by Amy Villarejo
from Film Quarterly Summer 2016, Volume 69, Number 4
To judge by the critical enthusiasm with which the second season of Amazon Prime’s Transparent (2014–) series has been embraced, Jill Soloway not only has a big trans-affirmative hit on her hands but has succeeded in stimulating a lively conversation about queerness, trans politics, and television representation within the broader society. It is to that loaded and fascinating conversation I want to contribute here, by pushing an observation that ought to have struck viewers of the first season. Namely: as befits a good women’s studies student, perhaps a slavishly good one, showrunner Soloway insists throughout the first season that Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) character be protected on screen by what has come to be called the “female gaze.”
Ever since the publication of one of the most influential articles in the humanities in the past half century, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film scholars and artists have understood the regime of looks in much dominant Hollywood cinema of the mid-twentieth century to be structuring an active male protagonist and a female object of his gaze, there mostly “to be looked at.”1 What’s more, the look of the camera, and that of the audience in the darkened theater, are also aligned with that larger-than-life male active subject, freezing and (sadistically, violently) rendering inhuman the various fetishized parts of female bodies offered as pleasure for his masterful gaze. Countering this dominant arrangement of the gaze, Soloway ensures that Maura is never objectified by the camera, not once, during the entire first season of Transparent. She is never looked at with judgment, which is to say that the camera’s look at Maura—not Mort, but the emerging Maura—is never aligned with a character, nor a spectator, who would misrecognize, dismiss, judge, or mock her.
This is revolutionary for television. I’m quite confident in saying that, while manipulating the female gaze has been a staple of avant-garde film experimentation, it’s never been done before in such a sustained way on the small screen. I’m also not the only one who has noticed it. Ariel Levy references Soloway in her “Dolls and Feelings” profile as suggesting that “[d]irecting with the ‘female gaze’ . . . is about creating the conditions for inspiration to flourish, and then ‘discerning-receiving.’”2 Soloway herself proudly declares her women’s studies cred and successful ingestion of the female-gaze Kool-Aid in her memoir, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants:
I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101. I was lucky enough to have been at the University of Wisconsin–Madison during the last reign of one of the greatest, hairiest clans of dyke teachers around. They finally put words to something I’d always felt—that everything, everything that had been written and filmed and painted positioned women as the object. And not just in your obvious “women are objects” way. Rather, I began to understand it more the way a sentence is diagrammed—the subject does, the object receives what the subject does. Men were the subjects, of everything.3
After initially binge-watching the first season of Transparent, I padded around for a couple of days in slack-jawed appreciation of the feminist impulse underwriting Soloway’s direction (as showrunner, she oversees the series’ overall look and sensibility, and she directed all but two of the first season’s ten episodes). By crafting a female gaze through which Maura is seen—understood, apprehended, recognized—Soloway grants Maura a nurturing space of trans emergence, protected from the violence of hetero- and cis-normative visuality and power.
There are a couple of reasons to pause here. Mulvey’s psychoanalytic argument sought to describe mid-twentieth-century cinema, projected at supersized and superhuman scale in a theater in which psychic processes became primary, not serial television on today’s distracting little tablets or mobile devices that shrink the images of Transparent to manageable memes. She advocated a counter-cinema that would attack the forms of pleasure on offer in bourgeois fantasies of control, not a commercial, industrial fantasy-delivery-platform that would appease feminists.
But the issue is not precisely whether Jill Soloway’s adoption of the “female gaze” satisfies the intent and political vision of Mulvey’s inspirational article, which is now (anniversary time!) forty years old. There is a different question, one which I’ll formulate this way: if Soloway carefully and deliberately constructs a way of looking at Maura that is expressive of Soloway’s own feminist queer politics (for now, call it trans-affirmative and genderqueer), why does that gaze not extend to the three other women in the Pfefferman clan? Or, a different way to ask this question: is Maura the only woman in the first season world of Transparent? Because, if not, there are other women whom Soloway would want to acknowledge as deserving of a feminist and/or queer gaze. How, then, does Soloway’s formal deployment of the camera help a viewer to understand her implicit theory of gender? Is gender, moreover, the category of social belonging most germane to Transparent?
For there is another Transparent in play here: a program that is arguably the most Jewish show that’s ever been on television, from the early days of The Goldbergs (CBS 1949–54; DuMont 1954–56) onward. If gender and Jewishness and queerness might in fact be related vectors of identity—and I would argue that the second season’s intriguing flashbacks to Weimar Germany (which begin in the second season’s first episode and form an important narrative supplement) insist that they are—are they similarly inherited, matrilineal, ethno-national, biogenetic? To put it more colloquially, if Transparent appeals because it tells a story about who its viewers, trans people, queer people, Jews really are—or can be—exactly what is the origin and trajectory of that distinctly televisual story?
Sounds Like Family
To set the scene: Transparent swirls around a Los Angeles Jewish family, the Pfeffermans, whose patriarch emeritus psychology professor, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), undertakes a transition from male to female, Mort to Maura, Poppa to “Moppa.” It is, crucially, a TV family: a big, white, unruly mob in a big, expensive house. While Maura’s emergence is one central narrative arc, the cringingly irritating and narcissistic antics of her adult children—Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Ali (Gaby Hoffman)—serve as reactive foils to Maura’s trans becoming, while ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) delightfully hums over the action as an exercise- and diet-obsessed chorus of one, a kvetch who lives in a seaside, light-filled condominium. The Transparent narrative is not, then, just or even mostly about transition and transgender. It’s about big themes like familial secrets and transformation, revelation and change, all of which are rendered through the specificity and magic of television images and sounds, which create imaginative worlds.
If the first season of that imaginative lifeworld stressed Maura’s transgender emergence through the manipulation of the gaze, the second season expands into queer territory in several ways. The family’s two daughters, Sarah and Ali, venture into new sexual experiments and gender stylizations, while son Josh’s relationship with the rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) yields plotlines that revolve around questions of parenting and paternity; questions that bleed into larger revelations about lineage, connection, and genealogy. In the first episode, Soloway only hints at this lineage through indistinct and narratively unanchored flashbacks to a bacchanalia in the early twentieth century. As the season unfolds, and as elements of the contemporary queer scene increasingly show up in the series’ dialogue and mise-en-scène, viewers learn that the flashbacks lead to Maura’s ancestors in Weimar Germany, Jewish and queer alike, who ultimately flee Nazi persecution and end up in Los Angeles.
These imaginative worlds of the series’ two seasons can be assessed in three parts. First, sticking close to the text itself, I want to privilege the particulars of this television family and its importantly reflexive location in Los Angeles, perched in the hills in its fabulous midcentury house. By focusing on sound rather than image, the emphasis on music can be seen to disclose the program’s specific dreams of religious/sexual/gendered continuity.
Because the series is based on Soloway’s own experience of her father’s transition and her own family (and is cowritten with her sister, Faith Soloway), the second section zooms outward to examine the pressures that so-called real life exerts on the increasingly queer rhythms and organization of Transparent, from Soloway’s widely reported new relationship with lesbian poet Eileen Myles, featured in the second season, to the series’ treatment of such lesbian touchstones as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or Michfest, to its inclusion of punk and TV icon Carrie Brownstein as Syd, Ali’s girlfriend, and so on. Addressing the trans-affirmative production culture of Transparent, I credit Soloway with creating an inclusive and mentoring space for trans and queer cultural workers that intervenes in the Hollywood power hierarchy in meaningful ways.
Allow me to introduce the world of the Pfeffermans with one salient detail: almost everyone in Transparent is white. For all of the series’ reliance upon the topography and specificity of its Los Angeles setting, the viewer could be watching something set in the suburbs of Scandinavia (which, on second thought, probably aren’t as white as this version of LA). Consider, by contrast, the Los Angeles bathed in natural light in Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), another film about trans life but rooted in a very different sense of location and setting. Whereas Transparent‘s characters drive SUVs, academic Volvos, and luxury Mercedes through the city to their various comfortable homes, Tangerine‘s Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) walk through Hollywood and along Santa Monica Boulevard, making public and commercial spaces into temporary homes or resting places filled with black, Asian, brown, and Armenian folks.4 Similarly, Rachel Bloom’s inventive musical series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW, 2015–), set in the Los Angeles exurb of West Covina in the San Gabriel Valley, populates its principal cast and large group of extras with the diverse faces found in that community: Filipino, Latino, African American, Indian American, mestizaje.
True, Jay Duplass, who plays Josh on Transparent, executive-produced Tangerine, so these are intimately overlapping worlds of media production and possibility. Still, the fact remains that the world crafted for the Pfeffermans is an expansive, expensive, white Los Angeles centered on the family home fictionally located in the Pacific Palisades. (The actual, palatial midcentury home is in Pasadena, and most of the interiors were shot on a reconstructed set on the Paramount lot.)5
This carefully constructed white world thus helps to anchor the Pfeffermans in an even littler world within it: that of affluent westside Los Angeles Jews, who seem naturally to take root in this habitat and to flourish in the entertainment industry and milieu of southern California.6 Yes, I am suggesting that whiteness is being naturalized by Jewish cultural identity. Yes, I do think that it becomes an alibi for evacuating Transparent‘s locale of black and brown and yellow people. Yes, it also and however becomes an ingenious way to focus on Hollywood and its culture industries, longtime bastions of Los Angeles Jews.
By positioning the character of Josh inside the music industry, Soloway renders Transparent remarkable in its reflexive attention to popular culture; I would argue further that its dual location, that is to say both on the web and in its Los Angeles setting, at least in part explains this interest. As Amazon TV’s most successful launch, Transparent streams its music instantaneously alongside its episodes, solidifying a new model of extending the monetizing content in the world of digital television. The inaugural season of music included songs and artists that helped locate the Pfeffermans historically in 1970s and 1980s Los Angeles (Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, the Yardbirds, Neil Young, and the divine Chaka Khan), but it also updates their boomer-fans’ playlists with garage rock from The Pack A.D. and such covers as the pilot episode’s “Operator” by the girl band Glitterish.
The ways in which “Operator” functions in the pilot establishes a guide to the role of music over the course of the first two seasons and an initial way to start to answer the question of how Soloway imagines identity. In introducing Jim Croce through a stack of record albums in the family house, a number of recurrent thematic and stylistic emphases emerge. First, Soloway creates an evocative historical landscape assembled through the set’s objects, telling and loaded (Jim Croce’s Photographs & Memories: His Greatest Hits album from 1974, Ms. Magazine, a Charleston Chew candy bar), rather than through period reconstruction.
The program’s soundscape is essential to this endeavor, as a timeless house, one that could signal the 1970s or 2016, welcomes the very LA sunlight filtered through sparkling trees that soft rock was engineered to evoke (think John Denver, think another Los Angeles band, Bread). In fact, one of the chronotopes—or structural tropes of temporal organization—favored by soft rock is the capture of time for the creation of a timeless perfection: another of Croce’s famous lines is, “If I could save time in a bottle.” Because the house signifies a familial past loaded with secrets as well as a future of ceaseless and surprising change—Maura’s transition, Sarah and Tammy’s ill-fated wedding, Josh and Raquel’s equally ill-fated partnership—it serves as an apt figure for television itself. Recursive and permeable, this house/TV is itself a motor for continuity across generations, a kind of mimesis machine that is self-generating.
Second, this captured time helps to link generations across shared identities and changing social relations, another of Soloway’s crucial undertakings in this series and one way that she helps establish the continuity of Jewish and queer belonging that the series asserts. The recording artist Jim Croce was, of course, a Philadelphia native, but more notably for Soloway he was Jewish (if only by conversion). Siblings Josh and Ali joke about Croce’s nose as if it were a signifier of his Jewishness in a layered and telling dialogue about the very California culture industries that give us the serial dramedy that is Transparent. “They would never let me sign a guy like this now,” says Josh of Jim Croce. “Look at that schnoz. You could not get that nose on TV today, not in a million years.” No matter that the schnoz isn’t actually a hereditary marker of Judaism: for the purposes of Transparent, it is enough to gesture to a line of genealogical descent and then just claim it. Soloway is a clever writer, aware of the reflexive capacities of the medium generated by Josh’s profession: in this exchange, she is able to question the limits of popular representation of Jewish Americans on television while at the same time allowing questions of representation to slide further into the series’ more celebrated achievement, the representation of trans and queer people, not just in Mort/Maura’s character but in many other roles, too. A brief moment of nostalgia for Jim Croce, in other words, sets up changing social horizons of belonging as central and, crucially, interconnected preoccupations.
Ali’s response to discovering the Croce album next to the original cast album of the Broadway musical Hair (from 1968) is not professional but affective: “I loved him so much,” she enthuses. “You married him,” replies Josh, reviving that childhood taunt, If you love him so much why don’t you marry him? But Ali did marry Jim Croce, in a ceremony she concocted when she was four years old, as she recalls in the subsequent dialogue. “I’ll never be happy again,” she says in mock-regret, and it is in this little bit of backstory that the viewer begins to glimpse Ali’s genderqueer possibilities, and her attachments in the successive episodes to a wide array of sexual objects and aims, culminating at the end of season two with her new sort-of-femme inclinations in her relationship with women’s studies professor Leslie. Music solicits affective responses. It is in the feeling for attachment that Soloway finds most fertile ground in Transparent, encapsulated in the stinging line, from “Operator” again: “that’s not the way it feels.”
As Josh and Ali begin to sing “Operator,” the song is, moreover, transformed from any memory of Croce’s voice into a dual-gendered duet that mingles family memories with future possibilities, many of which will turn out to be queer. Importantly, too, the song underscores the importance of place to this articulation of queer family: the final line of “Operator” that Josh and Ali sing, of course, is “living in LA. . . ” When the song is later performed by the girl band Glitterish, it has become further transformed into a vehicle for female harmony, even while the music industry features prominently in its mix and determines how that harmony will circulate. (Clementine Creevy, the guitarist and lead singer in Glitterish, has a band in real life, too, called Cherry Glazerr, with an album on Orange County’s Burger Records.)
In thinking about this performance of “Operator” as a music video, itself a parasitic form that can circulate and monetize alongside the series itself, it is clear that this brief clip performs and reinforces the three functions just briefly sketched. It links individual stories in order to provide glue for separate narrative arcs, it reflexively showcases the machinery of digital cultural industrial production (look at that studio, its software, its microphones, its mixing board), it delights in its Los Angeles location by enlarging the realm of queer-ish pleasure now to include the band and its harmonies. The “ish” is important. I think it’s worth borrowing the meme of “ish” from Glitterish because it is so right for Transparent: it enfolds all that is Jewish-ish and queer-ish and allows their qualities and characterizations to transform and transmute lovingly through the show’s thick and rich audiovisual landscape.
The music supervisor for Transparent, the guy responsible for this rich sonic landscape, is Jill Soloway’s husband, Bruce Gilbert. Or: maybe her ex-husband. In the media, Soloway is making much of her new relationship with Eileen Myles. But credit Gilbert with constructing character with extraordinary music choices throughout seasons one and two. Gilbert’s presence on the Transparent team underscores how the personnel really do orbit around Soloway. Many are drawn from the crew (such as Director of Photography Jim Frohna and acting coach Joan Scheckel) that helped her to realize her first feature film, Afternoon Delight (2013), a project that sounds many of the notes of privilege, self-absorption, creepy sexual frankness, and “white-people problems” that recur in Transparent.7 In short, Soloway makes auteur TV on the model of indie cinema.
Real life, or life seemingly offscreen, has always bled into American television, whether through location shooting or topical references or stars’ relationships or just the indexical details of sound and image. Like cinema, that is, television has always been a documentary of what it records, even in the most minimal sense. What’s new is that overtly queer people now make television, and they are seeking to blend details of their queer lifeworlds (which I, for one, cherished dearly and thought insistently countercultural) with the sounds and images of television and the cultural industries elaborated here. Understanding the nature of this blend helps to more accurately pinpoint the conceptions of religion, gender, and sexuality that Soloway brings to Transparent and wants to explore through its textures and detail.
The terms queer, genderqueer, and trans-affirmative carry high stakes in their differences and their affiliations. As I’ve suggested, there is more to Transparent than its trans narrative arc involving Maura’s “coming out” and complicated transition to womanhood. By the second season, at least two of the Pfefferman siblings have lesbian relationships (Sarah with Tammy and Ali with Syd), and Josh’s sexual history with his ex-babysitter Rita (Brett Paesel) is alternately understood as abuse or perversion. Ali’s fantastical experiments in a threesome with African American men (in season one’s “Rollin'”) and with a trans man played by Ian Harvie (in season one’s “Symbolic Exemplar”) demonstrate well the caricatures that emerge from a male gaze, or a gaze that is in cahoots with repressively normative and stereotypical understandings of difference. When African American characters do appear, that is, they receive little of the tenderness and respect Soloway devotes to Maura’s transformation; likewise, the character of Dale (Ian Harvie) serves mainly as an object of Ali’s erotic fantasy life, stereotyped and summarily abandoned after two episodes. While the latter plot drew criticism for the one-dimensional representation of this “man with a vag,” the former hardly provoked notice.8
An intimate moment between Maura (Tambor) and Vicki (Huston) reveals that Soloway’s conception of Maura’s sexuality is more ragged and vulnerable in Season Two. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios
Along with the series’ relentless whiteness, these examples demonstrate the difficulty of unequivocally celebrating the progressive nature of Transparent‘s politics, while they simultaneously show how dispersed and contradictory is the serial’s sense of queerness. I share the critical consensus that Soloway’s range of characters offers an extraordinary spectrum of gendered and sexual life. But it is clear that the ways in which Maura’s female sexuality is protected by Soloway’s female gaze in the first season yields to a much more ragged and vulnerable conception of her sexuality in particular in the second season: the hand job Maura gives Shelly in the bathtub, for instance, or the tender spooning between Maura and Vicki (Angelica Huston).
Lesbianism is rendered as fraught across a range of characters and situations, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, and no longer enjoys the aesthetic care Soloway devotes to Maura in the first season. In addition to Ali’s exploits (in the real sense of that term), the dynamics between Tammy (Melora Hardin) and Sarah and between Leslie and Ali reveal complexities of power and pleasure that are nowhere as protected and deliberate as Soloway’s gaze at Moppa. Transgender, moreover, isn’t restricted to Maura, especially in her developing friendship with Davina (Alexandra Billings), and by season two, Maura becomes as fragile and susceptible to complexity or fallibility as any other character.
In fact, that fragility is evident in the first shot of “Kina Hora,” season two’s first episode. With a stationary camera centered on its tripod on a groomed lawn overlooking the Los Angeles hills, the audience sees the Pfeffermans and Tammy Cashman dressed in white and posing for photographs at Sarah and Tammy’s wedding. The viewer’s gaze is soon aligned with the diegetic camera when a wedding photographer walks into the shot and takes up the same view, as the family yaps and yells and rearranges and fusses until the photographer, Reggie (Rich Hutchman), finally starts taking photographs. As though underscoring this moment’s potential for representational violence, Soloway foregrounds dialogue between Maura and Reggie, in which Maura finally is able to ask whether her chin should be up or down (head held high or bowed down) in the photograph. Reggie answers, “I think chin up for you, sir.”
From this misrecognition of Maura’s gender and pronoun in the second season’s very first shot onward, Maura’s deep well of privilege starts to run dry. In subsequent episodes, viewers watch her previously protected character become pockmarked both by the harm she has done to others and by her own complex vulnerability. The scene of Maura’s judgment of Davina’s boyfriend Sal (Ray Abruzzo) and Davina’s calling her out on her attitude in “The Book of Life” is particularly affecting. In chilling succession, Maura is critical of Sal, telling Davina in a scene on the steps outside of their shared home that she “could do better than that.” Davina, in turn, cuts directly to Maura’s privilege. “Who do you think you’re talking to? . . . We don’t all have your family, we don’t all have your money. I’m a 53-year-old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick, and I know what I want and I know what I need.” It’s Davina whom viewers cheer on in this scene, Davina who exposes the degree to which Maura is as self-absorbed and insulated as the Pfefferman siblings. The apple isn’t far from the tree after all.
In a minor narrative arc in the second season, viewers also register Mort’s past sexist mistreatment of his academic nemesis, now a faculty member at UCLA, through the character of Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), introduced in “New World Coming.” Recalling that Mort had worked previously at Berkeley, viewers discover with just what extremes of misogyny Mort had treated his female colleagues, when one of them confronts him about having blocked her application to serve on the editorial board of a publication he edited. For ten years, she explains, women applied to serve on the board, and for ten years Mort rejected them, except “for one woman who had these huge tits that you couldn’t keep your eyes off of, if I remember correctly.” When Maura explains that she recalls little of what transpired during those years, Leslie asks, in a line overflowing with feminist venom, “why would you remember it?” Gender haunts Maura in ways that prevent easy or predictable affiliations, and she is revealed to be a Pfefferman like the others: fallible, stupid, disarming, stumbling.
As Maura moves into the world and feels its shocks, other characters similarly invite aspects of the real world into their lives. Most interesting, for my purposes, are the series’ flashbacks to Weimar Germany and the Pfefferman family’s genealogy and its invocation of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival with its attendant debates about trans inclusion. These are separate narrative arcs but become stitched together in ambient connectedness, yielding a feeling for history that coincides with a feeling for present politics that basically is Soloway’s acute sense of queer politics.
Berlin in 1933, as glimpsed through Soloway’s direction, is an assemblage of images and sounds, just as the Pfeffermans are a TV family and not a “real” one, despite the degree to which reality and TV bleed into one another. Collating different visual and historical traditions, Soloway generates a sense of Weimar Germany through performance traditions (amateur theatricals, revues), icons (Marlene Dietrich), loaded objects (cut crystal, pearls, tinted eyeglasses), camera movement and editing (combining a frenetic participatory and celebratory camera with realist cues), sexual frankness and nudity (same-sex affections, exaggerated display), and a number of other visual and aural ingredients. Emphasizing this visual and aural thickness and arbitrariness, she subordinates narrative cohesion and realism even as she evokes it: the flashbacks are there in order to provide a transgender backstory to Maura through the character of Gittel (Hari Nef), née Gershon, who is the sibling to Rosa/Rose (Emily Robinson), who will turn out, spoiler alert, to be Mort/Maura’s mother.
Even stylistically, the flashbacks don’t obey any single logic that would distinguish between realism and fantasy: the character of Yetta (Michaela Watkins), the mother of Gittel/Gershon and Rose, weirdly speaks a kind of colloquial and domestic New York Jewish, calling Gittel a “fagelah” for example, while the visuals outside of the family home emphasize a kind of decadence and excess that is alluring and exotic. Within this stew of Jewish/trans/queer history, Soloway locates the visual and familial roots of the Pfeffermans, vaguely implying that Gittel’s trans blood seeps down to Maura, vaguely suggesting that these Berlin Jews supply some religious and cultural foundations for their twenty-first-century ancestors.
On the other end of the series’ timeline, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival provides an opportunity for Soloway to elaborate gendered and queer continuity across generations and simultaneously to derive a political position appropriate to Transparent‘s hope for the future and for future seasons. The Michigan festival, or Michfest, celebrates the same birthday as Laura Mulvey’s essay on the gaze: they are both forty years old. No coincidence, both were born of the desire to affirm feminist culture and to forge alternative artistic spaces and practices. For its forty-year history, Michfest gathered musicians, poets, artists, healers, sexperts, activists, and wise womyn from all corners of the lesbian/feminist community, seeking to enable the marginal economies and aspirations of lesbian separatism. It was not without controversy in its embrace of sexual variety, including S/M and other sexual practices. It has always been a space that is lesbian-centered. While Mulvey’s essay focused on the restrictive grammar of normative Hollywood cinema and called for a feminist counter-cinema, Michfest explicitly offered the lesbian-feminist anti-normative option in many guises, trying in various ways throughout its history to generate anti-racist, lesbian-affirmative, sex-positive, collective and democratic temporary practices and cultures for the thousands of women who gathered annually on “the Land.”
Because Michfest was born with lesbian separatism, and because the politics of lesbian culture have hinged importantly on definitions of womanhood, the festival became a particular flashpoint in the 1980s and 1990s in lesbian/feminist/queer culture for debates about trans inclusion. Who is a womyn? What comes of the insistence that Michfest participants be womyn-born womyn? Since I find most of the rhetoric around trans-exclusionary feminism (the so-called TERFs—trans-exclusionary radical feminists) to be inflammatory and unhelpful, I want instead to zoom in first on Michfest, as it becomes the site and fulcrum for Transparent‘s own articulation of its trans affirmation.9 Not surprisingly, it’s once again about music (OK, and about poetry and S/M, too).
Soloway’s feeling for history coincides with a feeling for present politics in Season Two’s juxtaposition of members of the Pfefferman clan in Berlin 1933 (top) and contemporary California (bottom). Photos courtesy of Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios
Maura’s first encounter with the Indigo Girls with her daughters on the road to Idlewild. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
At the center of the second season’s final episode, “Man on the Land,” are the Indigo Girls, that Georgia-based band that provided the soundtrack for much of white lesbian life from the late 1980s through the 1990s (their inaugural album, Strange Fire, was released in 1987, while their Retrospective album was issued in 2000). On their way to the festival, the Pfefferman women (Maura, Sarah, Ali) belt out the Indigo Girls anthem “Closer to Fine,” the opening track from their self-titled 1999 album, singing their solidarity and proclaiming the continuities between the womyn-born sisters and their “Moppa,” whose “womynhood” is thus cemented in advance of its contestation at Idlewild, the name given to the TV-fictional festival. Partially a reprise of the Jewish continuity won earlier by the invocation of Jim Croce, this is a slightly different version of the trans-Jewish continuity posited by the Weimar genealogy told in flashbacks throughout the second season. In their real-life statement about Michfest in 2013, the Indigo Girls signaled it would be their last performance at the festival unless the organizers were to change their intentions toward trans women and revise their policy toward trans inclusion. Then, they simply declared:
We are in a time of struggle and rapid changes in our movement and we would be remiss to not recognize that many of the strides that have been made are a result of Trans Activism and the strength and perspective they have brought to the queer and feminist revolutions. We feel that if someone identifies as a womyn, they are a womyn and should be welcomed into our community with open arms. We will only be stronger for it.10
Through the borrowed logic of the Indigo Girls, which serves as a sort of policy statement for the Transparent episode: if Maura identifies as a womyn, she is one. And, by the end of the second season, she is also a sexually complicated one who begins a relationship with another womyn (Angelica Huston’s character, Vicki), which is to say that, like her daughters Sarah and Ali, she is sorta kinda a lesbian. Or whatever: she is open to queerness and affiliation and sexual possibilities, a buffet of which is on offer at Idlewild, including an S/M dominatrix spanking (modeled by Jill Soloway herself), butch stylizations (modeled by Eileen Myles herself in cameo), and spooning.
In the motel scene mentioned earlier, in which viewers get a particularly tender glimpse of Maura, she lies spooning with Vicki, who has had a double mastectomy, baring her flat chest to Maura. There is much more to say about the relationship between top surgery elected by trans men and mastectomy for breast cancer. (Having just undergone the latter, I will simply note here that it, too, results in gender trouble, whether to do with the way that shirts now fit and look to others or with other gender transformations that a flat chest enables or spurs.) In any case, Vicki’s openness and honesty understandably prevail against the narrower views of trans-exclusionary feminism, since they are given the fullness of a character and backstory rather than soundbites. The episode signals that Maura’s new life is unfolding, at a threshold.
The second season closes on a more literal view of possibility, with Maura gazing at the sea with her mother Rose, whose own backstory has been gleaned from the Berlin flashbacks. I say “gleaned” because, as I have noted, there is less solid narrative than impressionistic bacchanalia on offer through the 1933 material, which begins in the first episode but doesn’t really receive any exposition until several episodes later. Through the character of Gittel, Soloway incorporates into the production another trans actor (or, rather, a model who is still learning how to act) and, simultaneously, lacquers another layer onto her series’ sense of genderqueer and Jewish continuity.
To elaborate a bit further on these flashbacks, there is nothing random about this visit to 1933: it’s a visit to Magnus Hirschfeld (Bradley Whitford, who also plays Mark/Marcy) himself and his Institute for Sexual Research, a fulcrum for the Berlin queer and left intellectual community until it was raided by the Nazis in 1933. Soloway touches key bases of queer history here: Hirschfeld wrote and acted in one of the first queer films, Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, Richard Oswald, 1919) and treated early transgender patients at the institute. Claiming Hirschfeld’s milieu as the antecedent to the Pfeffermans’ twenty-first century queerness, Soloway is able to inflect their genealogy with everything from decadent style (in the climate of Weimar permissiveness) to serious Jewish intellectualism (Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, for instance, lived in the institute’s quarters) to queer literariness (the institute’s salons attracted leading literary figures, including W.H. Auden and André Gide). Who wouldn’t claim these as ancestors? Glowing with the light of resistance to Nazism, they enfold queerness and Jewishness into a heroic and defiant story that is claimed to infuse Maura’s rebirth as a woman at age 70. Just as Maura’s mother Rose gives birth to a boy, so do television and this fantasy of history give birth to Maura, whose future is as transcendent as the sea before her eyes.
By implication, the junior Pfefferman siblings must also benefit from this surplus of genealogical significations, but it’s harder to tell how. Their narcissism tends to overwhelm or at least to be in tension with the dignity of this inheritance, distributed roughly as follows: Ali gets literariness (as she begins a poetry MFA), Sarah gets religion (as she pursues her Jewishness), and Josh gets culture, glitz, and a career (Jewish success).
This loose sense of what trickles down and through cultural history, differentially to Maura and her children, ultimately provides the answer to the question with which I began: what is Jill Soloway’s conception of gender, queerness, Jewishness, in short, the prism of identity? A TV question deserves a TV answer: identity is that which TV can endlessly and interestingly refract, through image and sound, layer and resonance, without finally having to hew too closely to anything like reality or history. Television just makes change, some of which can be politically very exciting and some of which can be as banal and ordinary as the little world the Pfeffermans mostly inhabit. The question now is whether this is something like what Fredric Jameson importantly called postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capitalism whereby art cannily processes the cannibalism of economic processes, or whether this change-motor, this house/TV, belongs to a new order that correlates with the new platform that is digital television. To address this question, it’s necessary to move beyond the confines of representation.
Transparent‘s politics extend beyond the realm of representation into the complicated world of television production, as Soloway and her production team have hired trans and queer advisors, writers, directors, actors, and crew members. Artist Zachary Drucker and filmmaker Rhys Ernst served as early consultants on trans content and politics, as did author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan (who describes her role as consigliere). While the show was initially the target of some criticism for its casting of Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender man, in the main role of Maura, even the most vocal critics acknowledge Soloway’s efforts to incorporate trans and queer voices into the show’s DNA, in every department, from lighting to costume design.11
For her hiring efforts Soloway deserves not only praise but extended genuflections, since the norm in Hollywood production of both film and television remains resolutely “straight white older dude.” Audiences in 2016 discovered that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) comprised voters for the Academy Awards who were 94% white, 76% men, and an average of 63 years old.12 What an astonishing thing, then, to see trans and queer actors on screen, from Ian Harvie to Our Lady J to Trace Lysette to Alexandra Billings to young Hari Nef to Cherry Jones to Tig Notaro to . . . What an astonishing thing, too, to know that the production team sought out trans PAs (production assistants) and crew members, although the union politics and temporary labors associated with Los Angeles–based productions prove difficult to surmount.13 From the writer’s room to gender-neutral bathrooms, Soloway has created a production that values trans and queer lives and stories.
Director Silas Howard is but one example: formerly a member of the punk lesbian band Tribe 8, Howard transitioned and went to film school after directing and starring in a “home-schooled” first feature film, By Hook or by Crook (2001), with trans artist Harry Dodge.14 Brought on to direct the second season’s fifth episode, “Mee Maw,” Howard is the first trans director on the series and adds his own humor and craft to the tone that has been set largely, and unusually, by the show’s women directors (Soloway and Nisha Ganatra in the first season, and Andrea Arnold, Stacie Passon, and Marielle Heller in the second). He is slated to continue on staff for Transparent‘s third season.
Keeping It Real
It is impossible to conclude a reflection on an artwork that is alive and growing: such is the nature of television criticism. But I can offer some further elaboration on the question of what to make of Transparent as a work of social justice, because I do, in fact, think it is one rather than simply a postmodern symptom. Despite my observations about its relentless whiteness, despite my observations about the liberties it takes with the historical record, despite my own cringy reactions to Jill Soloway’s memoir and bio-details, Transparent gives voice to marginalized people, battles stereotypes, and diversifies production. It presents the kind of innovative visual storytelling that social justice advocates usually look for in documentary feature production. It explores present-day social issues and hot-button cultural flashpoints using the best tools and talents in the industry.
That it does so on Amazon Prime is not incidental. New distribution platforms, hungry for content (and for the kind of exclusive deal to which Soloway committed on renewing Transparent for a third season), make possible innovations in storytelling that were out-and-out failures in the model of broadcast television.15 Raised on a diet of that “Culture Industry,” top-down, lowest-common-denominator programming throughout the second part of the twentieth century, I still can’t quite believe that a show like Transparent exists, much less succeeds as the critical and artistic force it has become.
New questions arise, though, ones that critics who write on queer TV have not yet sufficiently grappled with: how does a platform such as Amazon Prime monetize audience attention and with what consequences? How do the new temporalities of episode and season (with the former running variably slightly longer and the latter released all on a single day) structure the consumption of what is now thought of as TV? What formal innovations can the small screen accommodate, with what effects? I have argued that Transparent collates these questions in a particular way with its own ambitions and surely with its own limitations. Its impact is undeniable, though, and its pleasures multiple. Stay tuned for the next season.
And while the credits roll, I am left with a sense of the baffling platform called television that is as diffuse and contradictory as Soloway’s TV family. Of one thing I feel increasingly certain: because we (viewers, watchers of “TV”) share so little, the role of argument and criticism increases. I want you to watch Transparent and talk with me about its politics, its style, its impact. I think it’s a vital contributor to the feelings and understandings of trans and queer lives of this early twenty-first century. Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, similarly wants you to watch Transparent and calls it a “stealth masterpiece,” exemplifying a kind of revolutionary art.16
If I have argued that Soloway makes TV on the model of indie cinema, the critical community that surrounded indie cinema, particularly the new queer cinema, might provide one model for the aesthetic engagement I think this TV demands and invites, even if TV was mostly neglected, if not shunned, by prominent critics of visual culture in the past two or three decades. If Transparent is the storytelling of this age, let’s see what its future becomes, in a critical conversation that acknowledges its prominence, impact, and possibility.
This essay marks the first appearance of the term “cisgender” in FQ.
Coined in 1999 to signify the opposite of transgender, the term refers to a person “whose sense of personal identity matches their gender at birth.” The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. See Mitch Kellaway, “Cisgender Added to Oxford English Dictionary,” The Advocate, June 25, 2015.
1. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
2. Ariel Levy, “Dolls and Feelings: Jill Soloway’s Post-patriarchal Television,” New Yorker, December 14, 2015, 40–45.
3. Jill Soloway, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants: Based on a True Story (New York: Free Press, 2005), 13.
4. Glendale, near downtown Los Angeles, has the highest concentration of Armenians in the United States and the highest concentration outside of Armenia.
6. I use the word “littler” rather than “smaller” in implicit homage to Kathleen Stewart’s writings on “little worlds,” those elements of the ordinary delivered to us on platforms like TV. “Things flash up—little worlds, bad impulses, events alive with some kind of charge.” Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 68.
7. Melena Ryzick, “A Female Gaze on Ladies Who Lust: ‘Afternoon Delight’ Is Jill Soloway’s Sexually Frank Debut,” New York Times, August 22, 2013. www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/movies/afternoon-delight-is-jill-soloways-sexually-frank-debut.html?_r=0.
9. For a vitriolic characterization of the TERF position, see the website http://theterfs.com/. The TERF position is largely associated with the writings of Sheila Jeffreys, author of Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (New York and London: Routledge, 2014).
10. From the Indigo Girls’ own website “news” section: www.indigogirls.com/news_2013.html.
11. See Jennifer Finney Boylan, “Transgender, Schlumpy, and Human,” New York Times, February 16, 2014. www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/opinion/sunday/boylan-transgender-schlumpy-and-human.html?_r=0.
13. Jen Richards, “Behind the Scenes with the Trans Advisors of Amazon’s Transparent,” The Kernel. http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-sections/13433/transparent-amazon-trans-advisors/.
14. Melissa Locker, “Transparent‘s First Trans Director on Telling His Story through Maura Pfefferman,” Vanity Fair, December 8, 2015. www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/12/silas-howard-transparent-director.
15. Todd Spangler, “Amazon Renews ‘Transparent’ for Season 3,” Variety, June 25, 2015. http://variety.com/2015/digital/news/transparent-season-3-amazon-1201528051/.
16. Emily Nussbaum, “Inside Out.” www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/01/04/inside-out-on-television-emily-nussbaum.