‘Transparent’ And The Growing Pains Of Trans Visibility
By KC Clements
In 2014, TIME magazine deemed that we had arrived at the “transgender tipping point,” an announcement that both heralded and predicted popular media’s recent explosion in trans visibility. There have been positives to this visibility, such as the celebration of trans role models like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, and negatives, particularly an increase in anti-trans violence and legislation including “bathroom bills” like North Carolina’s HB2.
Through all of this, cis people are still learning about our lives — and still unlearning the tired tropes and stereotypes about trans people that have prevailed for decades.
Two years later, we are squarely in the midst of these growing pains as cis people’s well-intentioned, yet ultimately lacking, attempts at handling our stories are giving way to a fervent call, from trans folks and our allies, to allow us to represent our lives for ourselves. There is perhaps no better way to trace these growing pains than through the evolution of the television show Transparent, the third season of which premiered on Amazon a month ago.
On the heels of TIME’s declaration and Jared Leto’s controversial Oscar win for his role as a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Transparent’s arrival came with the announcement that yet again a cisgender man (Jeffrey Tambor) would be playing the role of Maura, a trans woman, and that the show had been created by Jill Soloway, a cis woman. Still, I think many of us held out hope that, given the shifting cultural tides and the increase in information available about transgender people, the show might offer us something different, something more satisfying than the media that had preceded it. After all, Soloway happened to intimately know at least one transgender person, her own parent.
One of the most notable features of the first season, however, was its dominant cis perspective. The opening season focused on the Pfefferman family’s heinous responses to Maura’s transition, leaving little space for her joy, her power — even just for her own story to shine through. But in the past two seasons, the show has moved away from its cis-centeredness, adding much richer depth to Maura’s inner life. Further, her family has begun to genuinely embrace Maura and her right to self-determination (though their limit for acceptance seems to be her desire to undergo gender affirming surgery).
This progress in the narrative’s focus has likely been driven by the show’s push to directly involve trans people in the production process. Transparent now employs an unprecedented number of trans people, both on and off screen.
And, despite the first season’s less than ideal handling of Maura’s transition, it’s important to note that one of the show’s assets has always been its willingness to flaunt its protagonists’ deep flaws, to reject an absolutist morality that might paint any of its characters in a wholly positive light. As the iconic dinner scene in the show’s pilot lays bare, Maura’s hands are far from clean; despite her trans identity, she is capable of being just as entitled and selfish as the rest of the Pfefferman family. In this respectable bluntness, the show doesn’t fall victim to the “brave trans hero” trope that so often rings hollow when compared to the lives of actual trans people. One wonders what important work can be done by showing privilege — be it race, class, gender, or otherwise — in a similar fashion, with all of its attendant ugliness and complexity.
But, Transparent‘s recent attempts at more genuinely tackling nuanced questions of race, class, and transmisogyny, while admirable, have repeatedly fallen flat.
Take, for instance, season two’s episode “Man on the Land,” which tackles the issue of transmisogyny. The episode follows Maura, Ali, and Sarah as they travel to a festival modeled after the long problematic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a space that for 40 years actively excluded trans women. The episode shows the cruelness of essentialist feminism through the second-wave lesbian poet Leslie, who insists that Maura has, and continues to experience, male privilege — that she’s not a real woman. Maura’s assertion of her womanhood, her authenticity in the face of Leslie and her cronies’ transmisogyny, is especially poignant given the wave of anti-trans legislation around gender-segregated spaces sweeping the U.S. The question of Leslie’s transmisogyny (and Ali’s silence in the wake of it), however, vanishes after this episode; Ali’s romantic relationship with Leslie continues without issue.
The opening episode of season three takes on Maura’s race and class privilege. During the episode, Maura attempts to find Elizah, a young black trans woman in South Central LA who called the LGBT suicide hotline where Maura volunteers. Blatantly sidestepping the bounds of confidentiality, Maura kicks off a white savior quest, offending a group of trans women of color in a mall along the way. Worse, she steals a bottle of Gatorade from a restaurant, and acts affronted when security guards swoop in to question her. After fainting and being sent to County Hospital, Maura demands to be sent to a “better” hospital in her white bubble on the other side of town. Again, as the show so often does well, the episode throws Maura’s selfishness and her privilege into stark relief.
But, with that, Elizah is gone — and so is the brief attempt at critical race and class analysis. The disappearance of Elizah from the rest of the season feels like a sorely missed opportunity, either for an ongoing challenge to Maura’s privilege or, better yet, for a new parallel story line that sharply contrasts Elizah’s life as a black trans woman with Maura’s frankly uncommon experience as a wealthy white trans woman. That the season wraps with the Pfefferman family departing on a luxury cruise again successfully highlights their exceptional excess.
Episode two of the season, “When the Battle is Over,” makes another glancing attempt at discussing race and privilege. Ali is diagnosed with what another character deems “white fragility,” which the only black woman in the room explains as the belief that “white tears matter more than black blood.” Ali fervently denies the accusation in a moment so brief and subtle it’s sure to fail to land as the doubling down of white privilege the scene seems intended to display. We then get a brief, “reading rainbow” lesson in intersectionality — a topic which deserves significantly more airtime — and the scene quickly shifts.
To be fair, Transparent is one of the first mainstream television shows where queer identity is allowed to flourish almost unproblematically. Ali’s shifting gender expression and queer relationships, Sarah’s bisexuality, kink, and patronage of a sex worker, and Maura’s lesbianism all feel like par for the course. There’s no obsessive handwringing over what any of these behaviors mean about identity, just an air of permissiveness.
This makes sense, however, given the capaciousness that folks with white privilege and wealth are allowed when it comes to queer identity. Having access to resources and institutions afforded by whiteness and financial resources makes queer life infinitely more possible, while race and class privilege deflect the scrutiny and surveillance people of color and low-income folks regularly face.
Ultimately, for all its gestures toward progress and self-reflection, the show has yet to go all in; its attempts to face up to issues of race, class, and even cissexism and transmisogyny aren’t carried far enough. At the end of the day, the show is primarily about a white, wealthy, mostly cisgender family, none of whom appear to work very much.
The growth of the Pfeffermans, as well as the Transparent crew itself, is emblematic of the mainstream media’s awkward steps toward learning how to truly embrace transgender lives. Indeed, Soloway openly admitted her initial ignorance about trans, race, gender, and class politics in a recent interview; her own journey has guided the show’s improved treatment of trans people, both narratively and at the level of production. We’ve watched as something that started out shaky and untenable has turned into something that holds at least the possibility of doing justice to our lived experience. We have watched as an initial failure to be genuinely self-reflective about race, class, and cis privilege has given way to at least well-intentioned attempts at introspection on these matters.
But, recently, I sat in on a workshop with Buzzfeed’s LGBT editor Meredith Talusan and something Meredith said really stuck out to me: the notion of “material sacrifice.” Yes, Tambor and Soloway have used their platform to boost trans voices and experiences, and, most recently at the Emmys, to call on the rest of Hollywood to hire more trans talent. And there is certainly merit in using your voice for justice, in calling for the changes you yourself initially failed to make.
But, in the same way the show tries but falls flat in its attempts to really parse out questions of privilege, Tambor and Soloway’s continued involvement in the show feels like lip service, a failure to genuinely live up to the ideals they so fervently tout. I wonder what it would mean for both or either of them to make a genuine material sacrifice, to recognize that it is no longer acceptable for a cisgender man to play the role of a trans woman, or for a cisgender woman to be showered with accolades for telling a trans woman’s story. Were they to make that material sacrifice, would it encourage other cis people to do the same?
How might the show be able to grow, to more accurately represent trans lives, if they step back from the thing they built and let trans people, particularly trans women of color, carry it forward?
The overarching question many trans folks are facing at this crucial moment — after a long history of being told “next time we’ll do better” and “we’ll come back for you later” — is: Do we accept the media that almost gets it right, that shows promise for continued evolution? Or do we reject the things we’ve grown out of and demand, full stop, something better — something that is ours?
Lead image: Transparent Facebook