It addresses the construct of gender and trans identity while shining a light on the messy journey of self-discovery.
A few days before I gorged on the second season of the American TV series, Transparent, I happened to read a column that made a case for turning away from fictions of the self. The writer went on to say that you must write what you know but if you have a story to tell, tell it like you know it is not your story alone. It was a fitting coincidence. Jill Soloway manages just that with the semi-autobiographical, Transparent – to tell the story of a transsexual parent, in a way that is so universal, that not only transgender people but anyone in the midst of transitions, living their truths and rocking a few boats in the process, would relate to. The scrutiny that comes with the act of ‘coming out’ is true not only of the transgender community in India, but also of someone who is gay, divorced, in a live-in relationship and others, to varying degrees, who dare to disturb the status quo. Soloway explores the tapestry of oddities that make the institution of family, and distills the alchemy of weighty philosophies through the prism of gender.
Season 1 begins with Mort Pfefferman, the patriarch of a dysfunctional family and a 60-year-old retired college professor, publicly transitioning to Maura Pfefferman. The family comprises three adult children – Sarah, Ali and Josh and an ex-wife, Shelly. Coming out to the kids is not depicted as heroic, as much as honest, taking into account the emotional universe of the family rattled by the admission. Transparent acknowledges the collateral damage caused while being unabashedly honest to oneself but selfishness is still hailed, over living a lie. The children’s reactions range from denial to reluctance to a gradual acceptance – a very real portrayal of an unconventional family experience. The uphill task of getting to know a person anew begins with something as mundane as the question of what to address the parent as. Ali, the youngest of the Pfefferman siblings coins an endearing term for Maura, ‘Mopa’ – a blend of Momma and Papa.
Maura’s confession fuels the process of self-discovery in the family members grappling with identity crises of their own. While in Season 1, the characters wave the flag of liberation as they attempt to find their voices, in Season 2, they are at their lowest ebb in their quest for personal truths. Soloway plunges headlong into the evolution of these characters, where their ugly obsessions and dysfunctional reflexes are front and centre. The series deftly dispels the assumption that brave moments of confrontation dovetail happiness. Flinging open the closet of skeletons and following our truth is only the first of many challenges. Transparent shows how being at home within oneself is an ongoing struggle, which also opens doors to a newer world with lesser and sometimes fleeting, but authentic bonhomie. With wisdom, comes a peculiar loneliness.
The series intelligently illumines that gender and sexuality are not synonymous and that both can be fluid with a range of queer female relationships. A fascinating observation about the distinction between personal anguish and male advantage is highlighted by an instance, where we find out that Maura as a man has a slightly misogynistic past. We also see Maura stumbling into her gender identity like a teenager discovering her body, straddling a sense of adventure and confusion. This is evident in a conversation in a clinic, where the doctor asks Maura, “Do you plan on getting breasts?”, and Maura quips, “Two please.” When the doctor further inquires if she’s planning on undergoing a gender reassignment surgery, she takes a lengthy pause before replying, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.” Maura also vehemently declares that she loves vaginas, a communication seemingly at odds with being transgender. While Ali tries to academically understand the constructs of gender, heteronormavity and patriarchy, Josh still refuses to come to terms with the loss of a father – the loss Mort to Maura. Also, Sarah, the eldest of the Pfefferman kids finds a sense of redemption in her kinks during her lonely phase following a heterosexual marriage, a lesbian relationship and a breakup. The scene where Maura pleasures the ex-wife Shelly, illustrates with masterly tenderness, their fiendishly complicated relationship and the yearning of the elderly, spurred by loneliness. Long habit and a firm sense of belonging in case of ex-spouses can lead to a self-defeating return to the old, familiar ways, irrespective of gender.
The character of Leslie Mackinaw inspired by the legendary lesbian poet Eileen Myles says, “I don’t really teach. I like to talk about things I care about to people, who are ready”. Steering clear of a didactic treatment, Soloway has adopted a similar approach in her storytelling, tackling characters with a rare balance of objectivity and compassion. She presents to us the wonderfully weird Pfefferman clan with a healthy irreverence and hilarity; therein lies the triumph of Transparent.
(Dipti just quit her corporate job and is having fun dipping her toes in a ton of stuff like binge watching TV and web series, doing movie marathons, gallivanting, and writing about her escapades. She tweets @kuhukuro)