TRANSPARENT (Amazon Prime 2014)

When I first heard about the television series “Transparent” through a friend, I was initially a little nonplussed by the title, but since I have learned to trust my friend’s impeccable taste in all things concerning American television, I thought I should give it a go. It soon turned out that it was a series about a retired college professor and the relationship with his children once he begins to transition and that the title of the series should actually be read “Trans Parent”. The story revolves around five main characters: Maura Pfefferman (born Morton L. Pfefferman), a retired college professor of political science who finally opens up to her family about always identifying as a woman; Sarah Pfefferman, the oldest sibling, who is cheating on her husband and discovering her bisexuality by developing a secret relationship with Tammy Cashman; Josh Pfefferman, the middle sibling who is a successful music producer who has troubled relationships with women; Ali Pfefferman, the youngest sibling, who is jobless; and Shelly Pfefferman, Maura’s ex-wife and the mother of Sarah, Josh and Ali. The viewer is taken through 10 episodes with this wonderfully dysfunctional family who have real trouble communicating, with the focus being on Maura’s process of transitioning and all that that entails for her and the rest of her family. I worked hard to actually like any one character totally, in the way that we have come to expect to identity and sympathize, even empathize, with fictional characters on television these days – this perhaps gives the series somewhat of an “edgy feel” but was able to draw a few insights and indulge in the occasional chuckle over the dilemmas this family finds itself in.

As one of a growing number of television programmes and films which portray transgender characters fictionally, I felt I was watching something new – without it being novel or sensationalized – and which allowed me to engage a little with the process of transitioning the main character is going through. Yes, it was an educational experience to watch it, but more than it, it got me to reflect on my own attitudes and opinions toward transgender people in general which apparently was one of the aims of the producer, Jilly Soloway, who is reported as saying, “The socialist in me welcomes the kind of democratization these platforms are bringing to our creative community and the viewing public. I feel like I’m part of this creative revolution, like an Arab Spring …”1 When Ali, the youngest of the siblings, begins a relationship with Dale, a trans man, I felt I was exploring this new territory along with her, since my own experiences as a gay man have been very specific (haven’t they been for all of us?), but as the actress who plays Ali, Gaby Hoffman, points out, our own sense of being “other”, in whichever ways we experience that, can allow us to tap into the commonality of human experience,

“If you grew up the way we did in the eighties in New York and you weren’t trans, bi, queer, drug addict, or an artist, you were the freak.”2

The Jewish setting allowed me to relate to the series in another way. This liberal Jewish family, with loose connections to the local Reform temple, call upon the services of the Rabbi when Shelley’s second husband, Ed Paskowitz, becomes a concern as his dementia increasingly takes hold, and Rabbi Raquel becomes embroiled in the family’s dynamics. Shelley acts as shadchan between Rabbi Raquel and her unhappy son, Josh, who embarks on a troubled relationship with the Rabbi. In the shiva episode, titled “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?” Soloway gets to do all her jokes about Jews and food. During the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one character whispers to her daughter, “Did you order the coleslaw — both kinds?”

Moreover, the series was constructed around the principle of a “transfirmative action program,” “favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones” 3 with the result that “20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.”4 She also hired “two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.”5

I’d seen programmes and films which feature transgender people before (Transamerica, Orange is The New Black, for example) and this was the first example I’ve seen of trans people in a Jewish setting. If the intention was to highlight issues of transitioning among people who have no direct experience of it, then the producer has succeeded in her mission. It remains to be seen, however, whether the portrayal is seen as accurate by trans people themselves. The focus of the series is definitely on the issue of transgender, but can also speak to others, since, as Soloway points out: “My work privileges the Other, with a capital ‘O,’ meaning all kinds of other — Jewish, trans, gay, unattractive, weird, freaky, outsider, different, f—-d up”.6

By Michael Hornsby