In our latest guest post, AJ McKenna examines Transparent, currently receiving a truckload of hype as the first online series to ever win the best series award at The Golden Globes. But is its agenda as progressive as we’re being led to believe?
Transparent is pretty much the poster show for Amazon Prime at the moment: Amazon’s answer to Orange is the New Black or House of Cards. It’s getting rave reviews everywhere, for its plot and performances and for showrunner Jill Soloway’s ‘transfirmative action’ policy of making sure 20% of the shows cast and crew are trans. It’s won two Golden Globes: one for the series itself, and a Best Actor in a Comedy Series award for Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Mort/Maura, ostensibly the show’s main character. And, at ten thirty-minute episodes, it probably represents the longest piece of filmed media dealing with the trans experience to date.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s a total bag of shite. Transparent is not the progressive show it’s being sold as: it depicts black people and lesbians in a deeply problematic way, it relegates genuine trans actors like Alexandra Billings to supporting roles, and the way it focuses on Maura – when it can be bothered to – is horribly creepy and invasive. Nor is it much of a comedy: the first time I actually laughed at a line of dialogue occurred in the fifth episode. Where the show does aim for comedy beats, it’s wildly uneven – there are some bits of business which probably seemed funny in the writer’s room, but fall flat on screen, and one character seems to spend most of her time appearing in sketches from a different show entirely. Most importantly, however, this show, Transparent, despite its title (and, really, the fact they thought that title – Trans-parent, geddit? – was a brilliant pun tells you all you need to know about the writing on this show) is not really about the trans parent at all.
Cis Kids would be a better title, Poor Little Cis Kids better still – because it’s Maura’s children the show really concentrates on. And what a bunch they are. Josh, Maura’s son, is something in the music industry, and has complicated issues with the ladies: he often dates younger women, but is in an ongoing, secret relationship with an older woman who babysat him when he was in his teens. Older daughter Sarah is a bisexual woman who, in the course of the series, rekindles her relationship with ex-partner Tammy, with disastrous consequences. Youngest daughter Ali is one of life’s hapless drifters, a tomboy ingénue who seems unable to commit, and whose dating adventures are one of the main plot elements of the series, one of the main sources of its alleged comedy – and one of the first real signs of what’s wrong with it, too.
To be frank, Ali is not a character who belongs in this show. The general tone of all the scenes which don’t feature Ali’s dating hijinks is downbeat, muted, realist, perhaps even a little mumblecore; Ali’s comic misadventures are painted in broad strokes, and are too self-consciously weird and goofy to take seriously as elements of this show’s world. They seem, in fact, to be rejected Portlandia sketches, which makes it all the more ironic when Carrie Brownstein actually shows up, playing Ali’s longtime friend Syd Feldman. As lampshade-hanging goes, this is a bold move: sadly, Syd is a recurring character rather than a guest-star turn, and, in what seems to be Soloway’s default move for female characters with nothing better to do, she winds up fucking Josh (seriously, one of the other main female supporting characters also winds up fucking Josh later in the series), leading to a Chasing Amy-esque confrontation with Ali during which Syd reveals she may have been treating Josh as a proxy for his sister. But before we get to this point, we have to endure a hilarious gender studies class sketch, Ali dating a trans man in scenes reminiscent of Blue Velvet, an attack by geese, and, in perhaps the worst Ali plotline by far, a sequence where she dates personal trainer Derek, one of the only two black men in the show, who, along with, his roommate, Mike, she basically treats as some kind of male sex doll. Derek and Mike exist for two reasons: one, so we can see some lingering shots focusing on their muscular bodies and taut buttocks, and, two, so that we can appreciate just how much of a horrible person Ali is, as she conspires with Syd to get Mike and Derek all fucked up on moon rocks so she can enjoy a little spit-roastin’ action. Seriously – this is what she actually says in the script.
The objectification of black men isn’t the only sign that Transparent might not be the progressive show it makes itself out to be. Melora Hardin’s Tammy is your basic homewrecker lesbian: within minutes of encountering Sarah, the two are making out all over the shop every chance they get. Full disclosure: I found the Tammy/Sarah scenes quite hot, but then Tammy is kind of my type. That doesn’t, however, make up for the fact that the only lesbian in this show is a sex-crazed player who starts an affair with a married woman, without giving the effect on said woman’s relationship a second thought. So progressive!
Actually, Tammy isn’t the only lesbian in the show, because there’s also Maura, of course. If you’re wondering why I’ve taken so long to get around to the trans parent in Transparent, it’s because the show itself takes a long time getting around to showing Maura to us. It’s eight minutes into the first episode before she first appears – as Mort – and even longer before we first see her out of male clothes. Throughout the series, she probably receives less screen time than the other characters, bearing out Tom Leger’s point that she isn’t so much the main character as an ‘obstacle’ the cis characters have to deal with. Nevertheless, the presence of Maura in this show is supposedly its main claim to progressive cred, and that’s why it’s such a shame that she’s presented in such a creepy, invasive, fetishistic – and weirdly conservative – way.
For once, the fact that a cis actor has been cast as a trans woman is not the main problem about Maura. The main problem is the way that Maura is reduced, too often, to the status of a fetishised object. I was all fired up to hate Jeffrey Tambor in this show, but I felt bad for him in the scene where, after Maura’s kids leave, she sloughs the polo shirt she’s clearly uncomfortable in, and wanders, bare-chested, down the corridor of her home. There was something stalkerish about the way the camera dwelled on the physicality of Maura’s body in this scene, and it’s a tone that recurs throughout the show, particularly during the flashback scenes in which we see Maura exploring her transness decades before officially coming out.
For all the talk about ‘transfirmative action’, and Jill Soloway pointing up the fact that she has a trans parent herself, her understanding of being trans seems oddly fetishistic, both in the sense that she regards it as a fetish, and that she dwells on Maura’s experiments in a fetishistic, voyeuristic way. She even has other characters do the same thing: Maura’s wife, Shelly, played by Judith Light, is given a particularly repellent line about her then-husband ‘squeezing his bits’ into her panties, which led to me having to google whether or not ‘cameltoe’ was general currency in the US in 1994 (apparently yes – the more you know, eh?).
Even when Maura is on her own, though, her early exploration is presented as something secretive, dirty and, above all, selfish. We see Mort taking a shopping bag into his office, containing clothes to try on: while we watch him steel himself to do it, we see a cis female student banging on the door of his office. Mort ignores her: too focused on wanting to wear women’s clothes to fulfil his pedagogic responsibilities, the pervert.
This pattern recurs throughout: Mort leaves his kids waiting in the car while he browses trans porn at a newsagents; lies to Shelly about attending a conference so he can visit a hotel with cross-dressing pal Marcy; and, in what will become one of the series’ main plot points, cancels Ali’s bat mitzvah so he can attend a weekend retreat for transvestites. The retreat itself is actually one of the better episodes: it’s by far the most Maura-centric, and has useful things to say about the difference between being trans and simply dressing up, but even here we see Maura in a negative light, as she abandons Marcy to fool around with one of the cross-dressers’ wives. And the scene where Maura realises the date, and snarls ‘Oh shit, it’s my daughter’s fucking bat mitzvah’, is so cartoonishly evil I half-expected the words BAD TRANNY to be repeatedly flashed up on screen.
There are good things about Transparent, on the surface. All the supporting trans characters are played by trans actors – but they’re given terrible plots and dialogue to work with. Alexandra Billings’ Davina is essentially just a mentor for Maura, reduced to ‘fix[ing her] walk’ and giving make-up tips, while Ian Harvie’s Dale seems to be on a one-man mission to prove trans men can be every bit as creepy and misogynist as cis blokes (to be fair, the fact he holds his own in a creep-off with Ali ‘drug-addled spit-roasting’ Pfefferman is pretty impressive). But there have never been any trans people in the writers’ room for this series, (and it’s fair to say the one trans woman who has been drafted in to help write season two has not filled the trans community with confidence) and that is a major problem. Most trans women would not have written the scenes with Maura exploring her transness in such a creepy, invasive, moralising fashion (compare, for example, Kate Bornstein’s memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger, in which she manages to convey her early sense of shame when booking into hotels to dress up, and the lies she had to tell, without presenting them as examples of moral repugnance).
Because we know Jill Soloway has a trans parent herself, Transparent inevitably becomes a ‘Spot the Mary Sue’ show. I started out thinking it was Ali, and I think there are probably large parts of Soloway in Ali – especially the scene in the final episode where she calls Maura out about the bat mitzvah cancellation – but Soloway has said she wrote the part specifically for actor Gaby Hoffman (who I can only assume Soloway hates and wishes to humiliate on an ongoing basis). Then I thought it might be Josh, given both have backgrounds in the entertainment industry. But actually, I think Jill Soloway’s Mary Sue in Transparent is a much more minor character.
I think she’s that student outside Mort’s office, who he ignores so he can play dress-up. I think, in fact, that Jill Soloway has done something very clever, and very underhanded, with Transparent. She has managed to create a show that expresses her Oedipal (Elektral?) rage at her own trans parent, and managed to pass it off as something genuinely progressive. Transparent is a show about cis people, written for cis people, by a cis woman (whose reaction to her parent coming out was to think ‘This is my show’ – seriously, who fucking does that?), which happens to use the presence of a trans woman as a McGuffin to drive the plot – which is all about a bunch of cis people.
Trans people are a growing demographic, becoming more prominent thanks to the rise of the internet and social media. There is a gap in the market – I would say there is in fact a need – for a show that does for trans people what Sex and the City did for women at the turn of the century, what Girls does for millennial young women, what Queer as Folk did for gay men in the late 90s, and what Cucumber and Banana are trying to do for the wider LGBT community (but admittedly mainly still gay men) today – presenting stories about a particular demographic, written by members of that demographic, and centring people in that demographic. Transparent is not that show, and – frankly – trans people need to stop being pathetically grateful to Jill Soloway for the sneaky, mean-spirited show she has made. We deserve better.
ABOUT THE WRITER: AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.