The suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn this past December opened our eyes to just how much trans lives are in jeopardy everyday. In 2014, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) revealed that transgender individuals who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence have a higher risk of attempting suicide. So when Transparent creator, Jill Soloway, dedicated Transparent’s Best Comedy win to Leelah, she wasn’t only commemorating the death of a trans teen, but for all of those who were scrutinized for reassessing their gender identity before the guise of unsupportive friends and families.
Transparent groundbreakingly expresses just what goes on in a family when a loved one embraces a trans identity. Featuring the lives of a Los Angeles family mourning over the loss of “Mort,” their father, the Pfefferman family must learn to welcome mother Maura, and her transition away from Mort.
As viewers, we follow both her transition and the reactions from her on-looking family members. From time to time we catch glimpses of Maura’s flashbacks as a man, in transition to becoming a woman; we can see how her transition had been marinating in her for a long time, and when she was finally ready to say goodbye to Mort and her male past.
To celebrate Transparent’s winning feat at The Golden Globes, Amazon will be streaming all 10 episodes of season one for free today, Saturday, January 24th. But, sadly, if you have other plans this Saturday and aren’t an Amazon Prime member, there’s no way binge-watch the entire season in 24 hours, let alone digest the series enough to fully understand the cultural significance of all the episodes. The episodes, themselves, are so complex and important to the narrative as a whole, which is why we’re cursing Amazon for only showing it for a day and using it as a marketing ploy to lure members into buying Amazon Prime. (Which doesn’t sound too bad to support an organization that supports the visibility of trans rights.)
But for those who are only watching it for the spectacle of trans issues, it’s important to understand major footnotes to appreciate the show’s messages surrounding queerness, masculinity, femininity, and identity. From how the show was conceived, to what we must take from it.
Footnote #1: Gender is Not Assigned at Birth, and That Trans Lives are an Indicator of Why We Should Embrace the Freedom of Gender Identity
The story came to Soloway when her father came out as a woman. She wrote the show with her older sister, Faith, who is a lesbian and no stranger to the stigma that the LGBTQIA community receives. Soloway told The Guardian, “[… ] I happen to be the person who gets to tell this story and my parent happens to be the person who inspired me with their bravery and their break for freedom.”
Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir theorized, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” We shouldn’t, though we often still do, assign gender at birth; gender is an ambiguous space only to be determined by those who live inside the bodies to determine. ‘Transparent’ tackles the vagueness of gender identity; as creator Jill Soloway tells Flaunt Magazine:
“Transparent stands for gender freedom for all, and within that freedom we can find grays and muddled purples and pinks, chakras that bridge the heart and mind, sexiness that depends on a masochistic love or a sweeping soul dominance. In particular, Transparent wants to invent worlds that bridge the binary: Genderqueer, Boygirl, Girlboy, Macho Princess, and Officer Sweet Slutty Bear Captain are just a few incredibly confusing, gender-fucking concepts that come to mind. The rest should roll [off] of our tongues and [out of our] computers and into your T.V.s as the rest of the season writing unfolds.”
What Soloway is stating here is that there is the need for freedom of choice when it comes to gender identity. One is not necessarily confined to the strict boundaries of male and female. There are grey areas, just as there are black and white; some may identify as genderqueer, which dictates no gender assignment, whereas others prefer specific gender assignment. However, gender identity is up to the individual. So when Mort wants to be called Maura, even without gender reassignment surgery, we must honor her choice, as should her family and those around her.
Footnote #2: Mort and Maura are not Interchangeable, and One is Female while the Other Must Perform Gender
Maura is assumedly pre-operation. When he plays Mort, he is performing the masculine gender. When he plays Maura, she is female, despite how she may not completely “pass” as a woman, according to society’s standards. We see the confliction of Maura’s “passing” as a woman in one instance were she is in the bathroom with her daughter. Other women in the bathroom police her gender identity and reassess her as a man in women’s clothing when her daughter bluntly, and unashamedly still calls her “Dad.” However, because Maura identifies herself as female, and not as a drag queen or cross-dresser, she feels safe going in the women’s restroom. The term drag queen or cross dresser only refers to those who perform or entertain the idea of becoming the opposite, but don’t identify as so.
On the note of performativity, it is important to understand gender is a performed, learned behavior. When we are assigned our gender at birth, we are given certain clothes, toys, words, and mannerisms that dictate our “normal” behaviors. Maura is in a state of unlearning masculinity; she must learn how to become a woman to “pass” in our society. She learns this through a variety of transwomen in the community, and begins to understand the harsh realities in doing so. As viewers, we watch her learn how to become a woman. This often means utilizing the best make up strategies, wearing gendered clothes, and even learning to walk to “pass.” Those who are in transition or trans themselves don’t necessarily need to completely “pass,” it is because of the gendered surveying that takes place in society that implies them to do so.
Footnote #3: Because Maura Had Children as Mort, It Doesn’t Mean We Can Determine Her Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation is another factor that is different in the lives of trans individuals. The concept of gender identity is inherently different from sexual orientation; trans men and women can easily prefer to be bisexual, straight, gay, asexual, polyamorous, etc. It is important to understand which sexuality the individual claims as their own; whether it a person who was assigned as male at birth, transitions into a female, and considers herself heterosexual, or a woman at birth transitions into a male and considers herself gay. Our sexual orientation does not reflect our gender identity.
So before you tune into ‘Transparent’ remember that the show isn’t up for a debate on whether or not Maura should transition. It reveals a message that we must honor her choice to transition, and show her respect and sensibility, like we would all trans lives.