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Amazon’s “Transparent” is Transphobic Bullshit

Transparent is part of Amazon’s answer to Netflix, an attempt to make itself relevant in a new television landscape by producing indie web content for subscribers; and it’s getting rave reviews, particularly from the liberal establishment.

For those not familiar with the show, Transparent revolves around Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman who’s starting to come out to her family and friends. With ten 30 minute episodes (billed as ‘a five hour movie’) to entice viewers, the show promises to be everything liberals want and more: A nice, safe, user-friendly version of trans life, viewed through a cis lens. Creator Jil Soloway is cis, and so is Tambor — and he was cast, allegedly, because the show needed a big name to anchor it, or, at least, so claim the producers, who took care to cast trans actors in other trans (and non-trans) roles as though that excuses them. Notably, one of Soloway’s mothers is transgender, reminding us yet again that the children and family members of trans people can tell our stories, but we cannot.

The glaring fact that the role of a trans woman is being played by a man doesn’t seem to be stopping viewers from going into transports of delight over the show.

Finally! A TV Show That Handles Transgender Issues With Grace’ ‘Amazon’s transgender transition ‘Transparent’ astonishes’ ‘Jeffrey Tambor Will Break Your Heart in Amazon’s Binge-Worthy Show’ ‘Amazon’s Transparent is damn near perfect’ ‘A truly great transgender drama series

Straight out of the gate, the show seems to hit almost every imaginable trans stereotype, from ‘born in the wrong body’ to being isolated, alone, and in misery. It’s the usual prosaic, accessible tale of an older white woman entering transition and struggling with mundane, middle-class matters; unlike Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black as Sophia, Tambor provides nothing new or notable when it comes to pop culture depictions of transness and queerness, though Soloway seems convinced that she’s depicting something radical (she read Whipping Girl, don’t you know). We’ve seen the narrative of middle-aged and older white trans women before in pop culture, and while their stories are important, it’s time to branch out beyond that, to face the realities experienced by trans youth (Soloway ‘dismisses transition for youth as ‘you can simply make the decision, move to the new gender, let everybody know’), by trans people of colour, by trans people wrestling with matters of gender, queerness, and faith.

And, of course, the show loops us back to the oldest and most vicious pop culture trope of all: Casting a man in the role of a trans woman. This reinforces the idea that transgender women are ‘mannish’ or ‘men in dresses,’ secretly men under their overdone makeup and outsized performances of femininity; that they are little more than people playing dressup and pretending at being women. That even if they can manage to ‘pass’ as women, they’ll never truly be women. You can change the pronouns, but you can’t change the man.

Soloway and the creators defend the move by pointing to Tambor’s name as the ticket that draws viewers to the show (evidently a narrative told by, for, and about trans people wouldn’t be as much of a draw — despite the huge success of Orange, which is in part so popular because of the massive support for its trans characters). Further to that, Soloway gallingly claims that the show deserves a pass, so to speak, because of its ‘transfirmitive action’ policy, in which trans actors and crew were preferentially sought out to fill roles on the production. All’s fair in love and war, apparently, if you hire a trans key grip.

How are reviewers defending their favorable responses to the show?

At Bitch Magazine, Leela Ginelle says: ‘Tambor is terrific in the part. While it might have been nice to see a trans woman in the role, the fact that Maura is just embarking on her transition mitigates any charges that Tambor, as a cis man, has “stolen” the part from a trans woman actress, in my view.’

‘It might have been nice.’ Ah, well, in that case, carry on then — because why on Earth would it be problematic to use language about being ‘early in transition’ and to suggest that since Maura doesn’t ‘pass’ as a woman by cis standards, it’s okay for a man to play her?

At The Independent, Ellen E. Jones says that: ‘If Laverne Cox’s character in Orange Is the New Black was the first promising step towards a better depiction of trans-people [sic] on television, then this is the second: a show that not only features a fully rounded transgendered [sic] woman in a central role but also explores through its ensemble cast the fluidity of gender in general.’

Fully rounded, except for how she’s played by a man. This commentary slides right over the critiques of the casting to suggesting that that Transparent is a step forward for trans actors and trans stories, when it’s more like a regressive step back, into an era when the only trans stories are those of older white women, and those stories are only played by men. There’s nothing transformative (forgive me) about this.

At Vulture, Margaret Lyons informs the reader that: “We see in flashbacks the desperation and anxiety she lived with while presenting as male, and we can see in everything about her the relief of living as who she really is.”

While Lyons is among the set of viewers who are most careful and respectful with their language, she still seems to miss the larger issue here. There’s no reason a trans actress couldn’t have played these scenes; and in fact, one might argue that having a trans actress in those scenes would have imbued them with a raw, intense authenticity that Tambor’s scenes lack. Instead, they feel performative: This is what cis people imagine trans life is like.

Mary McNamara at The Los Angeles Times calls Tambor’s stolen role ‘career redefining,’ as though the most important takeaway here is that a cis man have his chance to showcase his dramatic range.

‘Tambor is not the first to attempt such a role,’ she kindly informs us. ‘John Lithgow played Roberta Muldoon in ‘The World According to Garp,’ Tom Wilkinson transitioned from Roy to Ruth Applewood in ‘Normal,’ Hilary Swank won an Oscar for ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ among others — but Maura is the first transitioning transgender character to anchor a television series.’ She seems to miss the irony in rattling off a list of cis actors in trans roles.

The sheer level of defensiveness and seemingly heartfelt (and often just oblivious) belief that the show is doing nothing wrong by casting Tambor is nearly impossible to choke down, and it’s telling to see how many reviewers have fallen into line with the narrative that Transparent is a bold, assertive television show making significant strides for the trans community and handling trans issues sensitively, appropriately, and gracefully.

While I’m always irritated by the appearance of men in the roles of trans women, that goes double when it’s a leading role. Truly, in one of the few dramas written about the life of a trans woman, you didn’t think it was necessary to cast a trans woman in the role? For this alone, the show should be earning an automatic thumbs down across the board, not slathering praise from progressives who ought to know better.

Soloway’s ‘ultimate excuse, which she seems to think ends the debate? It’s an oldie but goodie:

‘’There are just so few trans people playing trans people,’ she says. ‘It’s really a shame that there wasn’t that trans actress that I could have cast in the role in that moment.’’

(‘It might have been nice.’)

Right, because we’ve never heard this one before; when it comes to disabled characters, when it comes to trans characters, when it comes to characters of colour (let’s not forget white actors cast in Asian roles, for example), there just don’t seem to be any good actors around.

Perhaps they missed the memo on the casting call when it went out to agents representing entirely white, cis, middle-aged and older men.

19 thoughts on “Amazon’s “Transparent” is Transphobic Bullshit

  1. Sadly, this is 100% true. Unforunately it is too easy for cis people to think “Oh, a show about a transwoman – that’s cool!”. We might think Jeffrey Tambor is a really odd choice and not give it much more thought…

    It does make me wonder why Laverne Cox has been so popular. Is it because she is conventionally attractive? Or is she sassy and fierce like RuPaul, only trans rather than in drag? Thankfully, I think at least some part of it is due to a genuine shift in consciousness.

  2. It appears that you’ve not seen the show. To me, as a viewer and trans advocate, it appears that great care went into making this show authentic – many trans actors, many trans consultants, very few tropes. The show, in large, isn’t even about transness but about the lives of the Pffefermans. It’s just one part of the show and more importantly, it’s just one part of the character of Maura. She’s complex, smart, narcissistic, lonely, funny.

  3. You jump to an easy conclusion that applies to many other works depicting trans people, but as someone else said here – it appears as though you haven’t actually watched the show. If there is any show premise I could understand casting a cis man for, it would be this role.

    If you want to critique the fact that this is about a white family, well okay, fair enough – but again, it’s a lazy critique that you could make about just about any show.

    I would be more interested to hear specifics about the shows flaws and merits than this same lazy critique that is valid but not really that productive to call out when trans, queers and allies make up the majority of this project.

  4. The comment: “Notably, one of Soloway’s mothers is transgender, reminding us yet again that the children and family members of trans people can tell our stories, but we cannot.” infers that only transgender people are allowed to tell trans stories, which is rather in contrast to the praise of Orange is the New Black which is created by a cisgender woman (just sayin’)… Furthermore, it then promotes the idea that cis-gender writers should abstain from writing trans stories or stories with trans characters in them at all and how on earth do you think that’ll affect the progression of diversity in story-telling?

    Not to mention Laverne Cox isn’t the star of OITNB, she’s not even star-billed, nor are many of the cast, the primary character in that show is a white, cisgendered woman… at the very least a consistency in the criticism would be appreciated, it comes across as if the writer hasn’t even watched transparent…
    On the point of needing someone famous to draw viewers, while Jil Soloway had no credit big enough to advertise with, OITNB has “From the Creator of Weeds” a successful 8 year long running show, so they weren’t as in need of a name actor beyond Piper and her fiance and had more free reign with the casting.

    Not to mention, casting someone based ONLY on their status as a trans person is, in itself a discriminatory act
    (Can you imagine?
    “You got the job”
    “Why?”
    “Cause you’re trans.”
    “What about my acting”
    “not important, you’re trans and we don’t wanna look like we’re phobic or anything”)
    And declaring that ALL cis gender actors cannot identify with the same emotions as a trans-actor because they are not trans is a fallacy at best, it’s called ACTING for a reason, I mean if one were to write a story about a transgender serial killer, would the trans actor need to have been a serial killer in order to identify with the actions and emotions of the character they are playing? how about a trans mother played by a trans actor who isn’t a mother? or a military veteran?
    And then to extend that logic, in the view of this critic, a trans-actor, who has presumably been met with an overwhelming amount of hostility and marginalization in their life couldn’t possibly play a cis-gender character who has experienced none of those things, how would they identify unless they were… I dunno… Acting or something, but that’s just ridiculous.

    I get the feeling that with these types of criticisms, screenwriters could request a complete and thorough checklist of everything needed to appease these critics, make something that checks every single box, and still be declared “phobic garbage”

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  6. Reasons not to cast a trans actress:
    1) There aren’t many. To fit the character, they would need an older trans women who hadn’t started transitioning yet but was willing to star in a show. The story is about an older woman who’s just starting her transition and is still perceived as a man by society. It’s a pretty key element of the plot. Catsing a cis male makes sense.

    They did cast an FTM actor in the show.

    2) Capitalism- it has to make money. Even if you could find a great trans actress meeting the requirements, she wouldn’t have the name recognition.

    BTW, casting Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena made perfect sense. He never had the opportunity to transition as he was murdered so casting a cis female made sense. In addition, a lot of people went to the movie because she was in it. Casting an unknown FTM actor would have kept people away (sorry- it’s life).

    Your other reasons to oppose the show are even more insane. Just because not every trans person has the experience of feeling they’re in the wrong body, many (most?) of us do (I’m FTM- that was most definitely my experience).

    Being angry because the characters are wealthy white (Jewish, btw) people is odd. Sure, they could have written a story about poor minorities but this is still a good story. Just because you’re familiar with the “typical” trans story and find it banal doesn’t mean it’s cliche for the average American who knows very little about transgender people.

    If you hate this story and the fact that it’s not being told by a trans person, write your own story. Stop complaining about this one and make one you think would be better.

  7. Did you not watch the show? this is a bad review. it’s not “transphobic” or anything like that. besides the man who knew that he was a women is kind of portraying her father. the director Jill’s Dad is transgendered. it received 2 Golden Globes. maybe in the next couple of episodes it gets better. I can’t stand the song in the show. his tee shirt buttoned to the top? who does that. I just wish I got my time back reading this terrible review or whatever this is supposed to be.

  8. Thank you for writing this, its extremely frustrating that everyone seems to have drunk the koolaid on this one. You are right all the reasons given are excuses, and in the end I personally rather it not be made at all then be made with a bigoted premise from the start. Even if Mara is an older trans woman, casting a cis man still doesn’t make any sense as it further confirms all the fucking man in a dress tropes we are still fighting tooth and nail against in 2015. Not to mention the fact that depsite all the supposed positive media attention, and except in very rare examples we are not considered qualified to tell our own stories. I’m practially triggered every time I see his face and to me casting him is no different than casting Leto or any other trans actor.

  9. Maybe you’re right…. but I honestly think that this show does move the issue forwards. Maybe not as much as the author of this article would prefer, but it does move it forwards. The USA is such a conservative country, that a show that is sympathetic to the cause of trans-issues can be nothing other than a good thing. The more that cis people are exposed to the concepts, then change will come.

  10. Dear S.E. Smith,

    While understanding, your argument, I find it quite specious, and completely off mark. As a transwomen, I can say, that Jefffrey Tambor, is like many pre op transgender men.

    Furthermore, I’ll use your argument, to prevent any gay man, playing the role of straight man, in hollywood. Shudder the thought. The industry would be in a panic. For every TG actor denied a role, there is a 100 straight men losing a part, and never once complaining they should get the role, over a gay man!
    You did not think this one through, did you?

  11. Wow, This is such a phobic article it is ridiculous. The casting of parts in movies should be by the best actor/actress for the part. According to your logic, We shouldn’t cast gay men/women in straight parts, and Trans actors should only play trans parts. Should we also be upset that some of the Jewish parts are played by non-Jews… and some of the single actors are actually married…I think the show is fantastic. And, it is showing a very caring and thoughtful perspective to so many issues we don’t usually want to think about.This show is about entertainment and attracting attention to something interesting.
    You want to look at shows that make a mockery, take a look at anything Caitlyn Jenner is doing. That is a travesty. Commercializing ones own life and faking events to bring a false light on her issues, at least Transparent admits to being fiction.

  12. I am a fairly knowledgeable advocate, I’ve never even heard of Jeffrey Tambor, nor did I realize he wasn’t trans when I watched. I assumed they had to get C-list unknowns by virtue of not being a hollywood studio, and took what I saw on the screen at face value – a remarkably well put together piece of work from a non-traditional media source. I had a feeling there would have been a backlash of some type and I was curious to learn more. This critique is really great behind-the-scenes information but they are not visible to the viewer. Like I said, I never heard of this guy and his portrayal is convincing. And so … I question whether it detracts from the value of the story. If anything it reinforces it by drawing the casual viewer into a more detailed academic analysis that would be difficult to portray at all. I hope they all find their way to commentary beneath the surface, and it lifts up the trans community to its proper place of equality. I applaud posts like this for existing and absolutely DON’T discourage it from being said … indeed, it must be said … But the process is unfolding as it should, and I welcome that. Transparent is a winner in my cis-gay-male-no-less-fabulous-than-thine book … I can’t wait for Season 3.

  13. I do think it would have rocked & made more sense to cast someone Trans in the part, but I am not sure if it would have worked, and I think the part was written to fit the actor, who has done a fairly good job so far & does deserve credit for the part. I agree with Sarah & Mick, the 2nd and 3rd commenters here. Also agree that the show is not entirely about one character or person, but even so, they don’t offend me or any of my trans friends. It seems like you’re nitpicking at a show you maybe haven’t even really given a chance.

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