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The New Season of 'Transparent' Is Ushering in the Trans Revolution

With season three of the Amazon show, showrunner Jill Soloway highlights a wide cross section of trans experiences, creating awareness around the divergent struggles of trans people from different walks of life.
September 23, 2016, 3:34pm

Maura and friends in a still from the season three trailer for Amazon's 'Transparent.' Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Last Sunday, Jill Soloway won her second consecutive Emmy award for Best Director of a Comedy Series for Transparent, the third season of which premieres today on Amazon. Her acceptance speech included a telling shoutout to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: "You invited me to do this thing that these people call television," she said, while pointing out to the audience. "But I call it a revolution."

And in many ways, Transparent is indeed revolutionary. In a world where cisgender white men are still seen as the only bankable protagonists in most every performed medium, Soloway's decision to focus a highly visible show on the story of a septuagenarian trans woman is nothing short of radical. "It's a privilege," she said later in her acceptance speech, "and it also creates privilege, when you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and put them at the center of the story, as the subjects instead of the objects. You change the world."

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Though Transparent's showrunner is a cisgender woman and its star a cisgender male, Transparent has always made a concerted effort to place nuanced trans experiences at the center of its story. In addition to casting trans women and men, Soloway hired 50 trans and gender-nonconforming cast and crew at all levels of production. The show has counted trans artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker as producers since the beginning, and added trans singer-songwriter Our Lady J to its writers room in the second season to add wrinkles of authenticity to its scripts.

Yet still, Transparent's first two seasons painted a somewhat idyllic picture of what it means to live as trans. When Maura first came out, announcing her transition to her family in season one, she faced few serious repercussions. Her ex-wife, Shelly, took it all in stride—even in divorce, the bond they share is evident. Her daughters, Sarah and Ali, had both been testing the binaries of sexuality and questioning the idea of gender before Maura's revelation took place. Even her son, Josh, who took the news harder than anyone else, eventually came around. Though the second season did touch on more serious issues, such as Maura's run-in with TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) at a cis women's-only retreat, or the implied murder of Gittel (Maura's presumedly deceased trans aunt, during a Nazi-era Berlin flashback), Maura's personal struggles always seemed to stop short of actually showing some of the more depressing realities of trans life.

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In its third season, however, Transparent finally gets real about these larger issues by expanding the scope of its narrative beyond Maura—who, trans or not, is still white, well-off, and privileged in a way that most trans people are not. That doesn't mean Maura's problems aren't real problems, and the show's writers are aware of this cognitive dissonance. One of the season's earliest scenes finds Maura at her dining-room table with her roommate and best friend Davina. As she goes through a laundry list of all of the great things happening in her life—her girlfriend Vicky loves her, her kids are doing great and all accept her gender identity, she's excited to start volunteering at the LGBTQ call centershe pauses. "I've got everything I need," she says. "So why am I so unhappy?"

Transparent finally gets real about these larger issues by expanding the scope of its narrative beyond Maura—who, trans or not, is still white, well-off, and privileged in a way that most trans people are not.

The season does, of course, contend with Maura's unhappiness. But it also uses its extremely visible platform to shed light on trans people who are unhappy and don't have everything they need. Such is the case in the first episode, when a young trans woman from a low-income neighborhood phones into the Los Angeles LGBTQ call center to share the struggles she's had finding proper healthcare. She tells Maura, who happens to pick up her call, that her clinic's location is inconvenient, they don't keep track of their patients, and they require approval from her guardians, who don't care about her wellbeing. Her storyline is short, but it's the kind of subplot that speaks volumes. These are issues we've never had to face with Maura, but which plague the trans community—especially the corners of the trans community whose narratives are woefully lacking from our most visible film and television—just as much, every single day.

Maura's close friend Shea is spotlit this season, and her storyline is another that brings the viewer underrepresented sides of trans life. She's an HIV-plus stripper who speaks frankly about how difficult it is to date as a trans woman. She makes it clear that getting gender confirmation surgery didn't make her situation any easier. Her storyline is intertwined with her budding relationship with Josh. But while it's great to see the decidedly heterosexual Josh openly acknowledge his attraction to a trans woman without shame, it's heartbreaking to see that he can't help but fetishize her. He ignorantly tells her that he loves the fact that she can't get pregnant, and later reveals he had no plans for anything long-term with her. Because we know that Josh isn't deliberately trying to hurt her, the emotional weight these scenes impart are even more effective at proving their point. "Dating while trans is a shit show," as Shea puts it. "It's a no-win situation."

Even with her privilege, Maura's trauma is overwhelmingly palpable this season. She decides to undergo facial feminization and gender confirmation surgery, another privilege afforded by her wealth. But even with her means, she's stripped of her autonomy when asked to get permission for the surgeries from a psychologist—an unfortunate reality that implies that a self-imposed gender identity is worthless until it's validated by an outside licensed professional.

The show's third season also shows an astounding ability to humanize its trans characters while addressing common misconceptions about the trans experience—in effect, educating a broad swath of Americans about subtleties of trans lives not seen before on a platform of this scale. In the first episode, someone who was misidentified as trans at the LGBTQ call center offered a calm correction: "I'm intersex. I was born with quote-unquote ambiguous genitalia. I'm one of those." Later, in the finale, after some difficult realizations, Maura finds herself questioned by her daughter Ali, who asks if she has stopped transitioning. Ali's "moppa" calmly corrects her: "I've already transitioned. I'm trans." These are simple declarations designed to help fill in the blanks for viewers without pandering, inching the show ever closer toward the revolution that Soloway claims she always wanted to incite.

At last year's Emmys, Jill Soloway won the same best director award in the same comedy series category. "We don't have a trans tipping point yet," she declared in her acceptance speech then. "We have a trans civil rights problem." The hope is that shows like Transparent will push us closer to that tipping point soon. If not, Soloway and her team will be the last people to blame.

Follow Michael Cuby on Twitter.