustic furniture, and a vintage television. Dale sits on his couch, man-spreading, holding a beer in a sexually dominating, masculine way” (From “Transparent: Ali & Dale as Conventional Husband & Wife,” a paper I wrote junior year that inspired this thesis work). Ali removes her overcoat, and hesitantly sits on the chair across from him.
We’re suddenly thrown out of the flashback and back into the current nitrous trip, where kaleidoscopic shapes and colors bring us to a new episode of Wheel of Fortune. In this episode, Ali is a contestant again, sandwiched between the young, nanny version of Rita and her older self. Ali spins the wheel, and a series of words appear on the board. First, “Josh Pfefferman,” with Raquel, his ex-partner as the showgirl. Josh asks “Where are you?” as Ali spins again, this time revealing a set of numbers instead of words: “Eighteen Thirty-Six Seventy-Two,” with Josh as the showgirl. We return to the Jewish tradition of multiples of three — which teenage Jewish children know as the appropriate amount of money to give someone for their bar or bat mitzvah, $18 (if you’re cheap), $36, or $72. In voice-over, Ali says, “The great mystery. Goddess.” What we may have seen subconsciously is that the dentist, as the host of the show, wears a name tag that says “G–DDESS,” invoking a few things. In Judaism, when one writes about God, one would write G-d — as a sign of respect and to avoid erasure of His name. Second, having the dentist play the host of the show, and in turn, God, queers God himself, insinuating that He is a black woman.
We transition to the Season Three finale, in which the Pfeffermans take a family cruise. Maura has recently been told that she’s “too old” to go through gender reassignment surgery, and shares this disheartening news with Ali. Maura says that she’s done trying to appear like a woman, and that she’s just going to be a woman. In an act of defiance, she decides to get rid of her spanks and her “feminine shapewear.” Ali uses the moment to call from memory her transformative nitrous trip, and says, “Great Mystery! Goddess! Let us mark this moment to say goodbye to these tight, terrible spanks!” They decide not to throw the garments over the edge of the boat to save the birds, but the sentiment is there.
We return to the Wheel of Fortune, and Ali asks G–d “Why is he lost?” referring to Josh. We cut to another scene from the Season 3 finale, in which Josh and Ali are in the casino on the boat. Josh is playing roulette, and gives Ali a chip to play. She struggles to decide which number to play — 18, 36, or 72. Out of nowhere, Josh gives all of his chips, a huge number of them, to Ali, and says that they’re going to bet them all. It seems like a religious experience is about to take place — one that involves chance, history, fortune, family, and some luck.
We cut back to Dale’s house from Season 1. “Dale and Ali return to his home after a night out. To Ali’s surprise, it is not a log cabin, but a modest Los Angeles home. Where the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign hung is a decorative poster, there is no vintage television, and Dale offers her hot tea. Ali has awoken from her trance. Dale is not so hyper-masculine. He is ‘normal’” (Also from “Transparent: Ali & Dale as Conventional Husband & Wife”). Emotional music plays in the background, and Ali’s eyes widen in confusion.
We cut back to the casino, and Ali is moving the chips around the table in a frantic fashion: “I’m gonna start with three. We’ll do three. Because you disrupt the binary, and, three threes is nine and then you double that and you have eighteen and and two eighteens is thirty-six and thirty-six…” Josh interrups her mania with “Here we go. Let’s go!” They spin the wheel — just like on the Wheel of Fortune. Ali draws a circle in the air with her right hand, her left hand on Josh’s shoulder. She has found Josh, and they’re about to win big-time with the numbers and the advice she got from G — d on her nitrous trip at the dentist.
The ball spins around and around the roulette wheel and lands on 22 black. All of Josh and Ali’s chips are taken away. Ali awakens from her trance: “What, do you mean that’s it? We don’t get another spin?” Realizing it’s not a dream and not a nitrous trip, she’s defeated. We cut back to the dentist’s office, and the nitrous mask is taken off. The stars fade away behind Ali’s head as the dentist says, “You’re back!” and Ali says, “Yes, I am,” with tears in her eyes.
This chapter is a long one. It includes multiple seasons and themes. But they all center around fantasy, dreams, drugs, sexuality, chance, and hope — which we see emerge as central themes in Transparent as an entity.
The videographic form lends itself to many questions. One that particularly strikes my interest is regarding the fine line between videographic essay and remix. In Chapter 2, one could argue that I simply remixed thematically similar scenes and told a new story in a new way. In a way, Chapter 2 acts as a remix. Digging deeper, however, we have to ask: Who is this new story for? Typically remixes are created to be shared on sites like Youtube and Vimeo, where it can reach a wide, sometimes viral audience of other fans of the show. Remixes often deepen the pleasure of the show in that fans can actually get to create new stories themselves using content from the original text. In this way, remixes tend to be created and exist for circulation among fans in multiple fandoms, and not necessarily for academic critique. As I am publishing this piece as an academic critique — and with a lengthy written counterpart — I argue that it is less remix and more videographic essay. But, as with many things, it can exist as both.
Chapter Three: Transitions
“They say when one person in a family transitions, everyone transitions. And that could not be more true.”
Shelly, Maura’s ex-wife, utters these words to her Jewish community group, practicing for her one woman show (which appears in Chapter 5). The statement is quite possibly the simplest thesis for all of Transparent. The show is less about Maura’s transition and more about the Jewish family’s transition to a family with a transgender patriarch.
The first episode of Season Two offered a nice visual way to understand this transition and ultimately this juxtaposition. The episode, Sarah and Tammy’s wedding episode, begins and ends with dramatically juxtaposed, (almost) single-shot sequences which reflect the heightened emotions and mishegas of the characters on screen in this emotionally trying time.
In the shot on the left, the opening shot of the episode, we see the Pfefferman family, wearing white, congregating to take a posed family portrait, supposedly at the beginning of the wedding. Every character in the Pfefferman family is present. From the left: Colton, Raquel, Josh, Ali, Tammy, Sarah, Shelly, Maura, Bianca, and the unnamed children. The scene is bright and spirits are high as the big day awaits. Reggie, the photographer, offers comedic relief for the viewer, offering such ridiculous smile-inducing words like, “Let your heart grow big like Cindy Lou down in Who Ville. Everybody say, Cindy Lou!” When Shelly asks for a Jewish reference, Reggie offers some comedic relief and says, “Everybody say, I want a little wine!” The family offers a lackluster response. The photographer continues using other Jewish references, like “Hanukkah.” Throughout these references, different family members deal with issues of appearance, so as to make the portrait unbelievably hard to take. Maura loses a shoe, the children won’t stand still, Raquel holds a Rabbinic binder which bothers Sarah, and the list goes on. These moments of unrest and movement point to the larger Pfefferman family theme of a lack of stability and groundedness.
On the other side of the screen, we see the closing moments of the same episode. The wedding has been called off because of insurmountable tension between the brides. Each couple returns to their respective rooms: Josh and Raquel, Sarah and Tammy, Maura and Shelly, and Ali returns alone. The shot is a crane shot that peers in to each hotel room one after the other, as it makes its way screen left. The only time we cut is into the first hotel room, where we enter a conversation between Josh and Raquel. In the first time viewing, it is quite difficult to make out any single conversation happening on either side of the screen. Watching a few more times, however, enables the viewer to single out the conversation between Josh and Raquel and realize that they are in a fight about the fact that Josh revealed her pregnancy to his family, against Raquel’s wishes.
These next few moments are where the beauty of the videographic essay comes to light. This chapter was the simplest to edit: I simply put the two video sequences next to each other in a split screen and laid the two soundtracks on top of one another, without editing sound levels at all. Out of pure coincidence, the separate scenes in the sequence on the right match up — almost perfectly — with the dialogue in the sequence on the left.
Sequentially, first we see Josh and Raquel in a small argument on the right. Josh tries to tell Raquel that she’s “lovable.” As soon as the camera starts panning screen left, Shelly asks Raquel to join the picture: “Rabbi Raquel! She’s family.” Maura adds: “Get in here.”
Next, we see Sarah and Tammy, struggling through the chaos that has just ensued at their wedding. Sarah cries into Tammy’s lap. This is in direct juxtaposition to the entire sequence on the left, with the differences in mise en scène I outlined above. At this same time, Reggie says, referring to the heat, “Before we melt, we gotta go! We gotta go!” By the end of the episode, the family has melted, and we see this unfold in the sequence on the right.
Continuing to pan left, we see Shelly and Maura embrace. Shelly says, “I hope you feel beautiful. Because you are beautiful.” This is the first time in the series that Shelly is so outwardly supportive of Maura while embracing her — a beautiful moment of peace among the chaos. At the same time, in the sequence on the left, we see Shelly and Maura subtly hold hands while posing for the picture.
We finally come to the final hotel room, in which Ali is staying alone. The lights are off in her room, and she walks out to the terrace, walking screen left along with the camera pan. She stops at the railing and looks out at the California mountains as we cut to a close up shot of her tired face. In the sequence on the left, we return to Reggie offering “Hanukkah” as a word to say before taking the picture. At the same time that we cut to Ali’s close up on the right, Ali says, in the sequence on the left, “None of these words end in a smile,” an adage that we can apply to the entire episode. Eric Thurm writes about this moment extensively in “It’s a masterful disaster at the Cashman-Pfefferman wedding as Transparent returns” in the A.V Club. It’s a beautiful moment that was heightened by the split screen format, especially the simultaneous and coincidental cut to a close up of Ali’s expressionless, pale face as she utters, to no one, a deep truth that masquerades as a simple thought.
The shot of Ali standing on the terrace cuts to black, as the Pfefferman family motions to the Cashmans — Tammy’s family — to wait their turn for a picture. Everyone shouts, and the only audible words are Ali screaming: “Oh my gooooood!” We cut to black, and the sound of the emotional music from the sequence on the right underscores the chaotic dialogue from the portrait sequence. Both soundtracks fade as the chapter ends.
The ability to use a split screen montage in the videographic form allows us to watch two separate sequences at the same time and understand their intersections. At times, the intersections of these sequences allow us to understand new truths about the original text that we may not have seen before the split screen sequence. Chapter 3 serves, so far, as the clearest example of the juxtaposition and mishegas that is ever-present in Transparent, as it uses the opening and closing moments from a single episode to highlight important series themes and recurring motifs.
Chapter Four: Sex
Chapter 4 explores the limits of the videographic essay form. In this chapter, a few seconds of black screen and silence is followed by ten overlayed, separate clips of different sex scenes from Season One. The entire chapter is under one minute; it is difficult, during the first-time viewing, to make out who is having sex with who, and more specifically, where they are and what they are doing. It’s overwhelming — which reinforces how much sex Josh, Ali, and Sarah have throughout the series.
The split-screen is organized by character: Sarah’s sex scenes occupy the first line of clips, Josh’s sex scenes occupy the second, and Ali’s occupies the third.
Two of Sarah’s sex scenes are with Tammy, a college girlfriend for whom she eventually leaves her husband. The aborted wedding episode (Chapter 3) centers around Tammy and Sarah’s failed relationship. Both of Tammy and Sarah’s sex scenes, here, are passionate, intense, and rushed. We hear, through the busy and convoluted sound, Sarah say: “Get the dick! Get the dick! Get the dick!” This is contrasted with Sarah and Len’s lackluster scene, which takes place at Ed’s funeral in Sarah’s childhood home. They find themselves in the laundry room, about to have passionately inappropriate post-divorce sex. Sarah bends down, out of frame, to perform oral sex on Len. He pulls her back up, both of them realizing that this encounter would not be a good one.
On the second line, we see Josh having four different sexual encounters with four different women. Three of them are unimportant characters to the series plot line, and the fourth is Raquel, his eventual partner. While I was picking which clips of Josh specifically to use for this chapter, I noticed an editing subtlety that I can safely argue that I would not have noticed otherwise on a first-time viewing. The scenes in which Josh is having sex with — for lack of a better word — arbitrary women are shot in the same way. Josh lies screen left, the unnamed woman on the right. Bodies are hard to tell apart, and there isn’t much communication between Josh and the other woman. But his sex scene with Raquel is different. The first time they have sex, it is during the day. The room is bright. Josh lies on screen left, in direct contrast to the other, not as important sex scenes. This slight change in mise-en-scéne cues us to the eventual importance Raquel will have, to not only Josh, but also in the show in general. The videographic form allows for this sort of close analysis, and the split-screen editing of Chapter Four allows viewers to see these nuances in a clear, straightforward way.
The third line of clips centers around Ali, I would argue the most sexually-liberated sibling of the three. In these clips, she has sex with Dale, a trans man, two gym trainers she met in the park, and, in a flashback, performs oral sex on a teenager. Ali’s sex scenes showcase her sexual liberation in that we see her start having sex at a young age, then have a threesome with two black men she met in a park, then have sex with a trans man who is her gender studies professor. All of this occurs before her lesbian sexual escapades later on in the show.
The sound in Chapter Four was unedited. After placing the clips visually in an organized way, I laid the sound tracks on top of one another. The sounds of sex in television and film are fascinating. Words and phrases are hard to make out in general, and listening to multiple tracks at the same time makes it even more difficult. This difficulty speaks to the complex nature of sex in Transparent, and forces the viewer to think about the importance of each sex scene. How important is it that we know the name of each person having sex? How long does the scene go on for? Does it change our opinion of the Josh, Ali, or Sarah?
The ability to see all of these sexual encounters unfolding at the same time is unique to the videographic form. It allows the viewer to experience multiple characters’ plot lines and for storylines to develop at the same time. Chapter Four focuses on the wildly different sexualities of three main characters in Transparent, and watching them simultaneously allows for an unprecedented type of viewing experience that reveals new truths about the text.
Chapter Five: Performance
Chapter 5 opens with a split screen in which two separate performances play out simultaneously. The first performance, in the screen on the left, is of Maura and Daphne performing a “bio drag” show (the term refers to someone performing in drag as the gender they identify with). This scene takes place in the middle of Season 1, in an episode called “Symbolic Exemplar.” The screen on the right is of Shelly performing her one-woman-show on the cruise that the Pfefferman’s take in the season finale of Season 3. In this chapter, I wanted to clearly show the similarities between these two performances that take place at opposite ends of the series.
Maura’s drag performance at the Los Angeles LGBTQ center is one of the first times that her family, all together, sees her in her element, living the life she wants to live. Between shots of Maura and Daphne singing “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye (which has obvious symbolism in terms of her transition), we see shots of the Pfefferman family guffawing and laughing at what is taking place on stage. At times, drag performances can be funny, but this one isn’t. Their father and Daphne are performing seriously and with choreography that evokes particular emotions — not necessarily for the shock value for which some drag queens perform.
While Maura and Daphne perform the beginning of their number, on the screen on the right, Shelly begins her performance. Over the intro music of “Somebody That I Used to Know” from the screen on the left, Shelly speaks a monologue. She says, “I have always been drawn to men who wanted to live in the darkness of a secret.” Maura and Daphne’s drag music fades out, and their performance plays out in silence. Shelly continues: “Who am I? I didn’t know. I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know. I was in a cocoon.”
The screen on the left fades to black as the spotlight on Shelly dims. For the first time in the videographic essay, I utilize text-on-screen as a visual tool. The text reads:
Shelly’s performance in To Shell and Back is reminiscent of a drag show. It reinforces the series’ theme of juxtaposition in a multitude of ways: being “broke but happy,” “high but grounded,” “drunk but sober,” man but woman, adult but child, and functional but dysfunctional. We see this juxtaposition play out in a split screen of Maura’s drag performance and Shelly’s cruise performance.
Chapter 5 becomes clearer to the viewer than many of the other chapters as a result of the text-on-screen visual tool. In this way, this written chapter does not have to go in to as much depth as the previous ones do — the chapter itself is almost self-explanatory in terms of symbolism and meaning.
As the text fades out, Maura and Daphne’s performance fades back in. We see the two performances play out simultaneously. As Shelly and Maura sing to their family among a large crowd, their resemblance is uncanny. From the dark colored dress to the silver hair, they look unbelievably similar. Intentional or not on the part Jill Soloway, discovering this cross-seasonal callout was one of the many joys of making this project.
Shelly’s performance continues as we cut back and forth in both screens from performer to family. She sings Alanis Morisette’s “Hand in My Pocket”: “I care but I’m restless. I’m here but I’m really gone. I’m wrong. I’m sorry, baby.” Maura’s performance fades out, and on the screen on the left, we cut to Maura sitting, watching Shelly’s performance. In this final shot of Season 3, we realize that Transparent is not just about Maura’s transition — it’s an ensemble piece about her family.
As a side note, I included this chapter to call attention to one of the formative concepts in gender studies: Judith Butler’s idea that gender is performative. In a great Jezebel piece titled “Gender is Not Just a Performance,” trans author Julia Serano writes that “When we talk about my gender as though it were a performance, we let the audience — with all their expectations, prejudices, and presumptions — completely off the hook.” We see this tension play out nicely in these literal performances of gender in Chapter 5 and throughout Transparent.
Chapter Six: Yassss
A question I have been returning to throughout the written portion of this thesis is whether Juxtaposition and Mishegas is a videographic essay or a remix. The short answer — I think — is that it is both. At times, it acts more as a videographic essay (text-on-screen, split-screen), and at times, it acts more as a remix (stitching together particular scenes to create a new story). Chapter 6, then, functions more as a remix than a videographic essay.
In this chapter, I wanted to string together a few formative scenes in Maura’s journey of learning about what it means to be a trans woman. The four scenes in this chapter come from radically different times in the series, spanning from Season 1 to Season 3. Editing the clips together to create a four-minute remix results in a new understanding of Maura’s journey — one that we can pin down to key moments which inform the greater text, the entire series.
The first scene in this chapter features Davina, Shea, and Maura having a conversation about trans-ness and being a trans woman. Maura asks Shea about her genitalia: “May I be — um — do you have a pussy? I mean, do you have — “ Shea interrups: “A pussy pussy. Yeah. Fifteen g’s, mama.” Their conversation continues, and Davina and Shea use words like “tranny chasers” and “trans-amorous,” words that Maura likely has not heard before. She listens intently, and chimes in with a toast: “Here’s to getting fucked.”
What follows is one of my favorite moments in the series. In response to Maura’s toast, Shea says, “Yaasss queen,” an affirming, statement of approval well-known to the LGTBQ community. Maura repeats the phrase incorrectly, pronouncing it more like “Yes queen!” as opposed to having a more flamboyant accent on the “Yasss.” Davina scoffs, embarrassed. Shea repeats the phrase, as does Maura, almost pronouncing it correctly. The interaction represents not only Maura’s naivety, but also her distance from the trans community as an older woman of an elite, academic, Jewish, upper class. Maura tries it again, this time enunciating the “Yas” far too much. Davina chimes in: “Can we not do that anymore?” The humor in this scene is one of the few moments in the series where we forget that the Pfefferman family is actually deeply troubled and that the characters are hugely narcissistic. The humor in this moment shrouds the drama of the series, and is one of the moments where we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ridiculousness of the whole thing. We cut to black.
The next clip is from a “flashback” to Berlin in 1933. I use quotations marks around “flashback” because no character that we know was actually there — these cutbacks to pre-WWII Germany are historical family moments that put the viewer in a privileged position in that we know more about Pfefferman family history than currently living Pfefferman family members. In any case, Gittel and Rose (Maura’s mother) talk to their mother, Yetta, about Gittel’s “transvestite” status. Gittel remarks, “Actually, I’m fine. I have a transvestite pass. No one can arrest me. I am protected by the city. It actually says there that I’m not mishega.” In this scene, the viewer learns that the trans girl appearing throughout Season 2 in historical flashbacks is Maura’s aunt Gittel. She never escaped Berlin, unlike the rest of her family — and is remembered by what her family wanted her to be — a boy. What the viewer learns, then, is what Maura does not know. The inclusion of this historical aspect of the Pfefferman family suggests some sort of circuitous nature of sexuality and the family, that being trans or genderqueer is somehow genetic, that even family secrets cannot protect future generations from their own identities.
Cutting back to present day LA, Davina and Maura sit on Davina’s front steps. The two discuss Sal — Davina’s boyfriend who has recently been released from prison — and his behavior towards Maura. He tells her “how many cc’s should be in my titty area,” something that Maura has been thinking about. But having a straight man tell her this in a demeaning and sexualizing way is offensive to Maura and prompts her to tell Davina that “you can do better than that.” This sparks an argument between the two women. Davina, finally, after a season-and-a-half, tells Maura what she — and the viewer — need to hear:
“Mind your own goddamn business. You have no right… We don’t all have your family. We don’t all have your money. I’m a 53-year-old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick. And I know what I want, and I know what I need.”
In this moment, Maura finally gets called out on her privilege. Transparent, the whitewashed, rich, and privileged Caitlyn Jenner narrative, gets a much-deserved slap in the face. We cut to the next scene.
In the final scene of Chapter 6, we return to the cruise ship. Ali and Maura stand near the back of the ship, having an intimate conversation about Maura’s feminine shapewear. Maura reveals that she cannot get gender reassignment surgery — under orders from her doctor — because “there’s a little whoop-dee-doo on my heart machine record.” She continues: “I think it’s one thing to wear this stuff if you know you’re going to transform into… a new shape. Otherwise, it just feels like a costume. It feels like I’m hiding. It feels wrong.” Maura and Ali continue to have a conversation about Maura’s transition and about the decisions she is going to make in the future regarding her body. We call into memory the conversation Maura had with Davina about injections into her “titty area” — and how it was so important to her. Ali asks, “So… you’re not transitioning?” Maura’s response is simple and perfect: “I’ve already transitioned. I’m trans. I’m just… this is me. This is it.”
These four scenes, edited together to create a four-minute remix, serve as reminders that Maura, her family, and the viewer are all on a journey. The intended audience for Transparent is likely not someone too articulate in trans-ness and gender fluidity — which is why Maura spends so much time learning about everything from “yassss queen” to ex-prostitute, HIV-positive, trans women of color. The vulnerability of the last scene, from both Maura and Ali, serve as emotional reminders that the Pfeffermans are just trying to get by — even if they are so privileged to be able to do it on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Chapter Seven: Dinner
Chapter 7 revolves around the theme of the dinner table. What conversations take place here? Who talks? What are they saying? Using four dinner table scenes across all three seasons, we see common threads of arguments, poor etiquette, religious observance, and trauma.
The first dinner table scene comes from the pilot episode of the series. Maura is still Mort, and we are still getting to know the Pfefferman children. Mort has called his children to dinner to tell them something important — but he has not informed them about what. They all think he is terminally ill, and bug him about it the entire dinner. The camera moves frequently throughout the dinner from shot to shot of each Pfefferman, resulting in a sense of uneasiness. Josh begins the conversation with questioning why he and his siblings were never “taught how to eat.” Mort offers a reason: they come from shtetl people — Jews of Eastern Europe — and that their grandmother, Rose, often “ate lettuce with her bare hands.” In this clip, the Pfefferman siblings and their father argue, while eating Chinese food ribs with their bare hands, about how poor their dining etiquette is. They argue to the point that Josh says, “Why don’t you clean out the barbecue sauce inside your vagina?” This is not a “serious” argument by any means — but simply sibling rivalry to annoy their father and potentially deflect from the news that is about to come.
The next clip appears, on the top-right of the screen. This clip appears later in Season 1, after Maura has come out to her family and Sarah and Len have separated. Tammy and Sarah have started seeing each other seriously, and are celebrating Shabbat with their families together. Davina also attends the dinner, and asks if she can light the Shabbat candles. Sarah politely declines her request, saying, “It’s tradition that the mother of the family lights the candles.” Maura begins the traditional Shabbat prayer.
At the same time, in the first screen, Mort says, “Listen, I need to talk to you about something. There’s a big change going on. He puts his hands over his face in a bout of nervousness and embarrassment. He continues: “I love you kids. I love you kids. I love you kids.” All the while, in the clip on the right, Maura is leading the Shabbat service in front of her entire family. It is a beautiful moment, framed by Judaism, in which we see a prime example of juxtaposition. Mort hides his face in his hands on the left, as Maura stands proud and tall, using Judaism as a crutch.
On the right, the prayers continue for a moment — until Len walks in, ready to take his and Sarah’s kids back for the weekend as part of the divorce agreement. He starts a more serious fight, changing the pitch of his voice to a higher one, mimicking a woman’s voice. He is making fun of Maura. The argument escalates as Davina, Tammy, Sarah, Bianca, and Maura try to calm him down. It escalates further, with Len picking up the challah knife, saying “Maybe I could cut my dick off!” scaring everyone at the table.
In the clip on the left, the siblings have started pestering Maura about whether or not he has cancer. He can’t take it anymore, and slams his fist down on the table to silence them. A moment later, in the screen on the right, Maura slams her fist down, still embracing her role as the patriarch of the family. If it hasn’t become clear yet — I edited these clips in this way to not only highlight the mishegas of the scene, but to also weave the two clips together, converging in a moment of heightened tension.
Maura stands, delivering one of her most powerful monologues of the series:
This is my family. Leonard, I am so sorry. This is my fault. I should have called you. Honey, I should have taken you out to lunch and we should have talked, but I didn’t do that. And I’m sorry about the Mort and the Maura and the he and the she. I’m just a person, and you’re just a person, and here we are. And baby, you need to get in this whirlpool, or you need to get out of it.
As Maura speaks her monologue, the two screens on the bottom appear, showing two more dinner scenes. Both the screens on the top cut to black. On the bottom left, we see an extended Pfefferman family celebrating a Jewish holiday at Ali’s friend Syd’s house. At this dinner, Josh announces to the family that Raquel had a miscarriage and that he and Raquel have decided to split up. He announces this in front of family friends, an inappropriate thing to do. Shelly has a breakdown, and sobs at the dinner table. Josh gets upset that she is making such a scene: “Mom. Mom. Mommy, don’t do this. This is not yours. Stop!” This is the prime example of mishegas, with a Jewish mother crying about her daughter-in-laws miscarried baby — because she told people about it that she wasn’t supposed to. We cut to black.
In the final clip on the bottom right, the Pfefferman family sits around their dining room table with an additional member of the family — Colton. He is Josh’s illegitimate son with Rita, the Pfefferman siblings’ old childhood babysitter. He has been raised as a devout Evangelical Christian, and thus we return to theme of religion at the dining table. He offers a Christian prayer: “I thank you, Heavenly Father, for this food, this great day, these lovely people. In Jesus’ name we pray.” Maura finishes us off: “Oy gevalt.”
This chapter offers a commentary on scenes in a specific setting — the dinner table — and what happens there. Cross-seasonal, thematic, and visual connections become clear through the videographic medium. Watching a clip from the pilot episode and a clip from Season 2 play out at the same time is a visually and dramatically different experience than watching them separately. In this chapter, we see this play out nicely in a four way split-screen, seeing themes of chaos, anger, religion, and narcissism play out, all centering around food and communal eating.
Chapter Eight: Secrets
Chapter 8 is the only chapter in the videographic essay that is made up of a single scene from a single episode. This clip comes from the Season 1 finale, “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?” In this clip, Ali points out serious issues she has with the way Maura and Shelly raised her.
This scene takes place at Ed’s — Shelly’s new partner — funeral. Tensions run high as the extended family is brought together. Ali gets wildly upset because her mother told her that Maura cancelled her bat mitzvah to go to “cross dressing camp” for a weekend. The irony of the situation is not subtle: Ali is wearing a suit and tie, and Maura is wearing a dress. Maura delivers a humorous line: “I can’t get you to do your haftorah! What do you want me to do, point a gun at your head? Don’t be so self-centered. There’s another world out there. It’s not all me, all Ali, all my feelings.”
Ali brings up sensitive subjects: “In this room, I’m the one who’s self-centered?” Ali echoes her family, who has criticized Maura for being overly narcissistic about her transition. The two continue to fight, bringing religion into the mix: “I don’t need Judaism. Who wants to be Jewish? Who needs guidance in life? I mean, what on Earth would I do with GOD, you know?”
Shelly comforts Ali, as Maura tells her to keep her voice down. This makes Ali even angrier, as she brings money into the equation: “Keep my voice down, huh? Because that’s our family religion, right — secrecy! Here’s some money to go to college, but don’t tell anybody — don’t tell Josh and Sarah. Why are you always pushing money on me?”
This makes Maura explode. Reading Maura’s monologue is not as effective as watching Jeffrey Tambor perform it (which is one of the central reasons I chose to make a videographic essay for my senior thesis work) but for clarity, here it is:
Because, my beautiful girl, you cannot do anything! You know, you have so much more to say now than when I was writing your checks. Giving you loans! Which by the way, aren’t actually loans, because you don’t pay back dick. Do you understand? Not one cent. I’m paying for your life. Do you like me? If I didn’t give you any money, would you even talk to me?
Maura sits. Ali stands above her, in silence. We cut to black.
This scene is viscerally uncomfortable to watch. It calls to memory not only the previous fights we have seen in the videographic essay, but personal family fights that we have experienced. This scene rounds out the videographic essay in a clean finish with a shot that we have seen previously — Ali’s big, wide, childlike eyes, staring down at her father. I chose to end Juxtaposition and Mishegas with this single scene specifically because of the multiple themes it brings to the table: religion, money, secrecy, “cross-dressing” and trans-ness, and childhood. As the Season 1 finale, it is dramatically enticing and makes the viewer want to come back to watch more, and also reminds the viewer that the mishegas in the Pfefferman family is unending. There is so much to work through, just as there is so much to work through in Transparent as a series.
In my three-and-a-half years at Middlebury, I have taken a wide range of courses that have all included overlapping themes of gender and sexual representations in film and media. These classes include Gender, Sexuality, and Media, Storytelling in Film & Media, Foundations in Gender Studies, Introduction to the Sociology of Gender, Television and American Culture, Topics in Feminist Theory, and Theories of Spectatorship. In these classes, we have read texts that have been formative in my understanding of gender and sexuality as it relates to popular media and mass consumption in all its forms. The following texts, although I do not reference them explicitly in this thesis, have been critical to my analysis and critique of Transparent as a crucial site of representation in the trans movement. These texts include, but are absolutely not limited to: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Jason Mittell and Ethan Thompson’s How to Watch Television, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Christine Overall’s “Public Toilets,” Judith Lorber’s “A World Without Gender,” Paisley Currah’s and Tara Mulqueen’s “Securitizing Gender: Identity, Biometrics, and Transgender Bodies at the Airport,” and Babel and Babylon’s “Patterns of Vision: Scenarios of Identification.” The list is long, but years of reading thematically and conceptually similar texts has allowed me to synthesize my thoughts on gender and sexuality in media. Ultimately, my Film & Media Culture and Gender, Sexuality, & Feminist Studies coursework has resulted in Juxtaposition and Mishegas and this accompanying written essay.
Throughout the written essay, I return to single question: Does Juxtaposition and Mishegas function more as a videographic essay or as a remix? I discuss this briefly in Chapter 2, perhaps because that specific chapter is more remix than video essay. In answering this question, we also must think about the creator’s intent. Typically, remix videos are circulated on video-sharing sites like Youtube and Vimeo, for the specific purpose of engaging in a sort of nuanced and intense fandom of particular shows. Specific films and series for which this type of fandom exists include Harry Potter, Glee, and Supernatural, among many others. Fandoms like this exist across media and on multiple platforms, including social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr, and on blog and journaling sites like Wordpress. My videographic essay was not created with the intent of being circulated on Transparent fandom sites, but rather, as an academic critique, a capstone of four years of film and media and gender studies — a senior thesis.
In this way, Juxtaposition and Mishegas functions as both a videographic essay and a remix. At times, it feels more like one than the other. Take Chapter 5, for example, in which I analyze two separate drag performances and compare them using a split-screen. In that chapter, I utilized text-on-screen, which is a visual tool used in many videographic essays. Chapter 6, however, is made up of a string of scenes from different episodes and seasons. I edited them together in a way that told a new story and revealed new truths about the characters and about Transparent as a series. In this way, this particular chapter functions more as a remix. These specific moments may point to instances of videographic essay-ness or remix-ness, but the intent of the piece, the platform on which it is shared, and the additional written component all render the piece a videographic essay.
Separately from the meat of the videographic essay — the chapters themselves — I wanted to make some sort of allusion or callout to Transparent. I accomplished this in two ways. First, the length of the videographic essay, about twenty minutes, is the typical length of a Transparent episode. In this way, Juxtaposition and Mishegas is its own episode. It could stand on its own. It tells a new story in a new way, while utilizing the original text. The second callout I make to Transparent is in the opening and closing sequences. The music, font, color, pace, and tone of the opening title sequence is borrowed from the Transparent title sequence that appears before every episode. More than fitting the general ’80s and ’90s California aesthetic of the show, the color, I think, has more implications. Yes, Transparent is “groundbreaking” — on certain fronts — but fails to be intersectional in many ways. The choice to use pink in the opening and closing moments of the show reinforces its hetero- and gender-normative aspects. Chapter 2 deals with this in great detail. The choice to use the pink color has an aftertaste that suggests that Maura transitioned from a man to a woman — so the obvious prominent color choice should be pink. Transparent widens trans (and Jewish) representation on screen, but falls short in terms of non-normative race and class representations.
In planning the video, I wanted to give myself certain parameters for each chapter. I did not want to have ten chapters in which each one featured five seconds of text-on-screen followed by a voice-over narration. Personally, I felt that this would have been limiting. Each chapter uses different tools to communicate its message: text-on-screen, split-screen, multiple split-screens, directional sound edits, and one final tool: no audio or visual editing at all. A good exercise for the viewer would be to try to uncover the parameters I set for myself for each chapter.
I finish off the opening sequence with a dictionary definition of the word “transparent.” If anything, I hope it points out clearly that the title of the show is a play on the word transparent, suggesting that the show centers around a trans parent. The dictionary definition reads: “(of a material or article) allowing light to pass through so that objects can be easily seen” and “easy to perceive or detect.” The first definition is more of an abstract one, and calls to mind a moment in Chapter 1 where Elizah, a black trans woman, is leaning against a window, and instead of her reflection, we see Maura’s. This has obvious symbolism behind it, with mirrors suggesting reflection and introspection, especially in the case in which a white woman’s face shows where a black woman’s face should be. The second definition calls to mind the concept of “coming out,” and that perhaps Maura’s coming out process was an easy one because it was easy for her family members to tell that she was living in the wrong body her whole life. Regardless of the viewer’s interpretation of the definition of the word “transparent” and how it fits into the larger context of the show, I wanted to include it as a way to transition from the borrowed opening sequence to the more experimental videographic essay.
In the closing sequence, I include a quote that Maura says in the pilot episode:
“Boy. It is so hard when someone sees something you do not want them to see.”
The quote foreshadows Sarah and Tammy accidentally walking in on Maura when she was still not out to anyone. On the more figurative end, Cathy Leaves, of Cellar Door, puts it well: “[The show is about] knowing things about yourself but hiding them, not knowing yourself well enough and only existing in a costume that you don’t even realize is one, not living authentically, and both the terror and the giddy excitement of finally coming out and being able to share yourself with others.” Maura’s quote encompasses both of these meanings, and I felt it was an important thought to leave with the viewer — and the fact that Maura said it in the pilot episode makes it that much more powerful.
This project has been academically and personally fulfilling in a number of ways, and I am excited to see the videographic essay become more popular as a form of scholarship and as a medium for visual communication. As the first student at Middlebury College to do a videographic essay as senior work, I can attest to its multilayered and complex nature — and its ability to be simultaneously academic and experimental.