I was 12 when I first saw a trans character on TV. It was 1983, and the medical drama St. Elsewhere was in its first season. The grouchy but secretly good-hearted Dr. Mark Craig discovered, to his shock and dismay, that his affable college roommate had been admitted to the hospital for (as it was then called) a sex-change operation. I already knew I hated being a boy, but I believed I had no choice. I still thought this way after seeing the well-meaning episode, in which transition meant genital surgery, being trans meant losing your oldest friends, and transsexuality (as it was then called) required you to reject your former life.
Transparent, which ran from 2014 to 2017, tried hard to do better. Based on showrunner Jill Soloway’s own experience as the daughter of a trans woman, and starring the cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor, the series seems to have been the first TV drama with a trans character at its center. When it began, it was widely celebrated for its realistic, sometimes painful portrayal of the Pfefferman family’s former patriarch Maura, along with her disconsolate adult children, Sarah, Josh, and Ali. While Transparent was critiqued for the casting of Tambor as Maura, critics continued to praise, dissect, and cover the show right up until multiple actors accused Tambor of egregious sexual advances in 2017.
In the years since the show premiered, we have seen a TIME magazine cover declaring the “transgender tipping point”; Orange Is the New Black and the apotheosis of Laverne Cox; pop stars coming out as genderqueer (Sam Smith) and rock stars transitioning (Laura Jane Grace); the rise of trans books by trans authors for trans readers (especially in poetry and young adult fiction, notably Rachel Gold, April Daniels, and Cameron Awkward-Rich). Multiple trans people serve as elected and appointed government officials (Virginia’s Danica Roem). Trans supporting characters appear in mainstream comic books and show up regularly on TV, sometimes even in roles that aren’t entirely about their trans identities. The current White House is hardly on our side, and has been rolling back recent protections, moving law and policy backward even as culture (especially youth culture) moves forward. The struggle for recognition, for economic security, and for mere personal safety, is hardly over — too many of us live in poverty, and in fear of anti-trans violence. But it’s hard not to feel that, for trans people in the U.S., 2019 beats 2014.
So how does Transparent’s progressive vision look, five years on? What can Maura tell us, or show us, today?
First, this kind of representation matters. Transparent taught many cisgender people what transgender meant, and taught some closeted trans viewers, too. It taught them there’s such a thing as trans culture, that trans people need one another and a wider queer community, like the one Maura seeks at an LGBTQ community center in season one. It taught them that there’s no one way to be trans, and that cis people can date, and sleep with, trans women without making us into interchangeable fetishes. (Maura has what seems like delightful sexual play with a cis woman, and then with a cis man.)
And yet the trans lives in Transparent — most of all Maura’s — do not feel modern any more: Like maples that create the shade in which oak trees grow, the show has helped to make itself seem obsolete in this regard. In some ways, things have changed so much since 2014 that trans stories set even five years ago now read like historical fiction, or else like cringe comedy, a la Arrested Development. If you’ve been through a modern U.S. airport while trans, you probably know that revolving-door chemical scanners will single you out for scrutiny, because they flag all atypically contoured bodies. But in season four, Maura, pulled aside for a “groin anomaly,” doesn’t expect it: She shouts, “I have a penis!” and TSA agents at LAX loudly debate what to do, while her all-too-woke daughter records the fracas on her phone. (Today’s TSA agents usually apologize to me for their trans-exclusionary gadgets, though I may just be lucky that way. Sometimes they send me through X-ray machines instead.)
In another sign of how quickly the culture has changed, the show took three and a half seasons to present a nonbinary character (Ali, who now goes by Ari, played by the very expressive Gaby Hoffman). An episode set at a very thinly disguised version of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival feels both dated and contrived, not least because the real-life festival shut down in 2015 after decades of controversy over its no-trans-women policies: It’s simply not credible that any character could attend in 2014, as Maura and Ali both do, without knowing about the trans ban. The parts of the show that travel further back in history, though, work as intended: Younger trans people might be shocked, as well as amused, by Maura’s season-one visit to Camp Camellia, a 1990s-vintage place for straight, often married, men who insisted they were “transvestites, not transsexuals!” (in one character’s words) while creating space to feel feminine and fulfilled.
Thanks to Tambor’s constant frown, and to Maura’s frequent pettiness, Transparent also often taught its viewers that being trans meant constant discontent, that gender transition meant an always-delayed search for satisfaction that doesn’t exist. That’s an unfortunate choice, because it reinforces existing stereotypes about real-life trans people: We’re always sad about who we are and we use gender as an excuse. “Why am I so unhappy?” Maura exclaims, while working (with apparently minimal training) at a suicide hotline in the season-three premiere. One unfortunate episode implies — apparently because Maura believes — that satisfactory “medical” transition requires surgeries. (The phrase “medical transition” usually means hormones.)
It also made us look like we had to reorient the world around our needs, rather than work to adjust it so it won’t exclude us. “I didn’t want to be trans — I am trans!” Maura exclaims in season three, to which her girlfriend Vicki (played by a vivacious Anjelica Huston) reacts: “Why does it always have to be about Maura?” Maura had viewers feeling sorry for her, and then on her side, and then upset at her obnoxious moments, sometimes within a single scene, in the tradition of deliberately unlikable protagonists (like Larry David, or King Lear) accustomed to power they should not have had.
Those moments could make the show strong, dividing audience sympathies between Maura and any or all of her kids. But they also turned some of us away from the show, on the grounds that trans representation ought to show us in a better light. Was Maura a frequently self-absorbed jerk who happened to be a trans woman? Did being trans make her self-absorbed? Did being closeted for so long make her self-absorbed? Are all trans ladies so troubled, so headstrong? Fans of Transparent could counter that we need to be seen as something other than blameless victims or flawless heroes: We need to see how flawed people can still be loved. (Maura’s new trans friend, early in season one, warns that her whole family will abandon her: That prediction, at least, does not come true.)
Parts of Transparent did hit hard. Maura’s birthday dinner in season three shows how transition can, and how it cannot, let you reject unwanted aspects of your personality and your past. She offers a jubilant toast “to chosen family,” at which point her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light), snaps, “I guess that would make us the not-chosen family.” Maura feels like a new woman, but she’s also the same person who once married Shelly. The sex scenes hold up well, too, if you can ignore Tambor’s real-life behavior (and not all the sex scenes involve Maura). TV could use more hotness involving older bodies, and non-cis bodies, and Vicki’s first encounter with Maura is both: One even tells the other, after a short talk about what they want to do, “you have hot boundaries.”
Looking back on the show’s trans legacy, what’s clearest is how hard it had to work to navigate the patriarchy to tell its story. A culture that considers cisgender, heterosexual, rich white male lives normal and best doesn’t just hurt women, or gay people, or trans people; it hurts everyone, sometimes in hard-to-see ways. Socialized to expect other people’s attention, and even their obedience, Maura cannot escape those expectations now that she wants to be the best woman she can be. Her son Josh discovers his now-teenage biological child and tries awkwardly, and far too hard, to be a dad. All of the Pferffermans — and their spouses and exes — have trouble figuring out what they want, what they ought to do, how to meet their own needs: They’re vulnerable to slogans, and to charismatic, ungenerous figures like the poet-professor Leslie Mackinaw and the pathological liar and sponger Buzzy.
“Topple the patriarchy!” Jill Soloway shouted, when accepting their Emmy award (for the Womyn’s Music Festival episode). Soloway has since come out as nonbinary: Maura, and Tambor, have been toppled too, killed off in the show’s late-September musical finale. The patriarchy, alas, survives. And the series did some irreplaceable good: It showed cisgender straight viewers how much they did not (or did not yet) know, partly by showing Maura as she herself learned. No single show — and no single trans person, binary or not, fictional or real — should have to serve as the only lesson: If Transparent failed on that account, it’s partly because no one program could succeed.
Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. Her new book is Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.
More on Transparent
- Transparent Goes Out With One Last Crazy Dance
- The Transparent Finale Is an Expression of Everything the Show Was About
- In Praise of Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman, the Underappreciated Jewish Mother