"Transparent" and the transition in transgender media depictions
Amazon's comedy-drama centered on the experiences of a trans person is an imperfect step forward, says Andrea James
Amazon Studios has released an ambitious new series, Transparent, about a family whose secrets all come out in darkly comic fashion when one parent comes out as transgender.
Creator Jill Soloway’s series title refers in part to Moira, initially Mort, played empathetically by Jeffrey Tambor. Amazon is putting significant resources into disrupting mainstream media further via subscription-based, binge-watchable original content like Transparent. The online series is also an important step in the rapidly-changing depiction of trans people in the media.
The series would not be where it is today without the internet, and the trans community would not be, either. We’re one of the earliest groups to emerge and organize largely online. Even that was a challenge. Back when USENET was a free-for-all and AOL closed at night, trans people figured out ways to move our collected wisdom from an oral tradition to an online one. On services like AOL, using the term “transgender” would get subscribers banned, so folks figured out clever workarounds like chatrooms called The Gazebo, now just an obscure Simpsons reference.
In many ways, Tambor’s character Moira is a vestige of that bygone online era. The nascent commercial internet represented by Amazon caused a bubble of people who came out in mid- to late-life starting in the 1990s and continuing into this century. Most trans people now come out as teens or young adults, some even sooner, largely because they have never known a world without online transgender resources. Soloway’s decision to cast Tambor in the lead will probably soon be a vestige of another bygone era of trans depictions, a mid-transition step on the way to trans lead characters depicted by trans actors.
Jared Leto’s character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club became a flashpoint for trans depictions earlier this year. Not only was the character a HIV-positive drug addict and sex worker who was shunned by her family, Rayon also represented a kind of sassy flamboyance that reflected life for some in the period depicted. That did not sit well in our current outrage culture, where some trans people despise drag. Leto didn’t help either, making an awful and trivializing acceptance speech at the Golden Globes before his more polished and subdued Oscars speech. The director didn’t help matters, either, saying he never considered a trans actor, wondering aloud if any even exist. The term some activists use for trans depictions by a non-trans actor is “transface,” and Soloway was surely aware of the mistakes made by Leto and company.
Here’s the problem. It’s called show business for a reason. Would it have been nice if Rayon had been played by a trans woman instead of Leto? Sure, but that would be a different kind of movie. The primary reason Dallas Buyers Club got greenlit, made, and put in the running for major awards was because Leto and other high-profile stars signed on. Award-whoring like that is big business, and if producers are going to spend 14 years of their lives getting a film produced, they’re likely to put the biggest stars possible in those roles, because these Oscar bait films are potential career-boosters for all involved. A key reason Soloway’s series is getting so much buzz is for the same business realities.
Soloway’s casting of Tambor reflects the business realities of Hollywood. She said she conceived of the series before she was fully politicized about trans issues, that Moira was conceived of, written for, and given to Tambor, best known of late for the show Arrested Development, where he plays the parent of three selfish adult children as he does here. Some worried Moira would be a similarly awful character played for laughs. Soloway’s saving grace may be that she staffed up the show with an array of transgender advisors, actors, and crew. Still, the inevitable casting criticism has been looming over the series as an unknown. The vibrant online transgender community is a double-edged sword; we can rally in support of depictions we like, but every media depiction and casting decision runs the risk of swift online backlash from trans people.
In July, LGBT film festival Outfest held a sneak preview and post-screening panel with Soloway and the cast. It started off with a light, confident tone. Soloway expressed gratitude to trans authors Jennifer Finney Boylan and Julia Serano for informing her politics on the show. Boylan, who was also an advisor, took pains in a New York Times op-ed to get out in front of the “transface” controversy earlier this year, noting that Soloway “has had to take some pains to justify the casting of Mr. Tambor.” This tradition of casting non-trans men as dumpy but sympathetic trans characters is not some new groundbreaking event as Boylan implies. It extends back decades to great actors like John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, or Steven Mackintosh in Different for Girls, or Tom Wilkinson in Normal, with its “transgender procedural” storyline similar toTransparent, focusing on someone in the process of a gender transition. Sometimes women play these roles, including Vanessa Redgrave in Second Serve or Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. Some trans women feel a non-trans female actor like Huffman is slightly better than a non-trans male actor like Tambor, as it softens the “man in a dress” stereotype. Trans men, rarely visible in the media, lag even further behind trans women in accurate media portrayals and opportunities.
When asked by Outfest panel moderator Ari Karpel about why many characters on Transparent seem so unlikeable, Soloway said she thinks “unlikeable” is industry code for “doesn’t make a white cis male feel better.” Cis, short for cisgender, is a term coming into fashion in some circles to describe people who don’t identify as transgender. When Karpel asked about the decision to cast a white cis male in the lead role, Soloway said, “The reason Jeffrey is Moira is because Jeffrey was Moira from the moment the idea was in my head, honestly before I was politicized enough to realize that it would carry with it a certain amount of controversy.”
Ashley Love, a journalist, noted media advocate, and woman of transsexual history, took issue with Soloway’s comments, saying in part:
I felt a lot of good intentions in the show and this meeting, but to be honest, I feel that a lot of people in the trans community are disappointed. Jill, you said that you didn’t make a political compromise. You were going on about these white heterosexual men, but then you hired a cis white heterosexual man to play a trans female character, and it’s humiliating. We feel misgendered. I remember my relatives talking about blackface back in the day, where white men would dress up as black men, and it was very humiliating. We look at this as transface, you know, where we have 6’5” men who the whole country knows as a man from Arrested Development putting on a dress, going “Oh, I’m a woman now!” I just feel like it’s 2014 and I know personally some trans actresses that tried out for the role, but no, they wanted a popular male actor. I do feel that there’s some inconsistency in what you are saying about not being willing to compromise. I mean, the whole Jared Leto thing, most of the trans community protested that. Why don’t our gay and lesbian allies and our feminist allies learn from the trans community? I feel like they keep on telling us, “Oh relax! It’s not that big of a deal! This is authentic!” It’s not authentic.
Soloway, taken aback, struggled through a response punctuated by long pauses:
I’ve been thinking about it constantly since realizing what it would mean to tell this story with Jeffrey. I do believe that at the end of Moira’s journey that there is a genderqueer identity, as opposed to a trans woman identity. And that’s one of the ways that I allow myself to be OK with who Moira is, in that she’s in her exploration of her trans woman identity in Season 1. I totally hear you. I really do. It’s real what you’re saying. All I can say is, this is the show that is Transparent. And there will be other shows and more shows and more representation and more authenticity and more beginnings, more openings. […] There are so many moments on the show that dare to have conversations that have never been had before, never been seen. So I hear you. And I apologize. I really do. I really apologize for the way this show is hurting people’s feelings.
Trans filmmaker Rhys Ernst, an advisor on the show, stepped in to rescue Soloway. “Reading the pilot script in the beginning and hearing Jeffrey being considered very early on, I always felt personally that it was the right choice, because this person does start out before a gender transition, and it is about walking a line of genderqueerness, potentially socially transitioning later in life.” Ernst reiterated that many smaller roles and behind-the-camera positions were given to trans people. Trans artist Zackary Drucker, also an advisor, added, “I think if we want to assassinate anybody who attempts to represent us, include us, employ us, we are making a huge mistake, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”
I asked Love about the panel afterwards:
It was amazing when Soloway asserted she didn’t make any political compromises, yet hired a non-trans actor to play a trans role. I simply educated her about most transsexual women’s justifiable feelings on transface, but she diverted responsibility by saying, “I know you’re angry,” to which I replied, “No, I’m saddened and disappointed by your portrayal, it’s humiliating.” She then summoned her hired trans apologists to attack me, making me feel unsafe and overwhelmed, which is when I became emotional, for this is real life to me, not a SAG job with benefits. It was all a prearranged charade.
An August New York Times Magazine profile of Soloway characterized Love’s comment as “aggressiveness” saying she “angrily confronted” the panelists. While Love minced few words when calling out the contradictions in Soloway’s comments, I would not characterize Love as angry or aggressive. I’ve been criticized by Love myself, mischaracterized by the Times myself, and I was present at the panel. Love’s comments were less aggressive and angry and more of a stark contrast to the fawning media coverage to date. Beyond advocating for trans people, Love has no horse in the race or conflict of interest, and she merely said what many trans people will be thinking when they watch the series. Following the controversy about the recent Times piece on TV producer Shonda Rhimes which suggested her autobiography should be titled “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” I reached out to Love about the troubling parallels between how the Times wrote about both Rhimes and her:
The writer working with Soloway on a PR fluff piece also stigmatized me as ‘angry,’ just like Soloway and her paid trans defenders had. We call that ‘flippin’ the script’ in the Black community. When the Times also mislabeled [Rhimes] as ‘angry,’ it became evident that women of color who question sexism, the establishment, the Hollywood old boys club or transface must be ‘angry,’ yet never just. Propaganda aside, there’s a pattern of non-trans directors preferring men to play trans* woman roles, which further others us and makes a dehumanizing mockery of our lives. I may have been passionate, but to dismiss me as ‘angry’ is just a sly form of censorship.
Trans people in the media have been working to improve trans depictions for many years, but it isn’t easy. The current most positive fictional depiction is Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black,
yet she’s a felon who committed identity (!) theft. That’s still a marked improvement despite the imperfection. As Soloway said, there will be more work, like trans director Sydney Freeland’s new film >Drunktown’s Finest, featuring a trans woman playing a trans lead character, a Navajo escort named Felixia. That’s an imperfect improvement, too. Leto undoubtedly changed some hearts and minds about LGBT issues and HIV/AIDS with his portrayal of the bad old days of the mid-1980s, and Tambor will undoubtedly improve how many people think about older members of the trans community whose appearance and expression don’t always allow them to fade into the woodwork. Tambor and his producers will make mistakes on and off camera, as Leto and his producers did. Neither actor is ideal politically, but it’s part of the process. Trans people are about 30 years behind gay and lesbian media depictions, and to reach that level of progress, trans people working in media will have to compromise on occasion and allow for some mission creep, given the daunting task of changing the entrenched realities of Hollywood.
Soloway’s artistic and economic reasons for casting Tambor reflect current exigencies. Activists like Love need to continue calling out hypocrisy in all its forms, including trans people who slammed Leto but make excuses for Tambor because they’re involved in Transparent or because his character better reflects their personal experiences. This show will likely get the overall trans political seal of approval despite its imperfections because Soloway and everyone involved are doing this from a place of respect and good faith, much more so than the Dallas Buyers Club team were. That alone is an important step. Soloway seems personally invested in trying to get it right, and her sincere efforts will help improve trans media depictions by fits and starts, with mistakes and imperfection along the way.
Transparent [Amazon Studios]
Just what we needed, said exactly no one.
* whether they deserve one or not
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