The Importance of Transparent

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29. Nerd. Lover of ladies, queer things, and fan fiction.

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Transparent, Amazon’s critically acclaimed television show entering its fourth season this September, has meant a great deal to me as a queer, feminist viewer. The show’s creator, Jill Soloway, has taken great care in depicting storylines with sensitivity and without shying away from telling gritty, often uncomfortable stories. For three seasons, it’s been moving to watch Transparent give screen time to issues that are often ignored, including later-in-life transitions, sexuality amongst older adults, and depicting trans lives in a way that is not for sensationalism. While the show has its problematic moments (the most obvious being the casting of a cisgendered male as the lead transgender character), like many other television shows, these are outweighed by the positives.

Transparent is about the lives of the Pfeffermans, an affluent Jewish-American family living in California. The show’s journey begins with the Pfefferman’s father, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), coming out to her family as Maura and how her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light), and their three children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), handle this transition. But Transparent is about more than just Maura’s transition: it’s about a deeply flawed American family and the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, and mental health.

Light, Duplass, Tambor, Hoffman, and Landecker

The show was created by Jill Soloway (who has come out as genderqueer and prefers they/them pronouns) as an homage to their experience having a transgender parent. As a showrunner, they have made an effort, both onscreen and off, to respect the trans community. Behind the scenes, Soloway has worked to create a trans-friendly workplace, with redesigned gender neutral bathrooms and even enacting a “transfirmative action program” wherein trans workers would be given preference in hiring over cisgendered workers. Soloway said, “I really want it so that there’s no moment on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.”

Jill Soloway

I liken my relationship to this show to a love affair, fraught with intense feelings, heart-eyes, and the occasional fight. My biggest problem with the show is in how stereotypes are handled. Shelly Pfefferman, for example, is initially a caricature in the first season, drawing on stereotypes of the Jewish mother. It is not until later in the series that she becomes a fully realized character with a backstory and her own identity.

The character of Tammy (Melora Hardin) also falls into the category of caricature. When she first appears in the beginning of the first season, I jumped for joy: butch women are simply not represented on television, and I was immediately thrilled at seeing her on screen. My excitement was short-lived; Tammy’s swagger is comical at times, drawing upon over-exaggerated stereotypes. Tammy is never developed beyond this stereotype and departs the show before there is any chance for character growth. Tammy’s purpose, then, is for Sarah’s development — an unsurprising use of a queer character.

Melora Hardin as Tammy

What Transparent does best is creating a space for dialogue about trans visibility. There is no one way to be transgender, and the show offers different trans characters and explores issues within the community. Maura’s femininity is an ongoing exploration, as is her relationship to her own sexuality (both as a transwoman and as a person of a certain age). Maura’s two housemates, Shea and Davina (both portrayed by transgender actresses), explore issues that include dating cisgendered men who are “transamorous,” working as an exotic dancer, and living with HIV. These are real experiences that are finally being recognized as valid, as real, as part of the fabric of the trans community.

Trace Lysette as Shea and Tambor as Maura

As a cisgendered woman, I cannot speak to how this show is perceived by the trans community. For me, Transparent is important because it confronts viewers with real issues without attempting to make audiences comfortable. It gives opportunity to explore issues that are not typically portrayed on the small screen. It is unapologetic in its honesty, which makes for a refreshing change of pace. 

In the Trump era, shows like Transparent are more important than ever. Yes, the show has its problematic elements, but we need shows that are inclusive of the transgender community, especially during a time when the trans community is being vilified and otherized by our political leaders. We need shows that explore gender as being outside the binary, and we need shows that depict queerness of all kinds.

I, for one, am grateful that Transparent exists.