Entertainment

'Transparent' Never Needed Jeffrey Tambor

And it'll be just fine without him.

by Mariella Mosthof
Nov 23 2017, 4:45pm

Amazon

It was announced earlier this week that Jeffrey Tambor would bow out from his titular role in Jill Soloway's Emmy Award-winning Amazon series Transparent. While much hand-wringing has transpired amongst straight folks over how the show could possibly continue without him, Transparent's queer fans know this: Maura was never meant for us.

Transparent was conceived by Soloway to honor their own parent who transitioned late in life, a decision that surprised the family and inspired the fictional Pfeffermans' on-screen chaos, but the series itself has unfolded over the course of the creator's own subsequent coming-outs.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that delving into questions of gender and sexuality as authentically as Soloway does would trigger them to meaningfully question their own identity. Between the first and second seasons, while researching writer Eileen Myles for a character eventually played by Cherry Jones, Soloway famously copped a crush on queer lit's quintessential butch poet/prof/cowboy/daddy.

When the pair met in real life—with Soloway still married to their husband and father of their kids—their feelings crystallized. As they've joked in the past, 215 lesbians all of a sudden became obsessed with the relationship. Soloway divorced, came out, and began dating Myles, who would also appear in an episode alongside the character they inspired.

From there, you could palpably feel Soloway becoming radicalized over the course of making the show, watching their gender identity evolve from looking at awards-show photos over the past four years. As Transparent hit every contemporary queer coming-of-age mark with stunning accuracy, Soloway publicly came out as nonbinary in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter following the debut of the show's fourth season, stating that they use they/them pronouns. (As for a name change, Soloway is "[entertaining] ideas].") It's easy to pick up how they channeled their experiences through Gaby Hoffmann's Emmy Award-nominated character Ali in Season 4, although if you were to ask them, Soloway maintains that they have a bit of every Pfefferman in them.

The series has always been an ensemble vehicle, but Transparent effectively stopped being about Maura after its first ten episodes. Sure, she's there, and has storylines, but with few exceptions, they're almost always the most predictable and least nuanced arcs on the show. Even Maura's friends Shea and Davina sense that their sister is irritatingly contrived in the now infamous "yas queen" scene.

Of course, this is part of Maura's bag: she's a baby queer, in spite of her age, and watching her stumble through her own initiation as a trans woman is partly the point. But her stumbles represent a Trans 101 narrative. Maura is, and always has been, a character written for cisgender straight people. It's why Jeffrey Tambor is considered "the face" of the show, and why the show is awards-circuit bait. Maura is the easy-to-follow, digestible storyline novice audiences can hook into. She's not unlike Orange Is The New Black's Piper Chapman, who show creator Jenji Kohan has previously likened to a Trojan Horse: a pretty, thin, white, blonde woman through which to tell the far more complicated stories of incarcerated women of color. Maura is Transparent's Piper: a wealthy white trans woman navigating very real struggles, but one who is just as clueless about queer culture as cishet audiences.

The richest queer storylines on Transparent have always come from its "secondary" characters. Season two finds Ali fumbling through cock confidence, falling for her first butch daddy (an altogether more believable coupling than her awkward first-season dalliance with a wolfy trans dude), and grappling with the fiercely relatable reckoning that occurs at the convergence of queer identity, Judaism, and academia. Later, she and a friend discover a tube of testosterone gel in Ali's professor/lover's desk, and they play with applying it genitally. Having the scene as a reference point is a relief to anyone who has ever tried explaining to a gynecologist their concerns about topical transference during sex with a partner on T who employs the same hormone delivery methods.

Elsewhere in the second season, Sarah Pfefferman mirrors another experience of Soloway's by divorcing her husband and the father of her children to take up with an old college girlfriend (a fiery, but ultimately short-lived tryst). That marriage, too, dissolves on its wedding day, and Sarah finds herself wandering into a kink camp at a fictionalized analog of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival—complete with a controversial womyn-born-womyn policy to test Maura's character. A pro-Dom named Pony (played by real-life queer porn darling Jiz Lee) spanks a partner on a leash, catching Sarah's eye; she becomes a client virtually on the spot. The pair carry on one of the most realistic (albeit one of the only) queer sex worker/client relationships on television.

Season three rounds out the Pfefferman children's queer identity explorations when Josh finds himself falling for Maura's friend Shea. He bungles it horribly, of course, and Trace Lysette, who plays Shea, nails the all-too-familiar queer grief cycle of hope, disappointment, and humiliation suffered by anyone who's ever fallen for a straight person. The series continues to grow in its queer subtleties through the fourth season, where Ali's gender identity evolves to reflect Soloway's journey. On a Pfefferman family trip to Israel, Ali falls in with some radical queers living on a commune in Ramallah (many of whom are white Jews) who patiently indoctrinate her, breaking her free of the casual Zionism her family mindlessly subscribes to. It sets up a beautiful allegory for later, when Ali hooks up with a masculine of center queer person who gently stops her as she tries to undress them.

It's her first encounter with a person who keeps their binder on during sex, and viewers can feel her world tilt on its axis as she weighs the new option she's being presented with for herself. She bails on the sex, too shaken by the shimmering edges of her identity slowly coming into focus, but the effect is mighty.

Much has been made of what an opportunity Tambor's exit could be for trans women to tell their own stories, which is true. Maura has always been surrounded by trans women who are played by actual trans women, and in fact, Tambor is the only cis actor playing a trans actor in the whole series. A watershed moment came this past season when Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina, appeared fully naked on-screen. So much of the confusion, aversion, and mistrust leveled at trans folks comes from a lack of visibility for trans bodies, and literally displaying the nude body of a 55-year-old trans actress living with HIV—who plays a trans woman living with HIV—is nothing short of groundbreaking.

So to see and hear and read cisgender straight reporters fret that it's "very hard to imagine" Transparent without Tambor is rather a shocking, borderline violent lack of imagination. It cruelly erases the subtle, nuanced, complex stories characters besides Maura have been telling with grace, dignity, and intrinsic understanding, rendering them disposable—worthless. Other viewers claim that Tambor's star power and critically acclaimed performance were their only draws to the show. If Tambor is the only reason someone is watching Transparent, and they feel resonance with none of the other storylines, then Transparent was not made for them. If a viewer feels no sense of responsibility for championing characters who lend vital visibility to a traumatized, neglected community, then that viewer A) needs to find a more diverse group of friends, and B) hasn't been paying attention to the show all along.

And for straight white men to misguidedly believe that they are the arbiters of taste in this matter, or that their opinions of this show have any bearing on its value is laughably entitled. Of course Jeffrey Tambor is the show's star vehicle, critical darling, and awards magnet: look at the people and stories those structures are designed to reward. Queer fans of Transparent aren't in it for a cishet prestige outlet critic's approval or for awards conceived and executed through a heteropatriarchal lens. Simply put, we don't care what those people have to say because those people have never cared about us. And with the same tired joke about Jeffrey Tambor's exit ("So let me get this straight: they're going to do Transparent without the trans parent? Yuk yuk yuk") endlessly circling straight white dude Twitter, the sense of pain and loss queer folks are disproportionately saddled with shows no signs of easing.