The Pfefferman family’s lack of transparency was the main storyline in season one of the Amazon series Transparent. While the title of the show would imply that the show was about a transgender parent becoming transparent via coming out and undergoing transition, which was maybe a third of the show’s content at the beginning of the first season, by the end of the first season, the content was more equally divided among the members of the Pfefferman family.
The members of the family were Maura (the transparent going from male to female), Shelly (Mort/Maura’s ex-wife), Sarah (their oldest daughter), Josh (their son), and Ali (their youngest daughter). All of these characters had not found themselves, or been transparent, about whom they truly were.
Much of the first season was an exploration of by each individual of their own identity, with a few confusions about sexual orientation thrown in for good measure. There were a number of other characters that revolve around the members of the family. Most often to the harm and pain of those involved with the family, as each family member pursued their search for transparency.
Now to briefly summarize the adventures of each member of the family in anticipation of the second season and to get some other members of the cast involved, we shall begin with Ali.
She in many ways was the most enigmatic member of the family. Ali had been in and out of college, did not have a job, was maybe the smartest of the children, and the most lost. In her pursuit of herself, she pursued relationships with differing people. She had casual carnal relationships with a trainer, and then the trainer and his roommate, as her cool, laidback druggie self. Next she explored a relationship with a transman, who fell for her only to be dumped. In this relationship she explored her “high femme” self, which fell by the wayside. By the close of the first season, Syd (Ali’s best friend) was proclaiming her love for her, only to be blown off by Ali, who was now back to presenting herself as fairly butch.
In her lack of transparency and lack of direction in life, the leading question for Ali was she hiding from being bi, or a lesbian or was she just hiding from being an adult?
He was a successful manager of musical acts, who roamed from relationship to relationship in search of love and affirmation. He suffered a couple of traumas during the season. He was fired after his intimate relationship with a singer went sour, and discovered he had a teenage son thanks to a relationship he had with an older woman when he was in his teens. Other than that, he sowed his wild oats with several other women, most notably a real-estate agent, and another would be family member, who we’ll come to later. The importance of the real estate lady was the on-going struggle over which of the children would get the childhood home now that Maura had moved out. By the end of the season, he had seemingly met and married the first woman, the Rabbi Rachel Fein, who he had ever truly cared for and who seemed capable of dealing with his yearnings for love and acceptance, as whoever he really was. The marriage and discovery of a teenaged son really seemed to ground him temporarily because he clearly was putting a strain on both relationships by the last episode and was clearly struggling to become a transparent person.
She was easily the most responsible of the three children when it came to dealing with other people’s issues. She had the most mature response to the appearance of Maura, acted as advisor to her younger siblings, and assisted her mom. Unfortunately, when it came to who she was, Sarah was a confused mess and not transparent at all to herself or anyone else. At the beginning of the season, Sarah was married to Len and they had two children. She was mom and wife and that was pretty much it. Then one day she saw her old friend Tammy, and romance bloomed instantly. In fact, while in college they had been an item, and before long they were back in the sack again. Soon she left Len and she and Tammy moved into the old Pfefferman home, which Tammy promptly redid much to the stress of the other Pfefferman’s. Soon, Bianca, a daughter from a previous marriage to Melanie, joined them. Teenage Bianca was the family member that Josh made an unsuccessfully sought to seduce, much to the anger of Tammy and Sarah. As the season drew to a close, Sarah had sought to renew her sexual relationship with Len, who declined to accept. Len had become so accepting of Sarah and Tammy, he actually asked if he could be buried next to them. And Sarah had told Tammy she wanted to get married. So, has she found herself and become transparent via Tammy?
Shelly was the mother of the three children and ex-wife of Maura. Her role in the show grew the longer the season went on. After Maura had come out to her much earlier in the timing of the show as a cross-dresser, she had moved quickly for a divorce and had soon remarried. In many ways a stereotypical Jewish mother at the beginning of the season, she progressively became more and more of a levelheaded supporter for Maura and moved closer to the children. She went through the death of her second husband and was dealing with her “mashugana” offspring and consoling her new woman friend, Maura, by the end of the season. She was the one member of the family that was pretty much transparent by the end of the season.
While presenting as Mort, Maura had dutifully done what was expected. Having done “the Jewish thing and married the one standing next to me when the music stopped,” procreated, had a career as a professor, and lived in the suburbs with a pool. What’s not to like? Because she had been in hiding and suffering for decades, not much was satisfactory. Now at about 70, she was finally free enough from other obligations to become herself. Yes, just as the male caterpillar thought life was about over, she emerged as a transwoman butterfly with new wings to try out.
Her journey to transparency had been followed over several decades from wearing women’s panties for sexual stimulation, to going to cross-dresser camp, to going to a LGBTQ support group, to discovering the LGBTQ, mostly G, community, and lastly working at becoming herself.
Sorry, but I have to insert a commentary at this point: while this was the story of a single transition, it was not necessarily representative of some, many or even most journeys. I do not believe that the first expression of being trans as a fetish based on sexual arousal of a person born male is the most common of point of discovery. I believe it grows much more from a sense of being and a way of moving through the world, often as a young child. Back to the recap…
There were lots of bumps in the road: how to come out to her self-centered children, what to do with the house, where to go when her heart is broken, how to join the LGBTQ community and find a place in it, and most importantly to discover what being a transwoman was for her. For the first three bumps, the children dealt, especially Josh; it was to let Sarah and Tammy and the kids live in the house; and most importantly, Shelly was the place to go with a broken heart and to gain affirmation (as Shelly said, “we were gay married before it was popular.”). The biggest and least resolved problems lay in community and self-discovery.
Apparently Maura had lived a life remarkably devoid of the events of her generation: hippies, burning draft cards and bras for two separate causes, the entire civil rights movement, the on-set of HIV/AIDS, the millions of coming out stories, the list goes on and on. She had lived a sheltered heteronormative, southern California suburban life, where the value of the house and what should we do with the children for the summer when school is out were the greatest concerns. Not surprisingly she was ill prepared for much of what she was to encounter. She had the usual personal transgender experiences of having trouble in bathrooms and stores; well, except where the clerks were on commission. She discovered illicit hormone therapy and connecting with others through the LGBT Center. While entertaining at times, the real changes were to be experienced in her personal responses to how she got to where she was by the close of the first season.
By the close of the season, as much as she had loved going to cross-dresser camp, she had found out that she did not fit in. Because at the camp anyone seeking to actually change gender was barred and the men made it clear that they were not women, but “men who wear dresses,” which is virtually any transwoman’s nightmare. In a moment of true self-discovery, she objected that that attitude was wrong.
With the assistance of her close friend Davina, Maura was explored being transgender and slowly adjusted to living in the Shangria-la Apartments. Soon after moving there, in an angry response to a gay party next door, which found her reverting to angry white male behavior, such as yelling in her male voice at the “faggots” to keep it down, pounding on the wall, and insisting that she was there and deserved to be respected by them quieting down. Such are the pleas of a 70-something when living in a building of 20- and 30-somethings. A more poignant way to understand her actions was to see her as pleading for a place in the LGBTQ community, where often some Ts feel very uncomfortable, to point of denying that they have any connection too the community. Where was the warm embrace due a recent immigrant from the suburban, hetero, middle class life? Or should there even be one?
So going in to the second season Maura should have many more adjustments and problems living as a transwoman who was remaining connected on a very involved basis with her previous family and finding a new community in which to find friends, and further discover who she was as she became more transparent.
SEASON 2 PREVIEW
A brief look at some of the press coverage for the coming season revealed some ambitions that the series promised to try to fulfill. Just as the first season was about revealing Maura, the second will be about the further development of Maura, who no longer will be Ms Goody Two-shoes. And the transition of the whole family; as Jill Soloway, the creator of the show, was quoted in the New York Times, “You were someone in relation to the secret. Now the secret is gone, so each person becomes somebody new.”
Another promise was to involve more transpeople in the production. Soloway described it as:
“We just did it D.I.Y. It was like reaching off of a boat and just grabbing any hand you could get and pulling them onto the boat. It was: ‘Who’s trans? What can they do? What department do they want experience in? Let’s get them in wardrobe. Let’s get them in hair and makeup. Let’s get them in the camera department. Let’s get them in the production office.’”
It was also revealed that Caitlyn Jenner had reached out to her via Judith Light's publicist. Judith plays Shelly on the show, and it seems Caitlyn and Judith shared the same publicist, “for advice and comfort” before I Am Caitlyn went into the production. Ms Soloway also acknowledged that
“I am definitely carrying the mantle of being a trans activist—which can be awkward. I‘m not trans. I‘m just the daughter of a trans person.” And then later in the same article, she stated that “my goal of trying to make the world safer for all trans people….And you know what? It’s really working.”
It was quite welcome news that more trans people were involved in the production and writing of the show. And it is true that it is working to a certain extent. Clearly Jill Soloway was and is a staunch ally of the trans community, for which I am grateful. But I have to admit the narrative she described reminds me too much of the narrative of the white people freeing the black people, as if they had been powerless to do anything about their circumstances from slavery to the right to the dignity of basic civic rights. Or a similar narrative that irritates other marginalized groups that their success in becoming fuller citizens with the same dignities of all others comes less from their own empowerment and more from the powers on high deciding to grant those rights.
Lastly, much of our country’s acceptance of those other than hetero white people, preferable male, is one of tolerance. If tolerance is the basis for acceptance, then that means those people are something to be tolerated, not affirmed and accepted as who they are. Toleration also implies, that the toleration was given by those who have to do the tolerating and that it can be withdrawn. In the Tennessean I saw an agony aunt letter from a father struggling with a transgender child, by pleading "why can't the child just be gay?" because the father can deal with/tolerate that, but not a transgender child. I can only hope that someday, we will be able to accept and affirm each other as who we truly are.
TRANSPARENT recap: "Pilot" (season 1 episode 1)
TRANSPARENT: Season 2 preview
TRANSPARENT recap: "Kina Hora" (season 2 episode 1)