Just How Accurate Is "Transparent"? A Trans Parent Weighs In

For 45 years, the writer lived as a man—with a wife and daughter—before transitioning into the woman she is today. She explains why Jeffrey Tambor's portrayal of Mort/Maura is a triumph.
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He’s an aging professor with long and rather unkempt hair, the divorced father of three grown children, and now Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to live as a woman in the much-raved-about Transparent, Jill Soloway’s ten-episode series for Amazon. Mort, who has been hiding his secret from his family for some 65 years, is now ready to launch into a new life as Maura.

I can relate. At 45, I transitioned from Richard to Christine, with the surgery following a couple years later. Last month I celebrated my 24th anniversary of being the person I really am.

So I can say with some confidence that this series seems like a watershed moment for transgender people, who have served as easy rhetorical (and literal) punching bags for far too long. Just having a believable continuing story about a transperson seems like a huge victory.

Soloway—creator, producer, writer, and frequent director—who disclosed to Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the New York Times Magazine that her own father came out as a transperson three years ago, certainly did her homework, hiring transpeople to consult on the show, and as cast and crew: Many of the transgender-focused scenes have an undeniably credible feel, and that is a big step forward.

The greatest gift Transparent bestows on transgender people, and everyone else, is showing how gender can be just one more component of a person’s identity that must be merged into a pulsing, often messy family dynamic. Instead of treating a transgender person as a strange hothouse biological freak, Mort/Maura is a person with a range of emotions and interests that aren’t solely defined by her gender transition.

It hasn’t been easy for the entertainment industry to arrive at this moment. Television has almost always utilized transgender or crossdressing people solely for the comical spark they provide, from the reasonably inoffensive Bosom Buddies years ago to the execrable recent series Work It (which was quickly and mercifully cancelled).

But jokes about transpeople are still a staple in most other sitcoms, of the “I kissed a girl in a bar and he turned out to be a guy!” variety. That clumsy jape is frequently followed by a canned “Ewww.”

Some movies in the past have cast genetic women in the role of the male-to-female lead character (i.e., Felicity Huffman in Transamerica). The quality acting aside, there was an inherent falseness to those portrayals. When I saw Transamerica ten years ago, I thought how easy my process could have been if only I had started out with the physique of a genetic female.

Taking a cue from John Lithgow’s superb, natural performance as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, the producers of Transparent cast Jeffrey Tambor as Maura. I generally believe that transgender actors should be chosen for most transgender roles, such as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Jared Leto’s performance as Rayon is an admirable piece of work, but a transgender actor might have brought much more, or different, nuance to the role.

But casting a cisgender man as the newly emerging Maura worked better than casting a transwoman performer in Transparent because most transitioned actors are already far along in their process (i.e., Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black). On the other hand, Tambor provides the raw, rough material that any man starts with when such a gender journey is contemplated, and it helps communicate how daunting the journey can be. And it is said that many of the other crossdressers and trans women in the show are actually what they appear to be.

As you observe the feelings flickering across Tambor’s very masculine face, a face that naturally defaults into a frown, the process of becoming a woman doesn’t look easy at all. Tambor, a splendid actor, registers all the psychic erosion that has resulted from years of shame and hiding.

This resonates with me, since I spent decades using my face to keep people away. My default expression was more than a frown; it was a scowl, an effective device to make others steer clear. However, when I transitioned, it was difficult for me to erase the glower I had spent decades perfecting. So I practiced smiling into a mirror for hours, just so that I could train my face into a new shape.

But when Tambor allows Maura to feel genuine emotions as herself, as the person she really is, her face and the screen seems to fill up with color-drenched flowers and butterflies. It’s a magical Disney moment without any animation required.

Also true-to-life are Maura’s connections with others in the TG community, which include a supportive transwoman friend, a beginning crossdresser pal, and a bunch of crossdressers at a camp. Maura soon finds out that she doesn’t share all the same feelings as some of these new sisters, and that in itself is a revelation, for her and for the audience.

This touches on a subtle but very real divide between the crossdresser and transgender cultures. Ever since transgender pioneer Virginia (Charles) Prince started advocating for crossdressers in the 1960s, she claimed that a true transvestite was a heterosexual male who dressed as a woman to show his love of the feminine.

Prince rejected the idea of gender reassignment surgery, since “real” transvestites, in her view, value and retain their male organs. Even though the term transvestite has been relegated to the dustbin, this remains a subject of debate within the transgender community to this day.

This tension is played out in a startlingly real situation when Maura and her pal visit that camp for crossdressers. It is made clear that Maura’s desire to live as herself all the time is not shared by the other campers. And hats off to Transparent for including that peek into intramural transgender politics.

Still, this ten-episode series (we can only hope for more!) isn’t always perfect from my perspective. One major failing is the lack of self-questioning on Maura’s part. Almost all transgender people I have known over the years have questioned their decision at many stages, pre- and post-op. Switching genders is such a monumental life change, it causes even the most assured and resolute among us to wonder: “What the fuck am I doing?”

Instead, Maura appears not to suffer from many second thoughts. And good for her! It just doesn’t quite jibe with what many others have experienced. To wit, I was ready to cancel my gender reassignment surgery and go back to living as Richard (or at least as a pre-op Christine). Only a call to my surgeon in Brussels the night before the surgery kept me on track. And God knows where I would be now, had I backed out.

But the most significant gain that Transparent makes is how Maura interacts with her captivatingly neurotic Jewish family, including a sharp-tongued Judith Light as her ex-wife and the three kids played by Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass. These characters are complex and achingly real, and they each have stories that merge with Maura’s new journey in fascinating ways.

In my own life, my relationship with my ex-wife (we were married for 19 years) has remained affectionate, even as she recently celebrated her 20th anniversary with her second husband. And my daughter and I went through a long period of distance and difficulty before we grew into the close connection we now enjoy. But it was never easy for any of us.

In a similar way, the Pfeffermans are robust, sexual, and flawed individuals in a family that eats avidly and directly from the serving bowls—figuratively, at first, and then literally in the final episode. All of them, Maura included, are stuffing life in, hand over fist, and it is a genuine pleasure to spend time in their fractured yet loving company.

Christine Howey is a theater critic in Cleveland, Ohio. She also performs "Exact Change," the one-person show she wrote about her gender journey (www.exactchangetheplay.com).
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