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.
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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.