Monday, January 12, 2015

In Defense of the Brilliant (but Flawed) Transparent

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is the American version of The Office. I adored the original BBC version, but the somewhat more optimistic tone of NBC's take resonated more deeply with me. In the episode "The Chair Model," Andy and Kevin agitate to get back their parking spots from Vance Refrigeration's construction crew and they unexpectedly succeed. There's a shockingly moving talking head bit with Kevin afterwards: 

"After Stacey left, things.. did not go well for a while. And it was hard to see... (trails off)... It's just nice to win one."

I've been thinking about that today in the wake of Transparent's big wins at the Golden Globes last night. In the wake of a seemingly never-ending stream of tragedy and horror for the trans community, punctuated by the death of Leelah Alcorn, it was stunning to see showrunner Jill Soloway say this on live worldwide television: 

“I want to thank the trans community. They are our family and they make this possible. This award is dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn, and too many trans people who died too young. And it’s dedicated to you, my trans parent, my “mapa,” if you’re watching at home right now. I want to thank you for coming out because in doing so you made a break for freedom, you told your truth, you taught me how to tell my truth and make this show, and maybe we’ll be able to teach the world something about authenticity and truth and love. To love.”

After all of the shit we've dealt with, that was cathartic. It brought me to tears. They were talking about people like me in front of millions, and it wasn't a cheap joke. It wasn't hateful. It wasn't exploitative. It wasn't well-meaning but tone-deaf and counterproductive. It was heartfelt and humanizing, and it was a message that needed to get out there to the vast majority of Americans who view trans people as alien at best and subhuman at worst. 

Is Transparent a perfect show? Far from it. It strikes a few false notes about the trans experience, and it gave the lead role of a trans woman to a cis male actor (more on that below). However, it is relentlessly compelling and entertaining. It's great television, and includes a nuanced, realistic portrayal of a late-transitioning trans woman. Maura is a flawed person. She fucks up repeatedly (in a jarring moment, she shouts a homophobic slur at a group of gay men while in a state of deep emotional distress), but she also strives towards authenticity and self-actualization. That striving is relatable, as is her struggle through moments of horrifying transphobia from strangers, family and friends (I could barely get through a scene where she is accosted and verbally attacked for trying to use the womens' restroom). One of the show's biggest selling points is its ability to weave the story of a trans woman's journey into an ensemble drama seamlessly, rather than turning Maura's story into a pedantic moralizing slog for viewers. In a family full of broken, blinkered people, Maura stands out as the only one who is able to face the truth about herself and take meaningful action towards self-knowledge and self-improvement. 

There's been some justifiable criticism for the casting of a cis male actor (Jeffrey Tambor) in the role of a trans woman. Everything else being equal, trans roles SHOULD be filled by trans actors and actresses. First of all, there are plenty of talented trans actors and actresses out there who would do a better job than the cis actors chosen over them. Generally speaking, using cis actors in these roles punctuates the invisibility that real live trans people fight against every day. 

However, I think this situation falls squarely into the "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good" category. I believe it's important to point out the ways in which Transparent falls short in terms of its portrayal of trans people and the trans community. One thing that stuck out to me was a plotline where Maura, at age 68, having dealt with her feelings of gender dysphoria since at least the mid-90s, was seemingly utterly ignorant about HRT. She was a university professor with access to the internet. I know that as a college student back then, I was already digging up all the information I could find about hormones online. It strained credulity to ask viewers to believe Maura wasn't doing likewise. In addition, the show's been criticized for its portrayal of trans men. I'm not here to argue the show is above reproach. It's not. 

But does that mean that it shouldn't be watched? Or that it doesn't represent a groundbreaking step forward for trans representation in the mass media? Hell, no. Jeffrey Tambor is cisgender, but his performance is deserving of every bit of praise it has received (and it somewhat makes up for the weird presence of multiple transphobic/trans-ignorant plotlines on Arrested Development. I probably need to write a whole other post about how I deal with it when transphobia suddenly appears in entertainment I otherwise enjoy/adore). Maura's dignified but flawed humanity is a quantum leap for how the experience of being a trans woman is presented to the mass public, and along with Laverne Cox's stellar turn on Orange is the New Black, it's inarguable that we are seeing tangible progress. 

We can criticize media and push its creators to do better without completely dismissing work that is largely progressive. While the lead role on Transparent went to a cis man, there are multiple roles filled by trans actors and actresses on the show, and for the upcoming second season the show has added a trans woman as a staff writer. Who knows... The second season might be awful or go in unexpectedly ignorant directions. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, the show will seem hopelessly retrograde in its handling of trans issues. But right now, its indicative of a slow but discernible shift in our culture towards greater acceptance for trans folks... and that's worth celebrating. 

Yes, we needed a win. But in the larger sense, we are winning. Our victory is inevitable, and to deny the progress that we are seeing is to deny us hope for a better future.  

1 comment:

  1. A good synopsis that points out the good with the bad. There was a lot I liked about the show and the fact that it won awards is heartening. Also I think a post about dealing with transphobia in media would be interesting. I shudder and get very quiet and still when it happens while I'm with others, when I should probably be speaking up...