Soloway, Jill (Creator and Director). (2014). Transparent [Television series]. Los Angeles: Amazon Studios.
Transparent debuted on September 26, 2014 on Amazon Prime and I quickly marathoned the 10 episodes. The show follows Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who is coming out as a transgender woman late in life. Her adult children, played by Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffmann, are selfish, unhappy, and caught up in problems of their own making. Her disclosure is received with surprise and uneasiness, as one expects. But the family sort of lurches together toward acceptance.
Common obstacles experienced by transgender women are sensitively portrayed; Maura is yelled at in the women’s restroom, whispered about obviously in public, and laughed at by a former colleague to her face. But these scenes are not played for laughs. It is clear from the framing and Maura’s dignified responses that these situations are painful and oppressive.
As I watched, I found very little to like about most of the supporting characters. The children, their lovers and friends, and Maura’s ex-wife are all incredibly self-absorbed. Each child is grappling with a cluster of issues: infidelity, love addiction, struggling to define their identity. Some of their pain, as revealed through a series of flashbacks, is due to parental neglect and childhood and adolescent trauma. But at this point, they are adults, and frankly, I found their problems boring, particularly since they are all breathtakingly privileged. Maura is selfish, too, but she is dealing with societal oppression and the challenges of gender transition.
Despite how unpleasant I found most of the characters, they were compelling. Transparent isn’t just the story of Maura’s transition; it’s a complex narrative of a family—a toxic, codependent, yet fiercely loving family—muddling along together through a confusing new experience. I especially appreciated the flashbacks, as they showed Maura’s nascent gender dysphoria and exploration of femininity.
Many trans viewers were upset by director Jill Soloway’s decision to cast a cisgender man in the role of a transgender woman (see this article by Andrea James and this one by Leela Ginelle highlighting some of the arguments and contextual quotes). Soloway was very conscientious, however, about hiring a great many transgender cast and crew members, as well as two transgender consultants. In addition, she did her research and read books written by trans people. I personally felt that the acting was very good and I’ll be looking forward to season two.
Big old caution sign for nudity; this show is definitely not safe for work. In fact sometimes I wondered if I was actually watching soft-core pornography. Curiously, only cisgender women’s bodies were on display.