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 clichés. 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
at 9:06 AM