The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Transparent and the Evolving Culture of Shame
In Transparent, during an early scene with their1 eldest child, Mort is sitting on a bed, trying to explain something difficult for a daughter to understand. Negotiating her own confusion, Sarah asks, “Are you saying that you’re gonna start dressing up like a lady all the time?” Her father—her parent, rather—laughs gently at the basic misunderstanding. “Honey, all my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man.” In a flowing dress draped around the strands of a turquoise necklace, she holds Sarah’s hand. “This is me.”
The title of the show, then, quickly resounds with the thump of a rolling pun—referring to a, parent who is trans, and in a more macro sense, the quality of being a person slowly shifting towards open-heart transparency, of following that practice towards the promise of inner peace. Mort (Arrested Development‘s Jeffrey Tambor), at somewhere near seventy years old, is a late-in-life transgender woman who has lived more or less as a family man for nearly four decades when she finally announces herself as Maura.
The show does not linger on expository details because Maura has waited so long for this moment—as trans people have waited for the cultural moment—that it fills its plate mostly with meat and potatoes for narrative efficiency. It accepts its basic premise without dwelling on an adjustment period to the emotional facts, and is freed to spin from the seat of the story by assuming sympathy from the end of its audience. The first important thing when someone tells us they are a woman, or a man, is not the exactness of this part or that, but the basic dignity of self-identity in that we believe them.
The process is ultimately a personal experience, but our self-image is bound to and by our parents so much that it’s difficult to discredit the effects that Maura’s transitioning has on her children as they, however selfishly, try to figure out what it means to their notions of a father, the memories of their childhood, and their drifting constructions of home. There’s a ray of nuclear longing at the center of Transparent—the stress-induced reflex of crawling back towards the womb, of staring up from carpet floors, and home-cooked meals around the dinner table with siblings since settled into their separate lives. The house they grew up in becomes a totem to a family unit under one roof, the last living artifact of all shared things thought to be true.
Creator Jill Soloway, whose father came out as transgender a few years ago, is conscious of the nostalgic hue. “That’s what I’m always trying to get back to: that place of my sister and I sitting on the floor in my parents’ living room trying to crack each other up and creating our own little bubble to live in.” It becomes the struggle to get back to that same idyllic place when it feels like someone has poked a big enough hole that, in hindsight, begins to deflate your balloon of collected memories. It is the ultimate reminder that parents are people too, with complicated and persistent inner lives just like you, and me, and everyone we know.
“Okay, so what does this mean? Everything Dad has said and done before this moment is a sham? Like he was acting this whole time?” asks Josh, Maura’s only son. After a beat, Ali, the emotionally intelligent youngest of three, offers plainly to her brother and sister: “It just means we all have to start over.” She’s eating a popsicle, sitting on a metal climbing dome that’s off to the side of a deserted playground.
The story fluctuates between present day and 1994, tracing Mort and his friend Mark (played by The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford) as they explore their early experiences discovering themselves as Maura and Marcia, respectively. Though there has been chatter about the fact that Maura is played by a male actor rather than a trans actress, the choice proves effective, as the audience has the same experience of trying to relearn someone they know so clearly as male to be not male.
Sarah (Amy Landecker) is a stay-at-home “yoga mom” comfortably married to her husband Len (Rob Huebel), but finds her picturesque suburban life unbalanced when her old college flame, Tammy (Melora Hardin, Jan from The Office), resurfaces at her children’s school. Sarah’s younger brother, Josh (Jay Duplass), is a successful, aspiring music industry mogul (“The only thing that matters is being the first one to find that band that’s untouched”) whose boyish addiction to puppy love, and unflattering need for fancy things suggests a stunted growth, borne from a family transgression that’s part of his casual, even proud, personal history.
Ali is played by Gaby Hoffman—recently of Obvious Child and Girls and Louie, classically of Now and Then, Sleepless in Seattle, and Field of Dreams (as well as the lost version of Freaky Friday with Shelley Long and Andrew Keegan)—who has the kind of natural pull through the screen that cannot be bought, and she’s as magnetic and engaging in this role that was written for her as you’d expect her to be. So bright-brained and charming, but paralyzed by the fear of follow-through, Ali is the Pfefferman Peter Pan, awash in her own neuroses, as her father says, “unable to land.” She pays such close attention to her interactions with other people that the sight of her mother wearing flip-flops in the afternoon tips off her gut that she didn’t go to her doctor’s appointment, after all. Judith Light is divorced matriarch Shelly Pfefferman, doled out in spurts as their zany, neurotic mother, who always seems to be looking for something, with a mixture of confusion and hardened glee.
The New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner calls it “part cutting-edge TV show and part gender-studies utopian experiment, to keep alive the questions that have preoccupied [Soloway] for years: If we are living in a post-gender-binary world, what is all this talk about feminine and masculine styles?” So much of gender is a learned performance of how we think we should be, an internalized metronome of what and when to speak, and Transparent delves into what it looks like when the puffed-up act can no longer stand in for the goodness of real personality, from a full frontal view.
In a latter part of the season, Ali goes on a date with a trans person who is a self-described “man with a vag”—lumberjack beard, flannel, and all. She spends the beginning of the episode bumbling through shopping for “high femme” under the wing of her best friend, Syd (Portlandia‘s always-entertaining Carrie Brownstein), who informs her that her resting style is more “Middle Earth femme,” like mole people who live under the subway. Ali weaves through her own gender norms, not because it seems like she doesn’t know herself, but because she’s wading into the things her father—her parent—has made her consider more carefully. The siblings start to refer to Mort/Maura as Moppa, a drug-fueled portmanteau of momma and poppa. If we are the product of our parents and their environment, then it’s easy to see how each of Maura’s kids developed their lopsided relationships with other people, as a result of the secrets that always kept her own family circling at arm’s length.
The show ultimately deals with the ongoing act of shedding layers to become who you want to be. It urges us to stop letting the imagined expectations of other people, or the structures of society, define us, by taking control of and responsibility for the air that we take in and out of the atmosphere. As Soloway herself says, “The trans thing just seemed like a great metaphor for anyone transitioning from who they used to be to who they want to be.” And it does become the catalyst for all of Maura’s family to start over in their own ways, to find their own salvation, as she finally did; to split open the parts of ourselves that feel extraneous and learned, until the person staring back at us is, at the very least, all us.
A more personal epiphany is the way in which the show depicts Los Angeles, which feels like the city I really know. Combating the loop of sunsets and painted skylines, Transparent is weighted by its greys and its blues, teasing out the crisper side of a city so long associated with burnt reds and blinding yellows. In place of curated beaches and palm tree-horizons, there are parking lots and payphones. Shots of the city focus on the small, the immediate, the close, rooting the setting in the minutiae of a real place, as opposed to the skimmed surface idea of one. There are constant corners and pieces of things, zeroing in on the fact that Los Angeles is a sprawling city, and no single sketch can capture it in its entirety. It’s nice to see “LA” not in broad strokes, but etched in quietly at ground level, with detail and specificity, acknowledging that there are real people living here, with real stories, too. It exists in the Silver Lake/Echo Park world without feeling exploitive, like a tacked-on ploy for something edgy. It knows the farmers’ market pupusa lady and the homeyness of Zankou Chicken, toting a sense of lived-in habitat that feels genuine and individual.
Ms. Soloway—whose past television writing includes Six Feet Under, How to Make It in America, and The United States of Tara—created the show from a personal place. Aside from her parent coming out as transgender around the age of seventy-five, her older sister is a lesbian, her mother’s second husband suffered from dementia and lost the ability to speak, and Soloway herself is a Silver Lake mom. Her version of Los Angeles is an authentic place because the character of Maura is an authentic person. Even the Pfeffermans’s brand of LA-bred sometimes-Jew feels accurate in their trips to Canter’s and talk of tofu schmear. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker declares it “the most Jewish show [she’s] seen on TV.” They portray an eclectic family raised in this oft-maligned city, yet somehow the characters, who casually reference shtetls and shivas, never feel cartoonish (with the exception of Shelly, but Light is fun to watch) or generic.
Los Angeles right now is a progressive place, so it makes sense to see it as the backdrop for a series of progressive stories. The show is less episodic than it is one whole, broken up into ten parts, with a continuity in tone throughout, and a dedication to emotional honesty. Like Enlightened, another great show set in Los Angeles, it leans into that sky-high searching feeling that makes living in this city feel so personal, like the things happening to us in the spaces of this stretched-out county are ours, and ours alone.
It’s the first television show to revolve around the total life of a transgender character, so we see new things in new situations we have no map to fill in for. There are scenes of describing Maura’s change to her grandkids, who knew her as Grandpa, using a teddy bear to guide the way. Though originally shopped to HBO, the first flagship series for Amazon Prime has drawn comparisons to Orange is the New Black—another groundbreaking program for trans people—because like that show was for Netflix, Transparent marks a creative watershed moment in a building network’s efforts that lands so squarely on target for the exciting new worlds we get to explore in the nature of a more open and independent digital climate. In these series, trans people are not used as a means for slugline diversity, but as a media study in the backbone of humanity, featuring the kinds of evolutionary stories for which the revolutionary model allows.
The show’s music evokes the vivid 70s feeling of radical rebuilding, when the disillusionment in America led to a tumbling ocean tide. In the fourth episode, Bill Callahan’s “Night” bookmarks a chapter with his baritone vocals and a simple piano melody that’s elucidating in its bareness, and still soothing and paternal. The thing about Callahan’s music is that the stark landscape strips its emotional content to the most basic, running vein. It forces you to confront the feeling, and parse through the thoughts that cloud it on a normal day. The lullaby provides the kind of reassurance the archetypal father is supposed to provide—the idea that, no matter what, every little thing, in the end, will be alright.
Bob Dylan’s “Oh, Sister” subs in for the opening credits of episode eight—a flashback to the fleeting taste of a cross-dressing sleep-away camp—and its lyrics, “Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms/ You should not treat me like a stranger/ Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you/ And one deserving of affection?/ And is our purpose not the same on this earth/ To love and follow His direction?” are pretty straightforward. The opening theme projects the kind of wistfulness and thought trails often experienced in the moments just before sleep, staring into nothing, while trying to process everything. It’s a forty-five second music box of memories, with the muted lights and VHS milestones in the way they exist in your mind, cut with flashes of social tradition and family functions that summon the show really nicely. Each installment closes with curly white text on a salmon screen, a splash of color within a narrow black frame that always comes as a welcome surprise.
A study by the American Journal of Public Health found that half of all transgender women, and a third of all trans men in America struggle with depression from the isolation that leads to the shame. Those numbers are even higher among those in small towns, and lesser-educated parts of the country. The type of torment and violence that trans people face are much harsher, and more frequent, than the already embarrassing ways we treat our gay, lesbian, and bisexual brethren (and sistren) in our country—land of the selectively free, home of the bigoted brave.
Within the trans community, rates of substance abuse, suicide, and HIV are unsettlingly high. A survey of over 6000 transgender and gender non-conforming people found that 41 percent had attempted suicide—twenty-five times the 1.6 percent of the general population. One-sixth drop out of school at some point in K-12 or university due to the overwhelming sum of harassment, and unemployment rates are double that of the public at large. Amongst trans people of color, the rate is four times as high. Over one-fourth have said they lost their job simply because they were transgender, and for the same reason, about one-fifth had been denied four walls to call home. Only one-fifth had been granted the fundamental recognition of their rightful gender on their drivers licenses and government records, their daily forms of self-identification. Though surveys and polls can be misdirected, these numbers, comprised by data collected from every state and territory in the United States, unfortunately do not seem at all inflated.
However, family and peer acceptance have a huge effect on trans people’s self-worth as they transition. Research by the Institute of Medicine finds that the common social marginalization exacerbates not just their mental, but also their physical health, cementing the idea that the mind and body are really in sync. The study found that unwavering family support was one of the few stabilizing factors that helped transitioning people to buck the negative trends, a little lighthouse amidst the storm system of change.
Transgender communities also have a lot of trouble with regards to health care, as many doctors are willfully ignorant to the nuance in treating genderqueer patients, and insurers can still outright deny coverage on the basis of it pretty much being “weird.” To cope, trans people move into the underground, of society and economy, selling drugs and sex just to get by. Their rates of HIV infection are thus four times the national average, and yet up to one-fifth of that population are still routinely denied medical attention. The irony is that the cases of mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and poverty would likely all plummet if only they were afforded proper care. They are twice as often pushed into homelessness, and 85% more likely to end up in prison than the rest of the population.
The same study by the National Center for Transgender Equality concludes: “Instead of recognizing that the moral failure lies in society’s unwillingness to embrace different gender identities and expressions, society blames transgender and gender non-conforming people for bringing the discrimination and violence on themselves. Nearly every system and institution in the United States, both large and small, from local to national, is implicated by this data. This report is a call to action for all of us.” And yet.
I was dreading the cliche of a looming, grooming karaoke duet at an event called “Trans Got Talent” in the seventh episode that gathered the offspring of the Pfefferman family, but when Maura’s moment came, coupled with the song selection, it was both laugh-out-loud funny, and extremely moving, darted by moments of clamped-down pain. Taken as a karaoke tableau, I imagine it unfolded not so unlike the experience of transitioning—stuck between the ecstasy of newfound freedom, while literally faced with the residual stigma in the prison of who you were. It was a stage representation of how it felt for Maura to tell the people that she loved, this is who I am, an expression of the soul coming to grips with the life she thought she had to choose that got her lost along the way.
The show is ultimately compelling because it treats Maura primarily as a person who’s trying her best to get through a life transition, just as her kids are, and just as, after some reflection, all of us are. But through the happenstance of her particular life, what prevails is family, and the idea that the specifics of what that looks like now matter less than how they feel. “You always make things so much more complicated than they have to be,” the Pfefferman family babysitter, Rita, says to Josh. And don’t we?
In the same early conversation she has on the bed with Sarah, Maura continues to explain her late-in-life moment of truth. “People led secret lives. And people led very lonely lives. And then, of course, the Internet was invented.” Tammy, who was there with Sarah, interjects, “The Internet—can’t hate on that internet. It’s magic.” The humorous line actually expresses something observantly pure, in that the World Wide Web has really opened up marginalized communities to themselves. Support groups are so integral to helping transgender people transition because they offer understanding ears from others who have gone through the same thing, so that even if you don’t have your mother or your father at your side, there are still people who can tell you, everything will be alright.
In one of the show’s few moments of antagonism, Maura responds to her oldest daughter’s husband, Len, “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.” The global perspective is changing from the visibility of really seeing each other. It’s getting harder to convince the masses that certain strata of society don’t deserve mutual respect, and steadily more and more voices are rising up for other people’s lives.
The show is not really just about trans people. It’s a story of trying to be more fully human by taking the necessary steps, however scary, or painful, toward becoming the person you’d like to be. It helps us see the world more clearly behind someone else’s eyes, that allows room for our inquiry crafted through a lens made from decency, and connects us to the beating parts beneath the shell of Maura’s circumstance, one that feels so “other” to most, and walks us up to the feeling of it in a nurturing, normalizing way that many of us might not in our real lives openly engage. It brings us closer to our shared core of existence on this pale blue dot, and, really, that’s the greatest function that the best art can provide—the wisdom that we all know just as little as our neighbors to our left, and to our right.
1. Technically “her,” but to avoid confusion when discussing Maura as Mort, it’s acceptable to use “their” instead of “his,” which would be incorrect.↩
Image credits: Featured image. Images 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.