In Which Mari and Mey Have Conflicted Feelings About “Transparent”

Being a trans woman is complicated. It can seem like every day you have to deal with things that are anything but black and white. There’s the media’s portrayal of trans people, terminology, the entire concept of “passing” — and that’s just scratching the surface. Luckily, you have Mari and Mey to talk out their conflicted feelings on these things. Today, we’re going to talk about our conflicted feelings regarding the upcoming Amazon Prime show Transparent, which focuses on a trans woman who comes out to her adult family and how her family deals with that and with life. (Previously, Autostraddle has written enthusiastically about the pilot.) We watched the preview and talked things out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yawvtaFwfZs&feature=youtu.be

Mey: I guess the first thing we should probably talk about is Jeffrey Tambor, a presumably cis man, playing a trans woman. Obviously cis men playing trans women has been a huge topic of public conversation over the last year (and longer within trans circles) and so the decision to cast a cis person is a strange one.

Mari: Considering how difficult it is for trans performers to get work, it really bothers me that the central character of a series billed by so many as “groundbreaking” is being played a cis person. Especially seeing how much acclaim cis performers seem to get for playing trans characters. See Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Mey: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s a weird thing seeing people being called “brave” and “groundbreaking” and “amazing” for pretending to be trans on screen for a few months. And then they get paid and awarded for it, and that makes it even stranger. So that did really rub me the wrong way.

Mari: Oh, to add to that list… forgot about Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. (And these are just people who were nominated for or won Academy Awards for playing trans characters.)

There are arguments to made, of course, about the need to have big names attached to a project for it to gain attention. But, considering they have Jill Soloway directing, that’s already one big name. And, to me, it seems like casting bigger names in the support characters (as the series seems to be designed as more of an ensemble cast), and casting a trans actress as the trans character would have been a much better way to go.

The main cast of Transparent via Hitflix

The main cast of Transparent via Hitflix

Mey: Exactly. With people like Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman, who are playing two of her kids, who are sort of hip, rising stars, and then people like Rob Huebel and Carrie Brownstein in supporting roles, it seems like they do have a strong supporting cast that has several recognizable names.

But I think that the other thing they were going for, was that they wanted someone who fit their idea of what a late-transitioning trans woman looked like. Like, I think that they wanted people to be able to recognize the character as “having been a man up until now,” you know? Which obviously, that is super messed up within itself and there are actual trans actresses who look all sorts of ways and are all sorts of ages. Or why couldn’t they take a trans actress and give her the “trans woman makeup” that they gave Felicity Huffman in Transamerica?

Mari: I was thinking about that, too. Since the character is supposed to be a relatively late-in-life transitioner, there may have been some concern about finding a trans actress willing to look they wanted the character to look. But, I’m really bothered by the idea that trans characters need to look a specific way to meet the cis public’s conception of what trans women look like.

I think that’s a pervasive problem with the way trans women are portrayed by the mainstream media. They’re all either like Rayon, or they’re someone stunningly gorgeous like Laverne Cox or Carmen Carrera. There’s never any middle ground of the average-to-pretty trans women who tend to make a large part of the trans population.

dallas_buyers_club_rayon_woodroof

Jared Leto as Rayon, in Dallas Buyer’s Club

Mey: Yeah, and I feel like Hollywood needs to make all trans women characters have literal physical markers that their character is trans. They want us to be constantly aware that she’s a trans woman, not a “regular woman” like all the other characters (since there is only ever one trans woman). And they only know two ways to physically mark a character as trans, and those are to make them either seductive and beautiful trans women who look “too good to be true,” or women who are clearly supposed to fit into the “men in dresses” trope. And there are definitely plenty of trans women who fit into both those categories, and that’s cool, but like you said, there are plenty of us who are in between and we never seem to be portrayed at all.

Mari: Yes! Absolutely spot on! Like you pulled the thoughts out of my head!

Mey: Can I talk about another thing that bothered me about the trailer? Do we really need another TV show (or movie, for that matter) about an upper-middle class white family and how tough life is for them? I can just watch Parenthood, Modern Family, or movies like This is Where I Leave YouRachel Getting Married or The Royal Tenenbaums to get the exact same thing. Couldn’t they have been working class, or people of color or something?

Especially because the majority of trans women are not upper-middle class white women. And trans women of color don’t get as much representation as we should, although that is changing with people like Cox, Carrera and Janet Mock being in the spotlight so much.

This is what the choices for family dramadies usually look like.

This is what the choices for family dramedies usually look like.

Mari: Yes, I think that’s huge. So much of the media portrayal of queer culture in general is about the upper-middle class white section of the community, like The L Word, Queer As Folk, Will and Grace, etc etc. It really gives the impression than being queer and/or trans is something only privileged white people get to be. I think that’s especially harmful considering the exponentially higher challenges faced by queer people of color and trans people of color.

As corollary to that, I kinda feel like this is a story that’s been covered, the story of a later-in-life transitioning woman who’s married with children. This is pretty close in a lot of ways to Transparent (the documentary) from 2005, books like Jenny Boylan’s memoirs, Helen Boyd’s She’s Not The Man I Married, and Kristen Beck’s Warrior Princess.

Mey: Yes! I’ve talked to Janet Mock about that, how later-in-life white trans women with families completely dominated the trans memoir and story landscape for a long time, and only now are we starting to see diversity in the stories we hear, so Transparent does seem like a step back in that way.

Mari: *nod* Even Sophia in OINTB plays into that to a certain degree. The saving grace there is that she’s not white, but it’s still post-marriage, post-children transitioning.

Can I comment on two inter-related gripes I have?

Mey: Yeah, definitely.

Mari: To start, do we NEED another transition story? Why is that the only thing we can ever talk about when it comes to trans people? There’s a cis fascination with the “transformation” aspect of our transitions, so all discussions, all news coverage, all fictional narratives about us written by cis people have to somehow cover our transitions and contain the “before and after” photos, or the need to use dead names. Why can’t we have a trans character who has completed transition, and that’s all we ever know them as? Why does a period of our lives that’s quite short in comparison to the the period of time we’re post-transition have to dominate all narratives about us?

Intersected with that, why does the focus need to be on how this character’s transition affects everyone around her? It’s not about her and her journey and struggles. It’s about her family’s struggles WITH her and how something very important that’s she’s clearly struggled with for decades affects THEM and their lives. Again, that problem is pretty consistent in other accounts that discuss transition. And when this happens, the trans character become a plot device instead of a person.

Any other negatives before we talk about some of the positives? I’ll let you go first on this one.

Mey: Well, as far as positives go, as much as I think it looks problematic and overdone and White and everything, it does look pretty good. Like, they know how to market the show to Queer Millenials. And so I like that they’re putting some effort into making a quality piece of TV (or internet TV) about a trans person (and some other queer women). Plus, this does look better than a lot of trans media. So I guess my first thing that I think looks positive about it is that it’s quality.

Mari:  *nod* That’s what first struck me, too. The writing is clearly pretty decent, which I’d expect from a project helmed by Soloway. The trailer gives an indication that the cast performances, including Jeffrey Tambor (problematic as it may be) will be worth watching at least an episode or two. I also like that other queer story lines are included, including one daughter who is clearly not straight, and another who is (from some interviews with Soloway) struggling with her own gender identity.

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura

Mey: Yeah, definitely. And can we talk about that last line of the preview? The one where Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor’s character) daughter asks her if she’s going to be “dressing up like a lady all the time” and she laughs a little and says, “No, honey, all my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man.” That really killed me. I went into the preview ready to roll my eyes, but when she said that line, I was literally crying. That’s maybe my favorite line of dialogue about being trans I’ve heard written by cis people.

Mari: OMG YES THAT LINE. That line was like a stab in the chest. I’m pretty sure I’ve said something similar, either in conversation or writing. It was the moment that gave me hope that SOMEONE involved in the writing of the show actually “gets it.” Especially after some of the earlier comments from other characters about it being a “kink” and such.

There WERE, thankfully, some trans consultants on the show, and one of the writers is genderqueer. I know that Jenny Boylan consulted on the character creation at one point. I think, even more importantly, some of the more… problematic consults who worked on pieces like Dallas Buyer’s Club weren’t involved.

Mey: Oh yeah, that “it’s his little private kink” line! I did roll my eyes at that. But also Kathryn Hahn is in that scene, and I love her, so that’s another cast member I like.

That’s good about the consultants, I hoped they had done that, but didn’t know for sure. I hadn’t heard that about one of the writers, but that’s also a good sign. And yeah, that does make me feel better about which consultants weren’t used.

Mari: Another fact about the productions that made me feel a little better was the fact that Soloway put very specific efforts into making the set and crew very trans inclusive. According to her interview in the New York Times, they had 20 trans cast and crew and at least 60 trans extras.

Mey: Oh wow, that is good. So how about we wrap this up?

Mari: Sure. Final thoughts. You want to go first?

Mey: Sure. So, like we’ve said, this does look like it treads a lot of way-too-familiar ground. I’d much rather see fresh stories about trans women who aren’t necessarily well-off, white and with already established families. I’d also like to see stories about trans women where it isn’t just about how their transition effects their family and friends. And I definitely wish that the main character was played by a trans woman. But, I do think that they are trying to do a fairly good job. I’d even like to think that if the casting decisions were made a year later, they might have cast a trans woman as the lead. And the writing definitely looks good. I’m planning on watching it and giving it maybe two or three chances to mess up before deciding if I quit or not.

Mari: I think the series has problems, and they’re the same problems we tend to see time and time again. I’m concerned that the series might end up being a little on the exploitative side. I’m not pleased that the main character is played by a cis man, and I think the series treads some pretty well-worn paths without breaking a ton of ground. But, I have a least a little hope that it might tread those paths BETTER than those that have come before. The writing and acting look promising, and Jill Soloway is fairly brilliant, so those things should help to elevate it to at least “watchable.” I’ll definitely be watching the first few episodes with a smudge of optimism that something good will come of this project.

Transparent premieres on Amazon Prime on September 26.

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 574 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. I’m just curious, are we only talking about the trailer here or the pilot? I watched the pilot and I liked it quite a lot. I spoke at A-camp camptalks this year on my personal opinions on the whole trans role/trans actor thing so I wont get into that (mainly because I’m in quite the minority there) And while I agree with a lot that has been discussed above, I just hadn’t noticed many references to the actual show and a lot to the trailer. Personally I’m really excited about it especially since it wont solely be about the transition, to me it seems more like a family dysfunction show. I was incredibly worried about Tambor myself but I actually think he does a great job with a lot of class, all things considered.

  2. I’ve been looking forward to seeing more of this show since I watched the pilot all those months ago. I, too, was concerned about most of the points you both brought up, but I’m still planning on supporting the show. Maybe with Laverne Cox’s mega-success and the success of this show, better representation of trans stories will be promoted in Hollywood!

  3. For reference: (two of) the consultants are super-awesome trans artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, which bodes well. And who knows–since Maura is in a support group populated with trans characters played by trans actors, maybe (hopefully) the number of trans roles in the principal cast will expand as the series progresses. I recognize Mey and Mari’s reservations and have similar ones, but there’s so much good going into this show that I’m (cautiously) super optimistic!

  4. I understand your concerns that it’s yet another story about upper middle class white trans and that Tambor’s character is hardly representative of a large portion of the trans female population; and you can add to that my own concern that these stories are usually about trans women while trans men are sadly under-represented. However, I’m willing to give this a chance if it’s done well and the trailer (I haven’t seen the pilot) seems to indicate that they want to do this right. Anything being put out for public consumption that shows us in a positive light is commendable and can only improve our lot.

  5. I am curious to see what people think about this point, which I didn’t see mentioned in Mey and Mari’s conversation – that Jill Soloway’s parent is transgender. She mentioned this near the end of the NY Times Magazine article. It seems that perhaps more than anything, this is her exploration of her own lived experience as the child of a transgender parent (though she says this is not the case in the article, that many things are different, etc…). This may be impacting her perspective on the exploring the trans* experience though everyone else’s perspective.

    I also feel mixed about watching it – Six Feet Under is one of my favourite shows, she often explores the depth and messiness of life, multiple queer/genderqueer/trans characters and a number of trans actors and some consultants… but the issues of white middle class families being over-represented, exploring transition instead of *life* and the confusing choice to cast Tambor (though I think he is a strong actor) in a role a trans woman could have easily played… In the NY Times Magazine article she seemed surprised that this was brought up as a potential issue… perhaps consulting with a few more trans folks might have brought this to light? Or is she being willfully blind or pushed around by industry folks?

    • Christie, that’s totally what I thought when I read how Soloway had a parent who came out as trans. Whether this is meant to be autobiographical or not, the show is clearly a personal project of hers. At least she’s highly vested in this story line and it isn’t just “let’s have a ‘trans’ episode and then sideline the character.” (ahem OITNB) And yes, I think we’re all agreeing on the unfortunate “white upper-middle class” Ell-Aay aspect of the project, but that’s kind of who Soloway is.

      As to trans participation in the production, whether acting or “consulting” that remains to be seen. Having Zackary Drucker as the support group facilitator seemed really unbelievable to me… firstly because it’s actually pretty rare that young and older transitioners are even in the same support groups (given any options, which they would have in LA) and I’ve never seen a Zackary type as a group facilitator. It seemed like an attempt to interject some “glam and attractiveness.”

      As to the depiction of older transitioners, yes, there have been some. IMO, they all stunk for one group of reasons or another. I think it still is a unique experience which could be better portrayed, especially the aspect of someone being highly visibly trans, which is a very different experience from someone who’s often perceived as looking cisnormative.

      • Personally, I think it would be refreshing if for once a later transitioner were portrayed as looking cisnormative, and an earlier transitioner as “highly visibly trans.” There’s an all-too-common underlying assumption, not only among cis people but among many trans people as well, that there’s a divide that’s the other way round. Things are way more complicated than that in real life, but this production seems to be furthering the common stereotype.

        • There was a well-reviewed CBS tv series called “The Education of Max Bickford” with a character who was exactly as you describe. The part was played by Canadian actress Helen Shaver (who some might remember from the film “Desert Hearts.” She was in the series for half of the first season and then was zapped (I’m assuming because the show was “retooled” before the series was cancelled.

  6. Helen Boyd’s “She’s Not The Man I Married” was “the story of a later-in-life transitioning woman who’s married with children”? Not quite: unless you’re writing from the viewpoint of a teenager, being in one’s early 30’s isn’t “later in life,” and Helen and Betty are most emphatically childfree.

  7. I’m for someone who’s not Laverne (because she is too majestic and too much of a presence for that role – now if Paris Lees was an actress, she’d be the right one) playing a totally shallow cishet mother of two matching every blonde and chavette stereotype imaginable. Maybe that would be a pointy enough aesop for all fuckers behind this.

  8. While I share Mari and Mey’s concerns, I am cautiously optimistic. I’m also hopeful that some of the trans actors cast in smaller roles will end up finding further success in the industry. The biggest reason why trans actors don’t often get cast in trans roles is transphobia/cissexism, but I do think part of it is that there are not a lot of trans actors out there with name recognition (pretty much just Laverne Cox and maybe Candis Cayne). Hopefully this show will play a role in changing that.

  9. I watched the pilot, and I liked it well enough. I think the main reason they didn’t cast a trans actress was because (at least in the pilot), Maura isn’t fully out. I would think that many trans women wouldn’t be gung ho about playing a closeted person. I mean, Laverne Cox obviously wasn’t, and not everybody has an identical twin brother waiting in the wings to play the closeted scenes like Cox did on OITNB. Idk.

    • When I’ve seen Laverne address that scene in interviews she’s said she was willing to do it, but that the directors thought she looked too feminine to play herself pre-transition. The fact that Maura’s character is a late-transitioner who isn’t fully out may well have been part of the reason they decided to go with a cis actor. Another reason is probably that they wanted a big name – understandable, if a bit problematic. I wouldn’t, however, simply assume it was because no trans actors were willing to take on the role.

      • If cis actors are willings to play trans within a context of transitioning, what makes people think professional trans actors wouldn’t be willing to likewise play cis? The reality is, physical transition is very difficult to portray… both in terms of someone’s changing look, and believability. No matter how you cast the role, there will be certain aspects of a transitioning character which won’t look entirely credible.

  10. i saw the pilot and am pretty excited about the queer female storylines on the show outside of tambor’s character, that definitely seems like an area in which an effort’s being made to break new ground

  11. I think in terms of quality, story and acting this looks pretty good, certainly a show I want to watch. That said, I think these critiques are spot on and articulated perfectly! Ultimately, I’m glad there is another mainstream narrative that a large portion of the population will watch but I am so glad that we are keeping these things in mind nonetheless. Balanced and thoughtful article. Bravo.

  12. While I totally absolutely feel Mey and Mari’s objections, and I don’t want to undermine them at all, I have to say that I’m pretty exited about seeing an actively Jewish family portrayed in a way that isn’t just for shallow laughs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an intra-Jewish romance before, let alone a portrayal of a non-orthodox family where Judaism is a meaningful part of their lives. It seems like Jewish identity is usually totally ignored (Willow Rosenberg), or just a funny side neurosis (Woody Allen). So I’m excited to see this!

    • Albeit Jews played by non-Jews (except for Jeffrey Tambor). Meh, it’s okay. What I hate is when they totally ignore a character’s Jewishness or give them a totally goyishe sounding changed last name like “Brown” or “Green.”

    • “Thirtysomething” was pretty much the only TV show I can think of with multiple Jewish characters, in which their being Jewish was used as anything other than an opportunity for comic relief. Shows like “ER” — a drama about doctors in a major urban hospital that was on for 15 years without ever once having an identifiably Jewish character — are far more typical.

    • Yes. I was going to address this in terms of the “whiteness” of the show – in my experience, the “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jewishness is absolutely relative and variable and subject to outside opinion. My entire life, I have received and seen other Ashkenazim receive unsolicited assessments of our ethnicity ranging from “white” to “not,” and everything in between. Whether or not the show will explore this aspect of cultural Jewishness remains to be seen (I’ve never seen it explored anywhere except in personal conversations with friends and family), but I’m totally into finding out. And also totally into seeing people onscreen who communicate in linguistic styles that feel like home to me (“If I’m not interrupting, how will you know that I’m listening????” etc.) taken seriously/not comic relief.

  13. This article was just perfect. Thank you for giving your honest-to-god(dess) opinions.

    I’m planning on watching it and giving it maybe two or three chances to mess up before deciding if I quit or not.

    I’m with you. I have hope that this won’t be awful because I enjoy a shallow middle-class white-people dramedy as much as the next person, but I’m ready for a show with a primary trans* character that has very little to nothing to do with transition. I’m also ready to see trans* actors playing cis characters, as well as getting the few trans* roles there are. Is this a step towards that future? I don’t quite know, but I’m interested to watch.

      • I would also watch the crap out of that show.

        You guys are great, and I’m a huge fan of your contributions on autostraddle.
        I’ve learned so much from both of you that I’m not sure I ever would’ve thought to explore in an effort to challenge myself to think differently, and you two specifically have caused me to check myself and work hard to re-educate myself properly.

        I sincerely appreciate your willingness to put yourselves out there and start conversations with/between those of us (in my case, a cis white woman) who want to be better allies and worthy friends, when we know you are under no obligation to help us learn anything.

        Also I follow Mey on Instagram and she posts such inspiring selfies and I love all her dresses and I feel creepy liking her pictures because she doesn’t know me but like, her clothes are so cute and I can’t stop.

  14. When you’re doing a show with one trans person (or one of *any* group that is underrepresented in the media), that person can sometimes have to be the Positive Representation Character, and their story can feel like it has to be the archetypal representation of a trans person (or whatever group), despite the fact that there’s obviously no such thing — we all have different lives.

    You can definitely see that with Sophia in OITNB — she has to be the Perfect Trans Woman. Having the only trans woman have real flaws would come off as a negative portrayal, because there’s nothing to balance against that negativity. I think what we saw in Season 2 is that the (all cis, I’m guessing?) writers had no idea what to do with her, even though they liked having her there.

    That’s going to be a real risk with this show as well. Cis or not, Jeffrey Tambor is a talented actor, but it’s going to be a difficult balancing act giving Maura real characterization and flaws without creating a negative portrayal of a trans woman. Hopefully they can mitigate this by adding more trans characters to the cast — ideally, ones played by trans actors.

    In terms of providing a broader representation of trans people, I’m hoping that the Kickstarter-backed Canadian show The Switch will overcome its tiny budget and take advantage of the fact that it has a large trans cast, and have a mix of trans people of various genders, both transitioning and long over their transition, and with all sorts of different personality traits including obvious flaws.

    • Well said Tess. Far too often, characters who are trans have no character other than “they’re trans.” This provides a one or two show story arc but the characters are always discarded once the immediate topic of transition is “dealt with”and they have to be real people. Sadly, I think Sophia in OITNB has fallen into this common category. Many cis writers handle trans characters either with kid gloves or as ‘freaky window dressing’ to show how daring they are. I’d like to think given Ms. Soloway’s family history this will go in a better direction but am not holding my breath. I’m very unhappy having a cis male playing a trans woman but at least, given that Tambor is the best known actor in the show, the character won’t be set aside in a corner or get killed off as they have in The Education of Max Bickford, DeGrassi The Next Generation or Dirty Sexy Money.

  15. Well, I’m gonna say it: Cis men playing trans women is inherently destructive to trans womens identities. It reinforces the lie upon which women like us are assaulted, raped, and murdered every day.

    I will not watch one more film or series that features a cis man playing a trans woman, but don’t worry, none of the people responsible for this project actually care. Depictions of trans women in the media aren’t for trans women, they’re for cis people’s self-gratification, either to soothe their anxieties about us as a threat to the systems of gender they’re used to, or to entertain them and give themselves a chance to pat themselves on the back for their “courage” and “progressive thinking”.

    The only things that exist for trans women are what we create for ourselves. Anyone else is just interested in using us.

  16. This is the first I’ve heard about this show — when I get home I will be adding this to my Amazon video cue! I’m worried I will end up disappointed, angry, and throwing things at my TV screen. ….I guess we’ll just have to see….

  17. Ok, I acknowledge that this is coming from a queer, cis, white woman of relative privilege.

    I don’t watch very much TV at all, and while I recognize that there may be “hip rising stars” in this program, I have never heard of them, and I have never heard of the director. I do understand that we need more trans actors playing trans characters, but I must admit that a big draw to this show for me is Jeffrey Tambor’s casting.

    Maybe it shouldn’t be.

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