The lives and experiences of trans* people are rapidly becoming more commonplace in conversations in mainstream media. I Am Cait, Orange is the New Black, and Katie Couric’s interview of Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera on Good Morning America (however problematic) are evidence that television is becoming more representative of cultural diversity in terms of race, sexuality and, more recently, gender. Jill Soloway’s critically acclaimed Amazon original series, Transparent, has gained traction and interest beyond the trans* community for its raw, honest portrayal of the confusion experienced by a family accepting that its patriarch has come out as transgender. The Pfefferman family does not take the announcement in stride, but battles grief and denial with regards to the loss of its father figure in order to make way for another mother. The show broaches the question of whether a series so uniquely diverse in its field ought to assume an educator’s role for its viewers. The show-runners faced the dilemma of whether or not to accept the didactic responsibility of representing the underrepresented. Does a series about topics newly introduced to public conversation have the luxury of serving their audiences’ basic need for entertainment? As evidenced by the second episode of season two, Transparent says yes. The series serves to entertain its audience with education, but is not a visual textbook. Ultimately, Transparent is not didactic and maintains the right to ambiguity.
Discussions of identifying beyond the traditional gender binary necessitate the destruction of the perceived notion of “realness” or legitimacy associated with being a man or a woman. Thus, the International Bill of Gender Rights as adopted in 1995 asserted each individual’s right to define or change his or her own gender. According to Riki Wilchins in Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, there is a “fascism of meaning” behind the association with certain physical or personality traits with femininity or masculinity; it is “an assault of meaning that forces people to live as gendered impossibilities” (38). Maura Pfefferman, known affectionately as “Moppa” (an amalgamation of “mom” and “poppa”) by her children, is depicted in the arc of each episode of Transparent as attempting to liberate herself from those “gendered impossibilities.” By the second season, she has succeeded, to a vast degree, by identifying as a woman to her family and to strangers. She proudly presents and lives as female.
In episode 202, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” Maura is forced to confront the emotional implications her ability to fulfill her sense of self has on her interpersonal relationships while engaging in digital penetration with her friend and ex-wife, Shelly. The scene is set in the bathroom of Shelly’s retirement condo, where the two once again live together. Shelly relaxes in the bathtub while Maura scrutinizes her image in the mirror, wearing a black bathing suit with synthetic breasts. Their conversation derails from Maura’s body image to a reflection on their previous life as husband and wife. While Shelly is enthusiastic to reflect on their sexual experiences together, Maura resists. Her expression shifts from the frown of a perfectionist, searching for physical flaws to one marred by pain and resentment. Even as she engages Shelly, Maura is emotionally disengaged from the experience. She glowers down at Shelly, ignorant to this in her ecstasy. While Maura can dress, walk, dine, and sleep as a woman, Shelly displays one pleasure Maura cannot know. Shelly, as per usual, is oblivious to her ignorance of Maura’s emotional needs. Afterward, Maura shakes off her feelings by wrapping herself in a kimono, checking her hair and replying to Shelly’s offers of reciprocation with a curt, “I’m good.” The sumptuous nature of the kimono’s material, for Maura, must patch the divide between giving and receiving pleasure and emotional fulfillment.
Despite the groundbreaking nature of a sex scene between two older women, one of whom has a penis, the continuously muddied waters of the relationship between Maura and Shelly are the focus of the scene rather than the mechanics of their sex. In an article for The New York Times Magazine, Emily Bobrow describes the Pfeffermans as a “loving family in which everyone seems uncomfortable in their skin.” Her observation, while not subversive, is true. The Pfeffermans’ discomfort with their evolving family dynamic is at the heart of the series’ intrigue. Thus, in order to propel a dynamic and engaging plot, Maura’s discomfort, physical and emotional, cannot be shied away from. The silent tension at the conclusion of the pivotal scene in “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump” exists solely because the writers chose to reject conversation of Maura’s genitals. The richness and depth of the tension, both emotional and sexual, stems from the decades of imbalance in Maura and Shelly’s former marriage. Maura’s actions are indicative of her weariness of giving all of herself to Shelly’s demands without the emotional reciprocation or attention she deserves. The episode’s power lies in its illustration of Maura’s life as complicated because of the typical strain of interpersonal relationships, not because of her transition.
However, that the scene includes Maura’s hesitance to fully engage sexually with Shelly rather than allowing Shelly to reciprocate confronts some feminists’ argument to exclude trans-women. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ essentialist notion of womanhood excludes trans-women because of their genitals. While the voices of these feminists may not be the majority, their opinions are relevant in the modern conversation of trans* experiences’ place in a culture only beginning to accept that life exists beyond the gender binary. Michelle Goldberg encapsulates this in her article “What is a Woman?” for The New Yorker, when she addresses the seemingly anachronistic perspective of these women, “at a time when transgender rights are ascendant, radical feminists insist on regarding transgender women as men, who should not be allowed to use women’s facilities, such as public rest rooms, or to participate in events organized exclusively for women.” Thus, addressing what would have happened if Maura had decided to stay in the bathroom with Shelly becomes relevant. According to trans-exclusionary radical feminists, Maura is not a woman at all. However, her womanhood is the driving force for the inception of the series’ intrigue.
The writers ignore all of this. In the context of the greater conversation between the show-runners and the audience, the focus on the emotional side of Maura’s transition rather than the physical aspect is representative of their choice not to fully engage in questions of gender politics. The position is a strange one to take by those at the helm of a show with content that can be so easily politicized. The episode effectively introduces the audience to conversations of what Leila Rupp calls “different-status sex” in Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality in order to address the correlation between transgressions of gender norms and transgressions of the norms of sexuality. However, the show is simply that, it is entertainment. The intrigue of “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump” signifies Transparent’s acceptance of the right to function as entertainment as any other series with less subversive subject matter. Ultimately, Transparent exists to expand perception of trans* lives, not educate on trans* bodies.
Bobrow, Emily. “How Two Producers of ‘Transparent’ Made Their Own Trans Lives More Visible.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Goldberg, Michelle. “What Is a Woman?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 28 July 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Rupp, Leila J. “Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001): 287-302. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Wilchins, Riki Anne. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004. Print.