“I dream of a day when cis actors playing trans is looked upon with the same revulsion that we now reserve for white actors playing racial caricatures.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-4
Creator: Jill Soloway 👩🏼👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Jill Soloway 👩🏼👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (51 eps), Ethan Kuperberg 👨🏼🇺🇸 (14 eps), Ali Liebegott 👩🏼🇺🇸🌈 (14 eps), Our Lady J 👩🏼👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (12 eps), and various
Reviewed by Ruksana 👩🏽🇺🇸🌈
Since it debuted in 2014, I’ve been hesitant to watch Transparent. In its early run I checked out a few episodes but was turned off by how much of the story was occupied not by Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) as she comes out as transgender in later life, but by her self-centered, squabbling children Sarah, Josh and Ali (Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffman). I was glad to see a sympathetic depiction of a trans woman at the center of a tentpole show, but I worried that showrunner Jill Soloway and her writers were centering the stories and reactions of the cisgendered characters, and that the trans character, nominally the lead, was not going to get her due.
This year, I came out to close friends and family as trans. I’m pre-transition in every way, and I can see that it’s going to a long process, so in the meantime I’ve found myself hungry for meaningful queer content in media. A close friend who’s been with me through the coming-out process recommended I give Transparent another shot, despite my misgivings about the show’s priorities, including the critical hurdle presented by the casting of Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, another in a long history of cis men playing trans women on the screen.
I was surprised by Transparent. It is a patient and humane show that holds even its most difficult and toxic characters with nonjudgmental empathy. It is one of the most aesthetically interesting shows on television, with cinematography and production design that make each season feel more like a lovingly-crafted independent film than serial television. Its use of licensed music, and its native soundtrack by Dustin O’Halloran, are intimately connected to the tone and worldview the show is attempting to foster, and draw out the nuances of that worldview exquisitely. And maybe most importantly, it is a show that shows a desire to learn and evolve alongside its characters, and to depict all of its various experiences with grace and respect. It fumbles sometimes — but it often fumbles in the right way, and that makes it worthwhile.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Transparent is a show mostly populated by women; Josh Pfefferman is the only male character in the main cast. It is in effect a show about women, starring a family of women. And it’s beautiful in the array of different women it depicts. This is a show that dives into women’s memories and formative traumas, their sexual awakenings, their self-explorations. It clears the stage for their desires and dissatisfaction, their tenderness and anger, their illusions about themselves and their moments of epiphany.
It is also a story about women at different stages of mid-to-late adulthood life: much time is devoted to Maura and Shelley, characters in their late 60s who are reckoning with late-in-life upheavals but are also illuminated and defined by flashbacks to their earlier history, and the rest of the time centers around women like Sarah and Ali, who are in their 30s and 40s and dealing with the lives and identities they have or haven’t built up to this point.
It’s also a show that depicts men in an interesting way, mostly through the character of Josh. For most of the series’ existing run, Josh been a pretty toxic person in most of his relationships. When one of his girlfriends leaves him, I feel much more relieved for her than sad for him. But instead of casting Josh as a villain, it simply observes his path from volatile codependency towards something resembling healing and self-knowledge, as we seen in Season 4, when he begins to attend Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous meetings. It also does a lot to depict Josh’s early teenage sexual experiences with an older woman as a trauma that toxic masculinity forces him to code as a conquest or a good thing, which twists him up in knots. I would like to see more shows address masculinity and male sexuality with this much nuance.
Season 3 of Transparent tangles in some ways with the white privilege of its characters, showing Maura getting overly involved in the life of Elizah, a young black trans woman (Alexandra Grey) whom she has failed to help as a crisis intervention volunteer. Maura bumbles around helplessly in a part of LA she is unfamiliar with, before unknowingly insulting a group of Latina transwomen and then passing out and forcing Elizah to help her instead. This is mostly played as comedy, a jab at how woefully unaware Maura is of experiences outside of her racial and economic privilege. Season 3 also pokes fun at Ali, Maura’s youngest child, who constantly invents thesis statements about intersectionality while demonstrating very little of it in her own life.
In my estimation, the show is trying to check its own privilege. It does not shy away from the benefits conferred upon the Pfefferman family by class or race, but it is ultimately a story about the soul of this family, and by its very nature can only really peer into other experiences by virtue of its characters’ relationships — Maura’s friendship with Davina (Alexandra Billings), a mixed-race trans woman of color, is one area where Maura learns that she has not had to make the compromises or sacrifices that many trans people must to survive. It doesn’t do nearly enough, but I think it does a decent job within its own purview.
But this is also a very specific depiction of a second-generation Jewish immigrant family, and the show is committed to exploring those roots of spirituality and history. Too often, “the white family” is the core unit of television, defined by the privilege of race and divorced from a sense of history or responsibility. And while the younger Pfeffermans have thoroughly assimilated as Americans, their spiritual history, and the bonds between them, remain grounded in a context of history and identity, and of generational trauma.
I would like to give Transparent a perfect score for LGBTQ diversity. In every way except one, it is a milestone in television production — I have never seen so many trans actors in one place. For a baby trans like me, it’s life-giving to see so many people like me on screen. It’s been wonderful to see trans characters on shows like Sense8 and Orange is the New Black, but here I got a sense not of one exemplary transgender person among cisgendered people, but of transgender community and queer history. I am grateful to this show for its depictions of Magnus Hirschfeld’s work in Berlin in the Weimar era; for its hiring of myriad of trans actors to tell trans stories as trans characters; for its vociferous insistence on letting trans characters exist in their own spaces, on their own terms, and to show how they commiserate, celebrate, endure. It is also a television production that insists on hiring trans people, and employs trans consultants and writers.
This is also a show with gay, lesbian and bisexual characters; a show that features intersexed and nonbinary people; a show that takes a position that the LGBT experience in America is not ‘other’ but critical to the American social fabric. It’s for all these reasons that I give Transparent high marks on LGBT representation.
But the central inconsistency of this show — a cisgendered male playing a trans woman — is very difficult to get around. To be clear, Jeffrey Tambor is excellent as Maura. His portrayal is sympathetic and he really embodies her struggle and her exploration of her femaleness. It is also a rare and welcome depiction of coming out in later life that meaningfully explores the historical conditions that caused Maura to remain closeted and the challenges that come because of her age. As depictions of trans women by cis men go, this is as good as it gets. But this is also the same Jeffrey Tambor who played transphobia for a joke in Season 4 of Arrested Development, itself an intensely transphobic show.
Transparent is definitely not Arrested Development, and it does a lot to introduce more transness into Maura’s character, with younger versions of herself played by actual trans actresses. But ultimately this isn’t about one show or one actor. It’s about a legacy of toxic myths perpetuated in our media about trans women — that they are men in dresses, that their experience must be understood through the brave journey of a cisgendered person to ‘other side’, that they cannot be the arbiters and owners of their own bodies and stories. Transparent may be an utterly sympathetic portrayal, but for every Transparent there are twenty of The Crying Game or The Dallas Buyers Club. At a time when “trans panic” defenses are still used in court, any perpetuation of the idea that a trans woman is simply a man in disguise does serious damage to the safety of trans women.
I hope that Transparent ends up representing a kind of transitional moment for television — the last major show or film to have a cis actor as a trans lead. There simply isn’t any excuse for it anymore, not with several major shows casting trans people to play trans parts. I dream of a day when cis actors playing trans is looked upon with the same revulsion that we now reserve for white actors playing racial caricatures.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.44/5
This baby trans girl was delighted and surprised by how much she enjoyed Transparent. While the show’s lead casting and fumbling-with-privilege are serious obstacles, they are offset by its willingness to dive into diverse human experiences with kindness, wonder, and curiosity. Seeing so many trans people on the screen, and knowing that a lot of people are watching this show and shows like it, gives me a lot of hope for the future.
These days it can be difficult to feel hope, with the political climate being what it is, but Transparent gave me a good reminder that the pendulum continues to move, and very often it’s art that helps it swing.