Three years ago I wasn’t immediately sold on Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman. I wasn’t even sold on the the idea that cis filmmakers could ever tell our story right. But, as a filmmaker and trans woman, I tend to be completely absorbed by trans stories no matter how painful it can be at times. When talking about Transparent‘s third season, it’s not lost on me that — for a lot of people — this show crosses lines by its continued existence and by continuing to accept accolades year after year for a man playing a trans woman. I also have complicated feelings about that aspect of the show.
With all that said, I really do love watching Transparent. This is not a detailed synopsis or review of every minor detail throughout the ten-episode third season, but a highlight reel of some of the things I liked and didn’t like this time around. I’m going to be speaking mostly to the trans aspects of the show (as much as I love “To Shell and Back”).
Early in the season Maura, who is in an emotionally desperate situation herself, is volunteering at an LGBTQ help line when she gets a call from a young woman named Elizah who is also trans. She’s at a clinic and is upset that she’s not getting the attention she needs. Maura seems to connect with her, but in a panic and assuming Maura would never understand, Elizah ends the call. Maura is understandably worried but makes an ill advised attempt to go find her. This leads to a series of trans women, like breadcrumbs, leading Maura through the city (and over some train tracks… very subtle). During this, I saw and heard more trans people in five minutes than in all media combined over the last five years. That’s one of the very cool things about this show: the nonchalant way trans people are everywhere. The fact that Transparent consistently shows trans people having conversations with each other that aren’t solely about surgeries and hormones is revolutionary.
As the season progresses we find that Maura has hit a point where she feels like she’s ticked all the boxes and it’s time to go forward even more. A lot of trans people feel this way; I’ve felt this way in the past. It’s almost like that moment when you graduate from school and people begin telling you what to do and where to go. What next? This leads Maura to eventually announce to the family at a dinner party that she wants to have surgery, and that she no longer wants to be called Moppa. This creates a rift in her current relationship and in her family, which is the kind of reality I like to see in television. Seeing the real subtle pain of life played out on-screen can be very humanizing.
The episode “If I Were A Bell” was downright revolutionary. In one flashback to Maura’s childhood, we see Maura played by trans actress Sophia Grace Gianna. It’s perhaps the most authentic portrayal of trans children I’ve ever seen. We experience some of the first moments when Maura was told who she was supposed to be and what it would mean if she stepped out of line. We see her play a painful game of Red Rover at school, where the other girls refuse to let her play and her sister publicly outs her in front of them. And you feel her pain. While I watched this season I laughed a lot and I yelled a lot. I was so angry at one point that I sprained my hand, but during this episode when a trans girl was told, “No, this is not who you are; you will never be this,” when she was caught by her grandfather and through tears she swore she would never dress up again, when her mother left and you could see the guilt in Maura’s eyes, all I could do was cry.
Now I want to talk about some things I didn’t like: One very real, but unnecessary and cruel storyline. And a trope so pervasive it even happened to Alexandra Billings years ago when she was on Grey’s Anatomy.
Early on in the season, at the very heavy dinner party, Joshie starts getting eyes for Maura’s friend Shea, played by Trace Lysette, who is fantastic in every scene in this storyline. I turned to my roommate and said, “This won’t end well.” And — surprise! — it didn’t. After a mid-season breakdown, Josh invites Shea to join him on a road trip to go see his son. It actually seems like it’s going pretty well. They’re doing your typical road trip thing: getting very personal talking about relationships. Shea talks about how hard it is to find love. She was saying things I’ve said to people before. These are the moments when I watch this show and I think, “This is for me, this show is for me.” It becomes even cuter; they clearly are growing closer by the mile.
Later on they break into an amusement park, and by now, I’m wrapped up in it. I’m seeing a trans woman, played by a trans woman. On TV. Falling for a guy who’s falling back for her. I’m seeing something I’ve never seen on TV before. Something I’ve rarely ever seen in person. I’m seeing a guy treat a trans woman like, you know, a person. But of course, that comes crashing down. Josh says something really insensitive about pregnancy to Shea, but it seems like an honest slip up. Things trend up and it starts getting hot and heavy and Shea reveals that she’s HIV positive. Josh shuts down. It’s over. The moment’s gone. And it turns out to be just like every other time before. After lamenting it only half an episode before, it’s proven again that trans women don’t deserve love. This is an artistic choice, a cruel one made at the expense of trans women, but an artistic choice to show reality over a storybook ending. That I can respect, even if I’m hurt.
What I can’t respect— and my second major complaint for season three — is when Maura is both forced off of her hormones and refused surgery because of a heart condition. The trope that hormones and surgery are inherently dangerous and ultimately secondary to other so-called “life threatening conditions” has been played out time and time again. Almost every single television show to feature trans women in a medical setting will have some pasty white doctor tell her that she’s sick and that she has to go off her hormones and that if she doesn’t they will kill her.
I understand these situations happen in real life. I also understand that the show has to make some sort of decision in regards to the fact that Jeffrey Tambor is not going to start hormones or get surgery. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about a fabricated story line and a fictional universe. Juxtaposing the fact that hormones could kill the main character, and that all choice is taken away from her in that situation, lends credence to the real world association that hormone replacement therapy and the treatments trans people choose to go forward with are themselves life-saving procedures. Here we had a perfect opportunity for Maura to make a decision about her life that was her own. She could have decided that she was ticking boxes rather than doing what was best for her. We could have shown a cis audience that being trans is what you decide; it’s not what other people tell you it is. It’s not about cultural perception or going down a list of items until you reach some finality. It’s about looking into ourselves and choosing our lives for ourselves and having the people around us respect those lives.
Watching this season was a whirlwind for me. There were so many highs and lows. Periods of emotional attachments that I crave in media and cinema and television. I saw other trans people and I saw them living their lives. I saw the love and I felt pain. I feel so mixed about the sudden inclusion that’s happening all across the media landscape. Sometimes I feel like these stories are written for us, and the show the world who we really are. But other times I just feel like our pain is put on display as some sort of sideshow variety act for cis consumption. It’s a start, but I want to see better. I want trans people have agency over their own lives. I want to see trans women of color get more than just bit parts. I want to see trans women in lesbian relationships. I want to see trans women find love. I want to see trans women getting the happily ever afters they deserve.