Friday, September 26, 2014

All Will Become TransParent

Transparent, the much-anticipated new series on Amazon’s Prime Video, has been met with substantial praise following its pilot release. Critics have described the show as “great television”, “this year’s best new show”, “a gorgeous, nuanced story”, and “funny, poignant, dramatic, emotional, and truly riveting”. The nearly unanimous accolades the show received following both the trailer and pilot releases stand in stark contrast to my post-pilot-viewing response. Admittedly, I have not seen any pre-screenings of forthcoming episodes, making the series trailer and the pilot episode my sole references for the following critique. However, after multiple screenings and pauses for reflection, I remain motivated to voice my personal thoughts on what I consider to be problematic features of the series that are relevant, if not concerning, to the transgender community as a whole. My major criticisms of the Transparent pilot involve the nature of transgender representation, both in the show’s casting and the characters’ portrayals.

Firstly, let us address the glaringly obvious. Jeffrey Tambor is a cisgender male. Maura Pfefferman is a transgender woman. Sadly, as is so often the case, television producers chose a cisgender actor to portray a transgender character. In this case, the production chose to hire Tambor over all of the available transgender actors in LA looking for work, of which there are many. Undoubtedly, this was a decision driven by expectations of success and monetary gain. After all, Amazon is a business like any other and their success is determined by consumers’ desire for and reception of their product. A favorable mainstream depiction of a trans woman deserves as much visibility and media publicity as possible so that through the honest portrayal, education, understanding, and public discourse can take place. Visibility of and exposure to transgender people, both on screen and in person, present the opportunity to uproot bias and prejudice. Positive experiences and associations with transgender people in the media and in person dissolve stigmas, illuminate truths, and highlight similarities instead of focusing on only differences. Therefore, choosing Tambor based on his celebrity may positively affect the trans community, but only if the depiction of Maura Pfefferman written for the show is indeed favorable, positive, truthful, and free from damaging clich├ęs. And that’s a really big “if” judging by the show’s pilot and the overwhelming trend of negative representations of transgender people in the media.

Casting for Transparent can be seen as problematic for reasons aside from Tambor’s gender identity.  For example, Maura clearly possesses white-collar upper-middle class status and is by all accounts somewhat well-to-do. She appears to have a quite comfortable living situation, personal transportation, and expendable income readily available when her daughter Ali Pfefferman, played by Gaby Hoffman, needs a loan. Unfortunately, this demographic portrayal is far from the life the majority of transgender people experience. According to “Injustice at Every Turn”, a 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the unemployment rate for transgender individuals is double that of the general population. This aspect of Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) as a character is particularly incongruous with the reality most trans people experience daily. Of course, this portrayal is only possible due to Maura’s delayed transition, which, as the audience finds out as details of her backstory are gradually revealed, allowed her the employment stability to work as a political science professor until retirement. The audience is introduced to a sixty-something year old Maura who has just made the decision to begin her transition. Although not completely uncommon, choosing to portray a late-in-life-transitioner who is retired and married with children conveniently allows Transparent to dismiss many of the most common struggles that negatively affect the lives of transgender people such as education and employment discrimination, adolescent bullying, street harassment, coming out, and dating, to name a few.

In addition to these questionable age and socioeconomic status-related demographic choices, Soloway chose a very obviously white, American family. The support group scene in the pilot, although indeed an example of Transparent featuring racial or ethnic minority characters, seemed to boast blatant racial inclusivity to such an extent that it became a parody of itself. Given that the basic plot revolves around the Pfeffermans and not the members of Maura’s support group, Transparent is yet another example of a television series comprised entirely of white central characters. Therefore, not only does Transparent perpetuate popular media’s underrepresentation of women of color (whether they be cis or trans) and myopic focus on white, upper-middle class America, but it fails to present and depict an authentic trans character who might be able to open up a dialogue about some of the most important and common experiences within the trans community.

Then there is the corporeal image, the physical manifestation, the composite visage of Maura. At the risk of sounding unkind, the makeup and wardrobe of Jeffrey Tambor as Maura would fail the street standards of acceptability for the average American and would be categorically condemned in Hollywood. The depiction of Maura makes it appear that the production team purposefully wanted to portray her as a "man-in-a-dress" trope - a depiction that deliberately reminds the viewer of every male trait while working to deny any presence of authenticity. If the choice to portray Maura this way at the start of the show is going to be used deliberately as a plot device enabling the audience to see the character develop her personal style and own her femininity over time, the massive faux-pas that is Maura’s “look” may be partially excused. However, the narrative focus of the series, judging by the pilot and Amazon’s descriptive synopses, appears to be on the family rather than the character of Maura herself, who instead of a protagonist, acts as a mere plot device.

Maura’s character appears to be the spoon that stirs the pot of dramatic tension and conflict within the family dynamic while maintaining the ability to play the comedic ‘fool’ archetype. Transparent has a very definite Six Feet Under mood and aesthetic (which is unsurprising since Jill Soloway was involved with both projects), and is complete with the gritty cinematographic nudity one has come to expect from an HBO/Soloway production. It is not the visceral or scandalous nature of these suggestive scenes, however, that is most likely to make me uncomfortable while viewing Transparent in the future. The scene in the trailer when Maura's wife wipes her lips for her is all one needs to see to realize that Maura’s character has the potential to be framed as the archetypical ‘fool.’ The frequency of her variations on and violations of cis-heteronormative social customs, as well as her family’s reactions to them, could be made to establish and define the magnitude of the show’s comedic value. The chance that this characterization technique, if relied upon, will afford Maura the integrity and honor she – and the trans community – deserve is woefully slim. If Maura proves to be the designated comedic fare on the show, any personal victories she experiences will pale in comparison to her intentionally framed pathetic, child-like fumbles, and her character will neither empower trans viewers nor inspire cis allies.

Whilst it is good to see a queer relationship developing on screen between one of her daughters and an apparent old friend, it remains to be seen whether Maura will be allowed to develop a relationship of her own. I suspect that the context of the primary narrative conflict will involve Maura’s interactions with her ex-wife and the reactions of their children. Rather than giving Maura’s thoughts and actions the power (thereby giving Maura herself the agency) to drive the plot progression forward, others’ reactions to her gender transition and physical presentation will dominate the storyline. This will turn the ‘others’ into more actionable characters, which will likely result in audience members relating to and identifying with these characters more so than Maura. While the advertisements and promotions for the series certainly capitalized on the novelty of featuring a transgender main character, it is unlikely that the trans community will capitalize to such an extent on the show’s potential for positive change.

According to an interview with Soloway, three trans consultants worked on the show, together with a genderqueer writer. She cited Jenny Boylan as "the most important person for creating Maura", but it remains unclear whether Boylan’s involvement was related to the presentation of Maura, the plot itself, the correct verbiage regarding the trans community, or the script more generally. If the trailer is any indication of what Transparent has to offer in its remaining nine episodes, the script will not be without its problematic elements. The line "It's his private kink", spoken by Maura’s ex-wife in the show’s trailer, is hugely offensive and, to a large portion of the trans community, seen as a clear example of the perpetuation of a thoroughly disgusting misconception often used to demonize the trans community as ‘fetishizers.’

I sincerely hope that within the following nine episodes of Transparent, it will become evident to the audience that Maura's character is that of an incredibly strong yet authentically vulnerable woman who, along her journey of personal growth, is learning to embrace and embody her inner truth. I also hope that for Maura’s sake and the sake of the series’ narrative potential, her self-centered and somewhat spoiled family members are faced with some personal growth of their own. If this is the direction in which Soloway takes the show and we witness the extremely infrequent occurrence of a positive portrayal of a trans woman in mainstream media, the potential pro-social impact could be quite significant. If not, the show will tread over well-worn ground in the footsteps of movies like Dallas Buyers Club depicting another false and shallow "man-in-a-dress" example of what it means to be transgender in the eyes of cis-heteronormative America. This week, all will become transparent.

J/K (no really!) Jac Cichocki and Kelsie Brynn Jones

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Note to Employers Everywhere: Beware of Anti-Trans Cyberbullies

This is a public notice for all employers of transgender individuals. You are simply being sent this notice because an abusive anti-trans activist group may attempt to target your employee in the future. Your employee likely did nothing to warrant such an attack and no action is required on your part, this is simply a notice for your awareness.

As you know, transgender and other minority employees are as valuable and productive additions to your workforce. Anti-transgender activist groups such as Cathy Brennan may contact you and attempt to intimidate and manipulate you in an effort to threaten your employee's job security.

It is important to note that if one of these groups attempt to contact you, it does not mean your employee has done anything wrong; but rather that they are a target of discrimination.

Here are some resources to further educate yourself to the existence of anti-trans hate groups such as Cathy Brennan's own Gender Identity Watch

Thousands of people have petitioned to properly label Gender Identity Watch as a hate group

To groups such as Gender Identity Watch and other trans discrimination groups, no target is off limits - including 16-year old children
Information regarding Cathy Brennan from RationalWiki 

Enablement and Apologism

The anti-transgender lobby deliberately seeks to dehumanize and denigrate trans women with their words. They rely on tropes that medical science has for many years proven wrong, feeding into misunderstandings people may have regarding what being transgender truly means. We are often portrayed as fetishists by hate groups - the "Man in a Dress" trope is widely applied to us. We are often accused of wanting to violate women's spaces out of some sexual perversion - often being referred to in terms that imply that we are "rapists-in-wait," sneaking around women's restrooms, waiting and watching for our next victim, for which there have never been any proven instances.

When the same words are used or ideas are reinforced by members of the LGBT coalition in anger, particularly by other transgender women, it is a act of lateral violence. Recently, a noted transgender writer went on a tirade against another trans woman, using words that the transgender community consider slurs, and attempting to have her commit suicide. It became apparent that this was not the only time in which this particular person had done so. She had a history of bullying those whom she perceived weren't giving her enough credit or those who had disagreed with her, even driving one woman into hospital following a failed suicide attempt. It also became apparent that no one had sought outside intervention due to her previous abuse because these victims perceived the writer's mental state to be afflicted or troubled, complicating if not excusing her behavior.

We must end the violence inside the trans community before we can effectively unify to combat the violence from the outside. By maintaining silence when a figure with a platform in the transgender community engages in acts of lateral violence, we are not only enabling that person to continue unabated, we are also guilty of exposing others in our already high-risk group to possible self-harm.

It is easy for a community well-versed in physical harm and mental health conditions to want to gather around an abuser in an attempt to rescue them from their perceived mental anguish. The unfortunate consequence of this behavior is that it oftentimes merely serves to enable an aggressor to continue their behavior. They become aware that they have the power to continue to do so, and that if they are brought to task in the future for similar behavior, they know that they can convince those same people that they were not at fault due to their mental state. 

This is a very typical pattern in those who commit acts of abuse. As an abused spouse in a straight marriage prior to transition, I was assaulted by an alcoholic who claimed that she was not responsible for her actions while intoxicated because she had blacked out. She would then cry that she was sorry for whatever it was that she had done, and swear her undying love while vacillating between threatening self-harm and declaring that she needed help. My fear for her mental state led to me trying to work with her through rehab and therapy, only enabling her to continue that cycle of abuse because I did not pull away and remove myself from that situation. If someone has committed an act of abuse and is threatening self-harm, it is likely untrue. The mindset of an abuser is such that they place themselves above all others, and someone who places themselves that highly is unlikely to self-harm. Rather than harboring thoughts of saving or rescuing the other person in an situation where you are being abused, psychologists agree that the best cause of action is saving yourself. 

This is true equally of those who are physically or verbally violent towards others - the mindset of the abuser is the same, and the best course of action is the same. If you are the victim of violence, don't allow the perpetrator to set the narrative. The majority of threats that they may make to you regarding themselves are only  designed to make you stay, or to make you feel sympathy for them. Oftentimes, they will also gaslight the situation, hinting or nudging you towards an acceptance that they are hurting more than you are, or that you may even be imagining some of the abuse. An abuser will often redefine the narrative to blame others for their troubles, such as claiming that because what they said or did was in private, it is an attack on them if that information is shared with anyone. Abusers will seldom admit that they are wrong, or for that matter, less than perfect. It's always someone else's fault when they act inappropriately.

Unfortunately, even though well-intended and with the safety of the abuser in mind, in instances where others are aware of the abuse taking place and are trying to rescue the abuser out of a misguided notion that they can help them, what they are actually doing carries the unintended consequence of creating secondary abuse. In the words of Elie Wiesel, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." If a third party seeks to avoid confrontation and conflict between the parties by absorbing the abuse without challenging it or setting boundaries, then they have successfully enabled the abuser to continue unabated once the current issue has subsided. The moment someone makes an excuse for an abuser, be it possible mental illness, risk of self-harm, or blame placed on others for "starting" their fit of rage and abuse, they themselves become an abuser

Another thing that we do, particularly in our community, is try and shield someone from the consequences of their own behavior, in an attempt to give them space to heal themselves. This is probably the largest mistake that we can make in any abusive situation. A lack of consequences, or a reduced set of consequences based on taking into account the person's perceived mindset or mental health, sends the message to the abuser that they can continue to abuse others because they will not be held responsible for their actions. Failure to follow through with appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior does not help the abuser evolve or grow as a person or overcome mental illness; it enables their unhealthy cycle of abuse to remain stagnant.

Not holding the abuser to the same set of rules as the rest of society because of their position in the LGBT community or mental health status puts people's lives at risk. Victims of abuse consistently self-harm, and some even commit suicide as a result. The best thing we can do as a community is root out violence where it occurs and protect the 41% of transgender people who have attempted suicide by ensuring that we hold accountable those in our midst who commit acts of abuse against other members of the transgender community