We Need To Talk About 'Transparent'

We fell in love with the pilot of Amazon's "Transparent" when it aired back in February. We then raved about it and implored you to binge-watch it when its first season premiered in full on Sept. 26. And then we gave you a basic guide for how to approach and talk about the show and its various gender and sexuality topics. Now that we've binged the entire season (and are currently rewatching it), there is a lot to discuss and contemplate. Here are the highlights and most interesting and important parts of "Transparent" Season 1, and our reactions:

Crossdressing culture vs. Trans culture

Duca: Let's start with the cross-dressing retreat. The clash between crossdressers and trans culture was so jilting in that setting. Maura is in this space where she feels comfortable and safe for the possibly first time in her life, and she is faced with disgust over the idea of wanting to transition rather than crossdress. Marcy and the others' insistence that "We are men" acts as a reminder to the audience that even among those who are not restricted to the gender binary can place stigma on the trans experience. I had been (foolishly) watching under the assumption the camp was a wholly accepting environment, so it came as a shock to me. Did you expect that kind of hostility?

drag camp

Whitney: Honestly, I thought I had missed something when all the crossdressers (who I didn't know were such) were sitting at the camp picnic table expressing their masculine pride rather voraciously. I entered the camp with Maura under the assumption that it was a trans camp, but then, as much of Soloway's fantastic writing does throughout the season, we're surprised and our expectations are completely upturned. The realization and discomfort hits us, as the audience, as much as it does Maura when she begins to realize that they're not all a part of the same family. It's absolutely heartbreaking to watch her finally find somewhere she believes she fits in only to realize that there's a sharp hostility between these crossdressers and transgender folk. This was one of the most fascinating and eye-opening parts of the season for me, to realize that these two groups of people, both minorities in today's society, both fighting for freedom of identify and express themselves as their authentic selves, yet both with entirely different conceptions of embodying an identity. I really want to learn more about this and how interactions between these communities plays out in real life. This seems to hardly be something discussed in the media. Did you have any previous awareness of this, Lauren?

Duca: That's definitely true: you feel it as Maura feels it. I hadn't known about this kind of clash between some crossdressers and some trans people previously, but what it reminds me of was something that came up with the controversy surrounding "RuPaul's Drag Race" this season and the conflict that exists between some trans women and some drag queens -- which is still very different from crossdressing culture. That particular conflict between drag and trans folk is a nuanced and complicated one that can't be defined along a hierarchy of acceptable or unacceptable (Zack Ford's article for Think Progress explains this in much greater detail). It's important to remember that there is a spectrum of ignorance because of the lack of lived experiences even for those who fall outside of the society-approved heterosexual cisgender identity.


Whitney: Well, I applaud Soloway for bringing such a controversial topic into the conversation of her show -- it's a daring move that is pretty unusual in the realm of TV. Among other things, "Transparent" is really getting us as an audience and the media to start discussing these subjects and that's incredible to me. I can't help but wonder now what will happen between Bradley Whitford's Mark/Marcy (who was incredible, by the way) and Maura. I have a feeling the two either never saw each other again after the camp, or will have a big falling out revealed in Season 2. And let's not kid ourselves, Amazon has to give "Transparent" a second season.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story conflated crossdressers and drag queens. It has now been revised to accurately reflect several of the different subsections of the queer community.

Ali's log cabin hallucination

Duca: Okay, what went on with Ali seeing the trans professor's house as a log cabin? At first, I thought it was hilarious as an absurd extension of her issues with gender. Her idea of femininity is Taylor Swift at a Quinceañera, and then he lives in a log cabin with a neon bar sign. But then none of it is real. At first I processed that as maybe a hallucination, but she later told Syd about her vision. Should we be taking it literally? The show doesn't really trade in abstractions, so it's kind of hard to process.


Whitney: That episode, Episode 7, was my favorite of the entire season because we see each of the main character's reservations and fear toward gender and sexuality culminate in big, beautiful and absurd ways. First off, Ali's outfit is insane and amazing -- Taylor Swift at a Quinceañera is a pretty perfect description, Lauren! As soon as she arrived at the trans TA Dale's home, I honestly couldn't stop laughing. It was like this bizarre masculine-charged lumberjack fantasy a delusional woman would have -- a log cabin, a neon PBR sign, an old-fashioned television, he tells her she needs to shave her pubes and then actually does it with an old school shaving kit (WHAT!). They both fall into this hyperbolic role playing of masculine and feminine behavior -- the woman asking if her man is a "leg man or a boob man," him aggressively telling her to call him "Daddy" and take off her underwear as he gulps a bottle of beer. It's ridiculous and so damn hilarious for that exact reason. There's also this slight look of delight and satisfaction that crosses Ali's face for a moment during all of this, as if she's thrilled that she's finally achieved the hyper-femme/hyper-masculine relationship she thought she wanted/needed.

Duca: The whole thing definitely speaks to what Soloway said about Ali plausibly identifying as gender queer within five seasons. In this very early stage, she's still navigating the extremes of the spectrum and tutus / shaving kits are a fun way for the show to play with that.

Whitney: As she mentions later in the season, it's Maura's transition that inspired Ali's journey toward gender curiosity and I think the moment she fully sees Maura transformed -- on stage singing her heart out -- she snaps back into reality. Ali can't have sex in the bathroom with the shiny red dildo, she realizes she pushed it too far and the whole forced gender facade begins to disintegrate. She arrives back at Dale's house and it's a completely normal home, he's driving a normal car (not a beat up pick-up) and it finally sets in that this is just the way things are; they don't need to fit into this binary, this strict construct of masculine and feminine. The episode is called "Symbolic Exemplar" and Soloway bravely elevates it to an abstract level to reveal just how absurd, how warped and extreme our society's understandings and perceptions of gender are. Most shows, I think, would suffer from this sudden introduction (and then soon after) abandonment of hyperreality in a very realistic, grounded show. Yet I think the elusive metaphors Soloway uses jolt us in multiple ways -- not only are we left confused about what literally just happened on the screen, but the more we contemplate it, the closer we come to seeing the actual reality of how misguided our own conceptions of gender are today.

log cabin

Duca: Definitely. Although, I think the abstraction suffers from her explicitly acknowledging she saw things differently. Especially because it's the show's only distinct departure from reality. Representational visions of log cabins are funny. Literal visions of log cabins are a potential sign of a brain tumor. So, Ali telling Syd about her experience seems like a misstep from Soloway. Although, it does function to more fully explain what Ali is going to through the audience. It's sort of a nudge like, "Yes! That was her struggling to processes her personalized gender stigmas!"

Whitney: It does sort of feel like a nudge, as if Soloway felt a need to further explain for the audience. I would have been just fine with it had Ali not even mentioned it to Syd, but instead brought it up in a more general sense. Either way, I love that the episode went there and gave us something to laugh about and then ruminate over.

Parallels of death and birth

Whitney: I really loved how full and rich the season felt, beginning and ending on both literal and symbolic notions of death and birth. Soloway has described before how she views her show as the death of one parent (Mort) giving birth to the life of another (Maura). This comes across in the pilot alone, but as the season continues, it also ends with another instance of this. We end on the (literal) death and funeral of Ed, but there's also another sense of a birth in the finale. Not only do we get the introduction of a new family member, Josh's son, but that final scene gives birth to a new family unit, sharing a deeper bond than they previously had. They're all at the table, connected by hands (and a strand of hair) in a way they haven't all sat in silence together before. There may not be actual barbecue sauce across their faces this time, but at this final moment everyone's own mess is completely out in the open and exposed. It's such a beautiful way to open and close a season of a TV show. I do feel like there is more at play with Ed and his significance in the season overall. Each character seems to represent something about understanding and exploring identity, but what did Ed represent? What are your thoughts, Lauren?

Duca: That description is making me love this damn show even more, Erin. I want to talk about Ed in a second, but also touch on this idea of the (sort of) birth of a family unit with Josh and his son. Soloway played that magnificently. The fact that he fathered a child probably at age 12 or 13 (I have to do the math, but he's a senior in high school, so Josh had to be pretty young) could have been so soaked in drama to hammer home the finale. The way Soloway let the shock sit kind of quietly was a total punch in the stomach, because it also put into perspective the fact that Josh -- a cisgender heterosexual -- is far more screwed up than anyone in his family, but might not be recognized as such by bigoted, bullshit social standards.


Back to your question about Ed. I think he was one of the most comical parts on the show. I just laugh out loud thinking about him popping back into the house with a caricature of himself. He's so one-dimensional (deliberately so) that it's brilliant of Soloway to poke fun of the character in that way. It's also worth noting that the moment when he dies, he appears to leave the house. It's possible that's another moment (on top of Ali's log cabin) that functions as a departure from reality. But the way he slips away and forces them into the funeral and discovering themselves it almost seems like he functions as this disposable element of ourselves that can be a burden (in terms of Shelley caring for him and being tied to this life of mundane solitude) but also the ways that letting it go can be freeing.

Whitney: Oh my gosh, Ed and his cotton candy and his caricature may have been one of the best moments of the entire season. I want to screen shot that moment and make it my desktop wallpaper. But back to the serious discussion: that's a really beautiful way of putting it, Lauren. Viewing Ed as a sort of symbol of the burdens we carry and are so afraid to let go of. Ali is the only one who is so struck by the thought of letting Ed die, this idea of giving up on a once-joyful fragment of her past, someone who was just there to "make them happy." I think through learning to let him go, Ali along with the rest of the family, learns to face their fears of change and of possible unhappy bumps to come in the future. And at the end, that's completely okay. To be afraid and confused and uncertain of what the hell to do next as Josh is about his son, Ali about her gender, Sarah about her feelings for Tammy and Len, Maura adjusting her new self to the world and Shelly moving forward. It's simple, but so very relatable and human.



Duca: This idea of how relatable these characters are is really interesting to me. I don't feel this, but I could understand someone walking away from maybe the first four episodes and thinking "Transparent" is working a bit too hard to check every possible social issue box. Having so many awakenings happen throughout one season, in a show where every scene is a plot turn, can be a lot to take in. That's why it shows Soloway's dexterity when she can keep everyone so grounded in spite of everything that's going on. There is no hierarchy of goodness or badness. Everyone just has their shit and ultimately it's the way it fits together and what the show says about the nature of a family unit that is relatable. What elements do you think kept it so grounded, Erin? Where there ever moments where you felt the show was trying to take on too many things at once?


Whitney: I agree that these characters are some of the realest and most relatable I've seen on TV lately. There's no urge to pin any hero against villain or virtuous against debased -- everyone sort of has a decent balance of admirable and undesirable characteristics. There are moments where you want to slap Ali across the face and tell her to grow up, or can't stop shaking your head at Josh's naivety with women and sex. I think Maura is the most mature and grounded character out of them all, but she even has flaws slip out (i.e. when she angrily calls her neighbors "faggots.") But that is life and I love how genuinely the show reflects that.

There was one moment though where the attempting-to-check-off-every-social-issue sort of hit me over the head a little too hard. When Carrie Brownstein's Syd admitted to having feelings for Ali I sort of rolled my eyes and sighed. Out of all the storylines, this one felt forced as a means of addressing how Ali will approach same-sex relationships especially one with her best friend. It seemed to work out a little too perfectly to further that curiosity, but I guess I can understand and see some of the truth in it -- it is a common thing for women of various sexualities to confuse and/or stifle same-sex feelings within a close friendship. I just think the story would have been perfectly fine without it. I enjoy Syd as a mechanism for Ali's venting, but a romance between them? I'm hoping that quickly fades out by Season 2 because Ali's complexity deserves more than that.

Duca: Yeah, that was a little much for me, too. It's forced and so convenient. If there is one stand out criticism of "Transparent," it may be that it's trying to pack everything in a little too tight. Although, in a way that also speaks to its strengths. It takes on so much and handles it with a dexterity that lets the psychosexual comedy shine through the heaviness, reminding us that, at the end of the day, this is really just a show about family.

The first season of "Transparent" is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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