The beauty of the show Transparent is that in telling the story of Mort who is Maura Pfefferman creator Jill Soloway has chosen to include sexuality as a theme, as equally important as gender. The show and all involved get an A+.
Transparent is sex positive, which means that the sexuality of the characters is, first of all, included and second, presented without judgment. This is particularly important to me because over 20 years ago when I created Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls, the world’s first transgender academy, I included sex ed as part of our curriculum. This went against the current thinking of the time, which was that trans people would be safer and more respected if sex were not part of the discussion. “It’s a gender issue, not a sex issue,” became the operative phrase, and for some people, still is. It wasn’t so long ago that trans people were considered perverts and subject to arrest. It was thought that sex as a subject had to go. But the people who arrive at my door wanting to find the woman inside have run the gamut of being total virgins to those who are very, very sexually active, and they confide their trans nature has definitely influenced their sexual identity and practice.
So I was delighted when in the pilot episode Mort is described by his son as “a pussy hound.” Oh, yes, I thought, we are going to go there.
In TRANSPARENT, individual characters’ sexual orientations are presented with clarity and complexity and a wide variety of sexual orientations are included. We learn in the pilot episode that of the three adult children of Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) and Shelly Pfefferman (Judith Light) first born Sarah (Amy Landecker) is bisexual; her brother Josh (Jay DuPlass) loves younger and older women; and the youngest sibling Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), well it’s hard to pin her down but she herself agrees she needs “discipline.” Their mother Shelly must have liked sex enough with Mort to have given birth to three children, though how much, we can’t be sure because what is sex, but a dance, and Shelly states she doesn’t like music. She also mentions Mort’s money being spent on younger women.
However, we learn that no character’s sexual orientation can be taken for granted. We may think we know one person’s story, but, not for long. For instance, I thought the woman Josh visited in episode one was a prostitute with whom he was very familiar… but stay tuned for a surprise.
The show is transgenerational. There are three generations of Pfeffermans and there are flashbacks to Mort’s life in 1989. This is particularly helpful because transgender as a movement has grown so rapidly in such a short time. Transgender as a word was not really in use until the 90’s. The T in the Los Angeles LGBT center Maura visits was most likely not added until the late 90’s. The support group that Maura attends there would have existed years prior to today, but not with so many confident and diverse members, and certainly not with trans actors in the roles.
We learn not only how the lives of trans people have changed over the years, we are also presented with ways one generation’s life choices affect another’s. When my students tell me they are afraid to share their transness with their children, I suggest that they could be liberating their children from living in the same emotional strait jackets they’ve worn themselves. Maura’s children appreciate their dad’s “going for it” and it impacts their own lives and desire for sexual integrity. Remembering that “a little child shall lead them, how lovely to hear Poppa Mort’s grandchildren easily adapt to calling Maura, “Moppa,” a word the will now enter the language.
In later episodes, we are treated to gender and sex education, right along with our entertainment: Premarin pills and hormone injections, trans men, female ejaculation, erotic shaving and much more… This free flow of information, in fact the entire attitude of the show reflects the development of the field of sexology which emerged from the sexual revolution of the 60’s, as well as the formation of the transgender movement. Both fields of study have inspired professional degrees, support groups, associations and conferences across the country and around the world.
In episode #8, Maura and her friend Mark who is Marcy (Bradley Whitford) arrive on the site of Camp Camellia, they see crossdressers in all their feminine finery, casually strolling along the path. I was reminded of Fantasia Fair, a week long gathering where for 40 consecutive years the trans community has taken over Provincetown, Mass. One of my favorite scenes in #8, the most revelatory episode in terms of all the characters, is the dance party at Camp Camellia, the joy expressed was truly transcendent.
Also at Camp Camellia, Connie, a crossdresser’s wife is presented as independent and strong. She will go after what she wants, though she may need a drink to relieve some inhibitions or simply put her in the party spirit. She is not presented as a sad martyr. She even mentions the “Crossdresser’s Wife’s Bill of Rights,” a real document. The way Mort’s wife Shelly laughs and later shrugs off her husband’s crossdressing resonates with truth. “She knows but doesn’t want to know.” I’ve heard this so often from my students. I’ve always said it’s better that at least she knows. Transparent makes us wonder if that is really enough.
To get TRANSPARENT on the air was a major accomplishment for all involved. To have it presented by Amazon, a company originally founded to distribute knowledge, seems particularly appropriate. I’d like to think that my own two books, and every book written on sex or transgender have helped just a bit. But the gold star goes to Jill Soloway and company. By creating a show with so many layers and opportunities for twists and turns, the story and the characters have room to grow and so does everyone who watches.
Note: Your first month of Amazon Prime is offered free, and all ten episodes of the first season are available now.