Why ‘Transparent’ is the most evolved show about women, ever
Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had picked up the streaming hit Transparent for a second season. The show, centering on a Jewish family from Los Angeles, has been lauded for its depiction of complex human relationships and accurate portrayal of a particular transgender narrative. The Verge frames it best, saying that Transparent has given Amazon its “Netflix moment,” referring to the success the rival video streaming service has had with original series House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. By nearly all accounts, the show is a runaway success, and I believe is one of the most evolved, feminist portrayals of familial relationships as has ever been seen on TV.
Ask three people what the primary storyline of Transparent is, and you’ll receive three very different responses. Is it Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) story of coming to terms with herself as a transgender woman? Is it daughter Sarah’s (Amy Landecker) empowering story of a woman who bravely follows her heart in pursuit of happiness? Is it siblings Joshua (Jay Duplass) and Ali’s (Gaby Hoffman) quest to find their path in life in terms of career, interest, and love? Individually, any of these themes might be strong enough to power a show on their own; together, they create an emotional force unlike anything seen on television in recent years.
What makes Transparent special, is its ability to sidestep derogatory tropes that have been used to paint women as flighty, weak, or deceitful.
Maura’s experiences as a transgender woman finally taking control of her life feel genuine. The character is shown as someone who is tired of acting like someone they’re not, and as the first season progresses, she’s shown coming into her own. In one scene, another transgender character, Davina (Alexandra Billings), is trying to coach Maura how to walk and talk “like a woman.” In an empowering display, Maura tosses her hands up, leaving the room because she understands that she doesn’t need to learn how to do these things. She is a woman, and therefore, any way she walks or talks — be it stereotypically masculine or feminine — is doing so “like a woman.”
In the show’s pilot episode, Maura’s daughter Sarah is portrayed to be a perpetually vexed, burnt out, upper-middle-class housewife. Throughout the series, we see that Sarah is far from the stereotype she was initially pegged. She breaks free from her loveless marriage, takes ownership of her sexuality, and finds love and stability in her new life. In the pilot, she’s shown to be having an affair with a woman named Tammy (Melora Hardin), but rather than collapsing under a mountain of guilt or becoming a pariah in social circles, Sarah’s commitment to living a life of truth and love overcomes the obstacles in her path.
Joshua is the embodiment of Hollywood’s “man-child” character. Ordinarily, the focus of shows on characters like Joshua is centered around his personal growth, using the characters around him in a type of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” capacity, as props. Not so in Transparent. Joshua mistreats women, toys with their emotions, and engages in efforts to manipulate the decision-making processes of his sexual conquests. His character becomes intensely unlikeable throughout the series, and he is shown paying for his past mistakes. His obsession over the unintended pregnancy of a woman he slept with winds up costing him his job.
Ali follows a similar path in seeking out personal growth, and while she still doesn’t have everything (or anything) figured out just yet, she’s trying. Much as Maura is coming into her own, so is Ali. Chided for her short attention span, Ali’s persistence and commitment to becoming a better, more authentic version of herself begins to shine through towards the end of the season. Her experiences are representative of so many of us who find ourselves asking what we’re doing here day after day.
The character development is superb. Show creator Jill Soloway does a fantastic job creating an inclusive, relatable experience for viewers, and her commitment to tearing down patriarchal norms leaves me excited to see where the show goes from here.