TV

How “Transparent” Changed Hollywood

Jill Soloway's troubled but often brilliant show was fertile ground for trans creators trying to plant roots in the industry.

Early on in Jill Soloway’s 2018 memoir, She Wants It, the Transparent creator writes, “Something about my parent coming out immediately shattered a wall; she was being her true self, a woman. Now I could be my true self, a director.”

As a transgender woman who came out suddenly and transitioned fast, I am not surprised by that logic. When people see you pushing past shame and fear to assert yourself in a world that wants you to stay hidden, it often unlocks something for them. In the first months of my transition, I had at least a half-dozen awkward conversations with friends and acquaintances who mapped their own crises onto mine: If I could transition, then they could leave that job, dump that boyfriend, break that bad habit.

I wasn’t equipped to process that kind of projection at the time. I was a 20-something just trying to make some damn sense out of my life, not the avatar of possibility that some people seemed to position me as. But looking back now with the clarity that time provides, I suppose I can understand those uncomfortable conversations—even though I still wish most of them hadn’t happened. Sometimes people feel so stuck in the mud of their issues that they can’t even imagine getting un-stuck until they see someone sprinting across the quagmire in cleats.

That line from She Wants It—“Now I could be my true self, a director”—is, I think, essential for understanding Transparent, which comes to a conclusion this week with a musical finale. The Amazon Studios series was largely lauded throughout its four-season run by cisgender television critics as a groundbreaking show about a transgender matriarch, but Transparent was never really about its main character, Maura, so much as it was happening around her.

Transparent Episode 501
Erin Simkin/Amazon
(L-R): Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann, and Jay Duplass in the Transparent finale.

Granted, Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura did have some good arcs—at least until Tambor left the show in the wake of misconduct allegations from two transgender women who worked with him: his then-personal assistant Van Barnes and his co-star Trace Lysette. (Tambor, who does not appear in the finale, has denied those allegations. In the opening minutes of the series closer, it is revealed that Maura has died of a heart attack. Lysette’s character Shea does appear in the episode.)
 

Over the course of Transparent’s four seasons, Maura Pfefferman came out to her family. She dealt with the hardships of a late-in-life medical transition. She revisited her relationship with her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) and explored her sexuality. But what Transparent was really about was the way in which Maura’s transition seemed to open new paths for her family members, all of them narcissists in various states of arrested development: Shelly decided to write and star in her own one-woman show. Maura’s daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) left her husband Len (Rob Huebel) in search of a sexual awakening and an identity beyond motherhood. Her son, Josh (Jay Duplass), tried to figure out what it meant to be a man after realizing he was the only one in his family.

And Maura’s youngest child (Gaby Hoffmann), who goes by Ari and uses they/them pronouns in the finale, fell in love with a lesbian poet (Cherry Jones) before interrogating their own gender, much like Soloway did in real life while running Transparent. (Soloway dated Eileen Myles in 2016 and came out as nonbinary.)

Jessica Brooks/Amazon
Gaby Hoffmann as Ari in the Transparent finale.

As a show about the journeys of the Pfefferman tribe, I found Transparent to be stirring and evocative, often brilliant. The series deftly explored generational Jewish trauma and, broadly speaking, the way in which the most self-absorbed people are often the most insecure about who, exactly, they are. But Maura never resonated with me the way she apparently did with critics, who awarded Tambor with two Emmys for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

Tambor is a talented actor, to be sure, but as a member of the transgender community who has several older friends within it, I couldn’t suspend disbelief long enough to buy him as a golden-years transitioner. For me, watching Tambor act alongside a veteran transgender actress like Alexandra Billings (who plays his friend and mentor Davina) was a bit like watching a CGI character in a live-action movie. I can understand how viewers who don’t know any older transgender women might have thought that because Tambor’s emoting was so rich, his performance must be capturing something essential about the transgender experience—but all I saw were the little ways in which he was never quite convincing enough. Like Zeno’s arrow, Tambor’s acting approached a destination, but never quite got there.

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura on <em>Transparent</em>.
Amazon
Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in Transparent.

Watching Transparent, I couldn’t help but think about the real-life Carrie Soloway upon whom Maura is based. I thought about how her coming out had sparked a show that wasn’t really about her, in which she was played by someone who could never fully understand what it was like to be her. I wondered who might play Maura if the show had started today, not in 2014.

Indeed, the most enduring legacy of Transparent is an ironic one: By casting Tambor, the show brought more attention to the idea that cisgender actors should not take transgender roles. Tambor’s casting incited controversy, but in the process it gave transgender actors a bigger platform to address the problems with plugging high-wattage cisgender actors into transgender roles: It limits the amount of work available for marginalized performers, and casting cisgender men as transgender women (and cisgender women as transgender men) underscores the false notion that transgender people aren’t really their gender.

There’s no better demonstration of that than the fact that Tambor collected his awards in the Lead Actor category. Maura, at least on paper, was still a male part.

The disjuncture prompted Tambor himself to declare at the 2016 Emmys, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.”

In 2016, Soloway themself asserted in an interview, “I would unequivocally say it is absolutely unacceptable to cast a cis man in the role of a trans woman. Ever.”

Vera Anderson/WireImage
Jill Soloway.

As it turns out, Tambor was not the last cisgender man to play a transgender woman. But that moment at the Emmys was a turning point. In 2018, Scarlett Johansson withdrew from a film called Rub & Tug about a transgender male massage parlor owner after controversy erupted over the casting. And earlier this year, in an interview with NewNowNext, Matt Bomer apologized for offending anyone by playing a transgender woman in the 2017 independent film Anything, specifically citing the “sea change of incredible progress” that happened post-Transparent.

Surely by now anyone who has seen the talent on display in the largely transgender Pose cast, witnessing their riveting, deeply authentic performances, would have to admit that it’s just better to cast transgender actors in transgender roles. There is no comparing the power that an actress like Mj Rodriguez brings to the part of Blanca and the effort that an actor like Tambor had to exert to even approximate a genuine transgender experience.

Jessica Brooks/Amazon
Alexandra Billings as Davina in the Transparent finale.

From that perspective, one of Transparent’s most important accomplishments was giving work to transgender performers like Lysette and Billings, raising their profiles in the process. Lysette can currently be seen in the critically acclaimed Hustlers, and Billings has landed her own roles, guest-starring on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and scoring a part in Broadway’s Wicked. That’s not even mentioning the credits Transparent gave to folks like transgender comedian Ian Harvie, writer Our Lady J, actress Hari Nef, director Silas Howard, and producers like Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Collectively, they have gone on to work on film and TV projects like Pose, Assassination Nation, the Will & Grace reboot, and Netflix’s Tales of the City.

Danielle Levitt/Amazon
Trace Lysette as Shea in the Transparent finale.

Whatever your opinion of the show itself, Transparent was fertile ground for transgender creators who were trying to plant roots in Hollywood. A lot of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, Soloway included, can now fulfill their own callings—as writers, directors, producers—because of it.

That’s why it doesn’t matter that Maura is absent from the finale, which tells the story of the Pfefferman family’s reaction to her death. Rather than spotlight Tambor, Transparent gives another opportunity to a transgender actress. Shakina Nayfack, who starred on Billy Eichner’s Difficult People, plays a weed dealer-cum-singer who agrees to portray Maura in Shelly’s musical-within-a-musical about the Pfeffermans.

Jennifer Clasen/Amazon
Judith Light as Shelly in the Transparent finale.

If that plotline sounds complex, that’s because it is. The film-length final episode is a glorious hodgepodge: Long lyrical stretches with Ari give way to punchy expository songs (written by Jill’s sister Faith Soloway), all of it glued together by some classic Pfefferman blowups and epiphanies. By the time the credits roll, a fairly straightforward dramedy that began with a transgender woman coming out to her children has somehow become a larger-than-life musical that literally sings and dances in the face of the Holocaust. The last number, “Joyocaust,” is a jubilant call for an equal and opposite reaction to the pain caused by modern history’s worst genocide.

The whole thing is a bold experiment that is entertaining in the same way that Transparent has always been entertaining: as a meandering chronicle of obnoxious Angelenos learning to be a little less obnoxious, bit by bit. But like so many titles, Transparent’s ended up being a bait and switch: The real-life “trans parent” was more of a catalyst for the show than the subject of the show. Jill Soloway’s “Moppa” shattered a wall—and then Soloway went ahead and did what they always wanted to do but never thought was possible. The trans parent was the canvas; Soloway had already wanted to paint.

Does it matter that the titular trans parent’s original shattering—that brave act of coming out—isn’t really accessible to us? That it only exists somewhere, fossilized, underneath a casting controversy, a #MeToo moment, and the stories of a half-dozen other characters who are arguably better drawn than her? Does the good the show has done in discouraging the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles—and in encouraging a bevy of transgender creators to pursue their dreams—outweigh its initial missteps?

Jennifer Clasen/Amazon
(L-R): Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker in the Transparent finale.

When pondering that calculus, I think about those long-ago conversations with friends and acquaintances who told me that by transitioning I was helping them, without knowing it, to get past some personal stumbling block. In those moments, I was confused, even annoyed, by people who seemed to be taking my transition and making it about them. But now, years later, I hope they did leave those jobs and break those bad habits. I hope their lives are blossoming and full of joy. Truly.

The lesson I choose to take from Transparent is to try to interrupt inherited trauma instead of perpetuating it. And in that spirit, I don’t want to wish it good riddance just because it failed to be what I once wanted it to be—what it perhaps should have been.

Instead, I want to celebrate Transparent as a bridge to better things—as a show that, in dying, helped others get where they needed to go.

Samantha Allen is the author of "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States" and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist.
@SLAWrites