“Transparent” Deserves Its Emmys, But How Can The Show Get Better?
Jill Soloway’s award-winning show does a lot of good in its representations of trans life — but Transparent is still far from perfect.
Had it won Best Comedy, Transparent could have joined Viola Davis — the first black woman to win Best Actress in a Drama — in making Emmy history last night, both as a show with a transgender lead character and as an internet-exclusive series. But its loss to Veep may be exactly what the show needs to improve in future seasons. Transparent won awards for the right reasons — Best Actor went to Jeffrey Tambor for his deeply sensitive performance as transitioning parent Maura Pfefferman, and Jill Soloway won Best Director for delivering a show that resonates, both visually and dramatically. Yet for all its great qualities, the first season of Transparent is mostly about cisgender people who can’t handle a loved one’s transition, which limits both the show’s innovativeness and political reach. This still leaves plenty of room in Transparent’s future seasons to portray its main character primarily from her own perspective, and to deliver on the show’s potential as a groundbreaking series.
Series creator Jill Soloway has been up front about Transparent’s structure as a show that revolves around a family’s reaction to Maura as she discloses being trans to her three children — Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) — over the course of the show’s first few episodes. This sets the tone for a storyline familiar to viewers of gay and trans cinema, from The Wedding Banquet to The Crying Game, wherein LGBT characters are treated primarily as crises for others to overcome — a narrative arc that always runs the risk of objectifying them and minimizing their own struggles.
Tambor’s remarkable performance makes up for some of the ways that the show tends to focus on Maura as a problem for her family. In Transparent’s first episode, Maura deals with one of the trickiest situations in the show as she brings her three children together with the intention of disclosing her trans status to them, then decides not to at the last minute. Telling physical details like her checked pink button-down shirt and ponytail complement Tambor’s meticulous performance. When Maura starts to break down, her kids begin to assume she has cancer, until Maura stops the cancer talk abruptly with, “God! Stop it! God, I don’t have cancer, you kids want me to have cancer?” Tambor’s shrill yet strident plea teeters between the familiar impatience of the family patriarch and a trans woman’s attempt to raise the pitch of her voice, while not quite ready to reveal her full self to her children. It’s one of many complicated moments in Transparent that Tambor portrays with unwavering consistency.
Tambor does a lot of important work in the series through deeply embodied performances like this one. The task at hand is especially challenging given how she portrays Maura across large expanses of time and presentation, as the series features extended flashbacks of Maura from when she was first discovering her trans identity; it also portrays her as both closeted and out to various people.
Though Soloway has been criticized by many in the trans community for casting Tambor, including Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times, the issue of whether or not Transparent expresses trans people’s perspective is to me a more complicated and substantial one. Among transgender figures, the most prominent voice to criticize Soloway for the structure of the show is Tom Léger, the publisher of Topside Press, an imprint that specializes in trans authors. In a series of three tweets, Léger wrote: “Transparent is a show about how difficult it is to be a cis person who knows a trans person and can’t just cut them out of your life. Philadelphia is a movie about how hard it is to be a straight person and meet a person dying of AIDS. These stories might look like our stories but they are not, and they are not made by people with our interests at heart.”
I am not ready to sweepingly dismiss Transparent like Léger, though I do grant that in creating an ensemble show about a family dealing with a parent’s transition, Transparent creates a structural situation where the trans person is outnumbered, her perspective subsumed within the cisgender perspectives of the people around her.
Transparent tries to get around this issue through the youngest daughter Ali’s own gender nonconformity, and her affair with a transgender man Dale (Ian Harvie). Maura’s eldest, Sarah, also leaves her husband for a woman, creating a situation in which three of the five Pfeffermans (if you include Maura’s ex-wife Shelly, played by Judith Light) are LGBT. Yet ultimately, the show’s thematics are tied to everyone not quite knowing what to do about trans people, a point of crisis that seems to be on repeat in trans-related movies and TV shows. One thing to look forward to in future seasons is the possibility of Maura more extensively dealing with problems that don’t involve her family’s reactions. While there are times when we see Maura’s struggles through her own eyes in the first season — like taking her first dose of hormones or encountering a friend from her pre-transition life — they often feel designed to educate a non-trans audience, unlike the more organic interactions Maura has with her family.
The show would also feel less objectifying if it were more attuned to intersectional issues. The huge minority faction of the trans community is hardly represented in the show. There are no major supporting characters of color except for Bianca (Kiersey Clemons), the teenage live-in summer babysitter for the Pfefferman children, whose character seems to exist only as alluring jailbait for Josh. Otherwise we get two macho black men who Ali tries to have a three-way with until the situation gets too homosocial, and a large-breasted Asian real estate agent who Josh picks up at a bar. The show’s lack of racial insight contributes to the sense that a character can’t be fully realized in Transparent unless they’re Jewish, white, and affluent, which amplifies some of the show’s more objectifying depictions of trans culture.
There are moments when we do see the world from Maura’s perspective, but not necessarily in the most obvious places. Though the show spends an entire episode in flashback with Maura going to her first cross-dressers camp, close, voyeuristic shots of cross-dressers in full makeup often feel like scenes are designed to let a mainstream audience gawk at this exotic world.
For me, the moment in the show when we see the world most clearly through Maura’s eyes is when she decides to perform in a trans talent show with her friend Davina, played with wise experience by trans acting veteran Alexandra Billings. As the two women perform a cover version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the camera dwells on the children laughing while Maura performs, and its perspective takes on not that of one of the children, but of a critical observer, as though it’s another member of the trans audience in the talent show trying to get the rude cis kids to be quiet. Then as the three children all find themselves walking out in the middle of the song, as they’re dealing with conflicts in their own lives, the camera gives shots both of Maura from behind looking out into the audience, and close-ups of her face trying to hide her obvious disappointment. The camera, and by extension we as an audience, both identify with and sympathize with her plight. This is when Transparent bridges that gap between treating its audience as curious observers and thinking of them as allies on Maura’s side. These are the types of moments that can lend much greater transparency to Maura’s perspective in future seasons, rather than the distorted lens through which her children often view her.
If I were to assess Transparent’s place in the history of shows and movies about LGBT people, my closest corollary is not Philadelphia but Will and Grace, the first network show to feature an openly gay lead character. Though it brought gay people to a mainstream audience, Will and Grace also situated itself as a series that observes mainly gay people from the outside, rather than depicting them from their own perspective, which led to complaints of stereotyping from the gay community at the time. The show didn’t win the Emmy for Best Comedy in its first season either, but did so after it settled down and matured, placing less emphasis on broad gay humor that trades on stereotype for more nuanced, humanized depictions of its characters.
It's clear that Jill Soloway is sincere in her desire to help the transgender community, as someone who herself has a transgender parent. She highlighted the problem of transgender housing discrimination in her acceptance speech for Best Director in a Comedy, citing the shocking statistic that it's legal to deny housing based on trans status in 32 states:
For his part, Jeffrey Tambor showed great appreciation not only in dedicating his award to the trans community, but also specifically thanking personal trans advisers like Jenny Boylan, Zachary Drucker, and Rhys Ernst:
Tambor said, "I've been given the opportunity to act because people's lives depend on it," underlining the ways that shows like Transparent are often the only ways that many people are able to identify with and humanize trans people, which makes it all the more important for the show to make an even greater effort to depict trans perspectives.
Transparent recently hired trans writer Our Lady J (a choice that hasn’t been free of controversy) and trans director Silas Howard to be part of its staff, which bodes well for following seasons. I hope that Transparent, in its title’s implied promise of clarity, will spend more time viewing the world through Maura’s eyes in the future. This will allow the audience to see that world not through the distorted lens of her cisgender loved ones, but through a perspective that is often clear to trans people who spend their lives knowing that they don’t belong to the gender they're perceived to be.