Trans issues take the small screen

January 27, 2016

The television series Transparent is a welcome contribution to the making trans issues more visible in the mainstream, explains Julie Smith.

TRANSPARENT UNVEILED its second season on Amazon Prime on December 11. The show follows a wealthy Jewish family through the experience of the father's transition from male to female identity. Jeffrey Tambor, who portrayed George Bluth Sr. on the hit show Arrested Development, plays Maura Pfefferman, a retired college professor who finally gains the courage to pursue this transformation.

The show is important for several reasons--first and foremost for bringing visibility to the transgender experience without trivializing the experience for the sake of humor. Although the show does have its share of laughs, it manages to be a comedy-drama without using Pfefferman's identity as the source of its humor, which is a huge shortcoming of many similar shows.

Transparent also explores the fluidity of gender and sexuality, illustrated by the way in which two of Maura's children must confront their own identity issues throughout the show.

Transparent follows Maura as she learns what it means to live as a woman and how it differs from her experience as a man. For instance, at one point in the show, Maura meets a former student from the university where she taught, and learns that she unknowingly but consistently oppressed and rejected feminist activism on her own campus. The former student compels Maura to examine the society's gender hierarchy that led her to reject radical feminism years ago.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent

Maura finds this reexamination hard to deal with and begins going out of her way to prioritize the safety and support of female-identified characters. Later, Maura learns that some people in the feminist community are not inclusive of trans people when the rules of a feminist festival she attends state that only "women-born women" are permitted. This definition of a woman as someone born with a uterus and vagina demonstrated that the festival reinforced rather than challenged society's rigid norms about gender.

Luckily, Maura is able to find women who understand and accept her identity. Still, her situation exemplifies a problem that still plagues some sections of the feminist community.

The series also explores the Pfefferman family's Jewish identity and the idea of genetically inherited trauma. Ali Pfefferman, the youngest sibling, who is depicted as a selfish perpetual student, imagines her ancestors as gender-nonconforming individuals in Nazi Germany, one of whom is eventually taken away to what we assume to be a Nazi death camp.


Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffmann and Judith Light.

This is very telling of the treatment that transgender and other gender-nonconforming people faced under fascism. The scenario played out in Ali's head is also essential to her character development and eventual understanding of the plight faced by stigmatized people.

ONE ASPECT of the show that should be further explored is the way in which the Pfefferman family's wealth provided them with the resources they needed to make this their transition smoother than most families could possibly hope for. None of the characters is ever shown working--except for one son who is a music producer, although he is eventually fired and is then able to start his own production company with his "Mapa's" financial assistance.

Maura is able to move effortlessly around the city, begin hormonal treatment, and attend workshops, classes and festivals to explore her new identity. While she does experience hurtful discrimination, it never takes the form of eviction, job loss, denial of health care, assault or incarceration, which an astonishing majority of transgender people in the U.S. face.

The fact that a majority of transgender people experience violent trauma in their lifetimes is horrifying and tragic. These realities should be addressed publicly, but are largely left out of the show.

Aesthetically speaking, Transparent is captivating. It's filmed beautifully, and the soundtrack features artists from FKA Twigs and Perfume Genius to Joni Mitchell and Bettye Swann. The series received three 2016 Golden Globe nominations--for best series, best actor and best supporting actress.

If the show's plot and aesthetics aren't enough to win you over, check out the politics on the production end. The creator of the show prioritized transgender people in the hiring process and employed more than 80 transgender people on set, including two transgender writers, for the second season of the show.

It is important that the people who are living the trans experience every day receive priority in entertainment claiming to portray their story, especially when trans people are likely to be discriminated against in the hiring process.

Overall, Transparent does a great job at giving visibility to the transgender identity with a plot that is both enlightening and funny. It lacks an in-depth class analysis, which I hope is further addressed in the future. The show was recently approved for a third season, which we can expect to see around December 2016.

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