Gender Prison: Transgender, Schlumpy and Human

 photo BOYLAN-WEB1_zpsf7b7d934.jpgJennifer Finney Boylan had a review of the new Amazon series Transparent in Sunday's New York Times. Boylan is a professor at Colby College and author of Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders and other works.

You can view the pilot for free here.

Created by Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara). A Los Angeles family with serious boundary issues have their past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone's secrets to spill out.

Starring: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman

The show is sponsored by Geico.

Tambor portrays a transgender woman struggling to come out to her dysfunctional family.

They are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.

--Tambor, talking about his children in group therapy

Now Boylan does have her own boundary issues here. She is, after all, an adviser for the show.

When I was first asked to serve as an adviser to the show, I hesitated, fearing that it would get the issues all wrong, as television and film often do where transgender characters are concerned. And yet I was won over by the pilot’s charm. So far, anyway, “Transparent,” written and directed by Jill Soloway, shows every sign of being one of the first television shows to depict the life of its transgender heroine with grace and respect.


 photo olympia-dukakis_zpsfd820392.jpgMost of us are probably going to have problems with the fact that Tambor, who plays the transwoman Maura, is neither a woman, nor transgender. So Maura will be literally "a man in a dress." The quintessential portrayal of a transwoman by a non-trans person in the opinion of most of the people I know was by Olympia Dukakis as Armistead Maupin's Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City.

But you can understand why trans viewers might grow weary of seeing themselves constantly portrayed by straight actors for whom trans roles are an opportunity to “stretch themselves.” Why do these parts go to people who struggle to imitate us, when there are trans actors ready and able to bring to these roles the authority and authenticity of their own lives?


Boylan covers the recent push back by transwomen and transmen against the concept that our biological past is public property.

Then there was Janet Mock, author of the book “Redefining Realness,” on the Piers Morgan program early this month, trying to explain that the on-screen headline, “Was a boy until age 18” was problematic, particularly in the way it defined gender through genitalia alone. I thought her response to Mr. Morgan was poised and articulate: “I was born a baby,” Ms. Mock said. “As soon as I had enough agency in my own life to grow up, I became who I am.” It’s clear that the terrain is changing.


Boylan says that the creative team working on Transparent is genuinely interested in being respectful as they represent a true (albeit fictional) trans experience. She says that Soloway's choice of Tambor is meant to represent the fact that not all of us come out when we are also as gorgeous as Ms. Mock…and that it usually takes a substantial amount of time to grow in to ourselves.

That “Transparent” depicts a schlumpy, older person rather than a gorgeous fashion model is good for both trans and cis folks alike. It captures the surprisingly universal problem of being defined only by our biology, rather than our spirits. It should make us stop and think about what it means to be a man, or a woman, and the struggle that so many people face in trying to live our truth. This isn’t a problem unique to transgender people; it’s the same for all of us.


The Cabin Goddess also has a review…and hits the same nail.

One issue that will pop up is the the choice of Tambor. He is a phenomenal actor but as the one who transitions I predict this ruffling a few transgender activists feathers. Not because of how transgender is portrayed in the show, but because he is quite the opposite, In the quilt community we call individuals like this cisgendered. He looks, and acts like a man… at least some will say so. From my point of view I will disagree. I think he truly did a beautiful job with this role. But, as for the actual subject matter I am worried we won’t get a solid and real picture about what this experience is like. As someone who has dealt with this as a support person, I’m worried it will either be thrilled or horrifically disappointed. From what I have seen so far, it could go either way. It is bold to take on something this controversial in the world which we are living in today, being so steeped with political *in your face* issues… but who knows!

--Kriss Morton

Having watched the pilot, I have to say that the issue that bothered me the most is the fact that other than Maura's story, the other members of the family seem to be all about sex..and I fear that the entire project will be immersed in that context…which is the context that non-transgender people often think our lives are focused on.

The reality is, of course, that we do not transition in relation to who we are going to sleep with, but rather in relation to who we are going to sleep as.

Michelle Dean at Flavorwire gives the backstory on Maura's children:

And then there are the children, all three of whom are lost in their own way and, if anything, make Tambor look like the “straight man” (so many levels of double entendre there) in this situation. One of the three siblings is played by Gaby Hoffmann, who I have to say has been incandescent in everything she’s appeared in lately — her arc on Girls was the only part of this season I’ve really loved, so far. Here, she is a depressed, unemployed 20-or-30-something who, as her father puts it, shares his depressive gene. Her brother (Jay Duplass) is a music producer with a penchant for beautiful girls. And her sister (Amy Landecker) is a bored housewife toying with the idea of reviving some college lesbianism with an old flame.


Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed is also pushing people to watch the show.

Transparent’s examination of fascinating yet mundane lives has, of course, a big twist driven by Mort as he tries to evolve into Maura. Tambor, who has been acting for television for 37 years, plays his patented unhinged, patrician dad type with a very different aim here. As a father at dinner with his kids, he can be shout-y; as Maura, he seems gentle, and his eyes are full of sadness. But also some hope.






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