‘Our Family Religion: Transkinship in “Transparent”’, by Dion Kagan


Illustration by Camilla Perkins.

Transparent is a family drama-comedy that circles around the later-in-life gender transition of Maura Pfefferman. Maura, born ‘Mort’ (Jeffrey Tambor), is a retired professor of political science. Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) is re-married to Ed Paskowitz (Lawrence Pressman), who is now debilitated by aphasia and has lost the ability to talk. Their three smart, charismatic, and self-absorbed children Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) grew up in a large mid-century house in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles.

There’s a key scene in the much-discussed pilot in which Maura reveals to her children that she is planning to sell the family home. Actually, she intended to come out to them; and they, anticipating a significant revelation, are worrying (fantasising?) that their father has cancer. Maura and her children are sitting around the dinner table, talking over one another and making offhand jokes. A circular camera movement shows them eating ribs with their fingers and smearing barbecue sauce on their faces.

A circular camera movement shows them eating ribs with their fingers and smearing barbecue sauce on their faces.

The 360-degree pan establishes some important things. The rotation from one family member to the next foreshadows the outlook the series itself will take, shifting among Pfefferman protagonists, never settling for too long on a single perspective. It also shows us a rolling family intimacy with very few clear boundaries. The Pfefferman family style is loose and disinhibited – very Euro-American migrant, very Jewish. Sarah affectionately wipes sauce off her father’s face. “Let him be as messy as he wants,” Ali protests, “We’ll hose him down at the end.” “We come from shtetl people,” Maura concludes. Their messiness is multi-dimensional and has a long history.

As well as intimacy, the circular camera movement suggests claustrophobia. Kinship is closeness but it’s also a kind of custody. The shtetl begets the ghetto. Maura’s grown up children are heavily dependent on their father, but not necessarily dependable; coming-out and selling the house promises her a kind of escape from the ghetto.

Transparent’s writer and director Jill Solloway has also spoken about the “circularity” of Maura’s story, implying that it is a self-consciously feminist mode of storytelling. Maura’s narrative will not follow the progressive, linear arc of the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, all of the Pfeffermans seem to move in circles; returning again and again to the Palisades house, turning repeatedly back to face the family past. This is where we find them at the end of the series: sitting around the family table, together, again. Histories of shame and of family secrets become part of a painful consciousness of negativity in the present, but also an imperative for understanding the family more honestly. Looking back in Transparent is a kind of queer disruption to the present.

Selling the house is a good initiatory conceit because cleaning up and sorting through possessions foregrounds family memory.

The Pfefferman home is one of those gorgeous Hollywood Hills-style houses with cantilevered rooms and the classic ‘post-and-beam’ design by legendary California modernist architects Buff and Hensman – how is it that, after the divorce from Shelly, Maura ended up as its custodian? In contrast, Shelly lives in a ’90s condo in a gated retirement community in Marina del Rey, all glass and concrete minimalism.

There is baggage symbolism in the first few episodes as the house gets packed up and Maura’s children are called upon to deal with the artefactual history of their lives. The state of the house literalises the dredging-up-of-the-past that Maura’s coming-out initiates. A big mess of stored memories tipped all over the floor, now made visible and needing to be dealt with. The Pfeffermans have so much shit to sort through.

For three entitled, semi-financially dependent adult children, selling the family house is a form of material and psychic upheaval. They all feel entitled to it in different ways. Sarah, Josh, and Ally are adult babies. “How did I raise three such selfish kids?” Maura asks her support group. In place of her plan to come out, Maura’s announcement of the sale is like an unconscious punishment, a tough lesson about adulthood.

Finally being transparent with her children is liberating for Maura, but it has consequences.

Finally being transparent with her children is liberating for Maura, but it has consequences. Transparency promises a type of freedom, but also a new set of obligations and challenges. Maura takes her boxes and moves on to the next part of her life, a queer-friendly apartment complex named ‘Shangri-La’ in West Hollywood, leaving her children to squabble over the debris.

Explaining his hopes for his relationship with me, a lover once said that he imagined we would be “transparent” with one another. I don’t remember the other things he said, because I became fixated on the term “transparent”. I told him it was a good “buzzword”. I was mocking the term in the same gesture as approving of it. Transparency is a kind of liberty, but complete transparency is aspirational only.

Josh is reluctant to deal with the family mess because he’s busy being a hipster music executive, a complicated womaniser, and a relationship junkie. (“He wants to see in your eyes that you love him; that you’ve never met anyone like him before,” Ali’s best friend Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein, says.) That is until Sarah discovers an old cereal box belonging to him with an archive of love letters from Rita, the children’s much older babysitter with whom teenage Josh had a relationship. The Josh/Rita relationship was and remains an open family secret to which Mort and Shelly had more or less turned a blind eye. Transparent is too intelligent to present the relationship in the narrative mold of sexual predation, even though it was, legally speaking, statutory rape. Parental neglect is multifaceted.

“Baggage” is a good metaphor for secrecy and transparency, because packing and unpacking involves hiding and revealing and (re-)discovering things. When airport baggage security officers detect something dangerous in your toiletries case, like nail scissors, they are supposed to give you the option of a private room before they begin emptying things out for all to see: make-up, condoms, antidepressants. Some things are packed away with the assumption that they will remain private.

Sarah kind of anxiously blackmails Josh into coming to their father’s house by telling him she’s found the letters. It’s a small inter-relational exchange that makes little sense under any lens of emotional honesty or self-awareness, but it’s clearly part of a rusted-on sibling dynamic. Much of what we pack away is archived in our mind at some level, but some possessions are deliberately or otherwise forgotten. The re-discovery of Rita’s letters opens a rotten can of worms.

Sarah, a Silver Lake stay-at-home mum, is the eldest and the first to discover – and ostensibly accept – that her father has spent a lifetime dressing up as a man. In its austerity and serenity, the coming-out scene is astonishingly moving.

Sarah has also rediscovered and resurrected something from her past – a sexually charged romance with Tammy (Melora Hardin), her college girlfriend. She decides to let her explosive affair with Tammy detonate her life with husband Len Novak (Rob Heubel) and their two kids: the (queer) past disturbing the present. Solloway does an excellent job of choreographing sexy, credible-feeling sex scenes in Sarah and Tammy’s relationship without pandering to the dynamics of a male gaze. Neither is Sarah demonised for being a mother who destroys her nest.

Maura’s gender transition chimes for Sarah with her own intimate upheavals. They’re both radical and material forms of family transformation. Sarah’s acceptance and support of her father is warm and immediate. It’s also convenient, as she needs to move back into the Palisades home. Although Sarah seems pragmatic enough about all the accumulated baggage in the Palisades house, by mid season Tammy has moved in with her, and Sarah has allowed her to do a complete interior makeover.

Josh is the character who behaves the most badly in response to Maura’s coming-out, so he is an antagonist of sorts. He is also the last to find out. He tells his sisters that he thinks their father is “losing his mind” and claims she just wants to be the center of attention. “You guys think this is real?” What makes Maura’s gender real for him is an encounter with her bedroom in the new West Hollywood apartment: her vanity, wigs, and other intimate possessions on display. There is an intransigent materiality to possessions, and the material is sometimes powerfully gendered.

Perhaps Josh has always suspected (feared?) that he didn’t have a (real man for a) father, in the subconscious, Freudian sense. This suspicion (hope?) is literalised by Maura’s transition. Perhaps Josh feels resentful because he’s the only man in a family of powerful women? This may have its privileges, but may also feel like abandonment, like too much to carry. The Pfefferman women tend to infantilise Josh; accordingly, he behaves like a frustrated and spoiled child.

Shelly still calls Josh “Joshy”. She sometimes seems a bit of a caricature of a kibitzing, chalishing LA Jewish mother: “Have you met my Joshy?” she asks Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). “He’s single and he’s very handsome.” But Solloway understands that jokes about Jewish mothers and Jewish mothers-in-law can be reductive and misogynistically-tinged. I grew up around women like Shelly who were in my family or the mothers and grandmothers of my friends. Their fussing and interfering can sometimes operate like a trench in which they protect themselves from that which is too distressing or too complicated to resolve. Shelly too has had to hold the weight of Pfefferman secrets, alongside but estranged from Maura.

Josh is beginning to reckon with the effects of Rita. His official line has been that he was lucky to have boned a sexy older women – every teenage boy’s fantasy. He’s still fucking Rita many years later and seems hopelessly dependent on her affection. He confronts her and asks why his parents never intervened. She says they are “very strange people”. We don’t know much about Rita though it’s possible she’s been telling Josh this story for a long time. Josh is furious with her but he’s even more furious at his parents. When he finds out about Maura, he yells at his mother, shaming her in front of Rabbi Raquel:

It’s clear why Dad wasn’t around. Because he was playing Little Bo Peep, but what about you, Mom? What’s your excuse? Have you got a little secret of what you were doing while you were paying Rita to distract me with her tits?

Josh’s distress about his father is childishly re-directed at his mother. Mothers are a repository for family problems and pain. But what was Shelly doing?

The Pfeffermans are cultural Jews, meaning they maintain some rituals, like Friday Shabbas. They make Holocaust jokes, use Yiddish words, and have a standing bagel order at Cantor’s Deli. Otherwise, they are secular. The Pfeffermans allowed Ali to cancel her own batmitzvah on account of her professed atheism. Shelley admits to Ali that the bat mitzvah was cancelled because Mort wanted to go to a trans camp that weekend which she calls “Camp Woman Wonka”. Ali tells Rabbi Raquel that it was “awful, horrible parenting”.

The camp is actually called “Camp Camellia”, an underground drag community camp in the woods. Mort and his cross-dressing friend Mark aka “Marcie” (Bradley Whitford) visit Camp Camellia in an entire episode flashing back to 1994. Mort’s alibi is an academic conference at which key historical information will be revealed about the Rosenberg trial. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as traitors for providing American secrets to the Soviet Union in 1951. Historians have feverishly debated whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or innocent of the charges, and the extent to which antisemitism informed the accusations. It’s a telling history for a man hiding his gender identity, as Cold War culture in American was freighted with secrecy, suspicion, and paranoia. In the Rosenberg case, Communism and Judaism were conflated. Another part of this history is that the Communist closet also overlapped with the queer closet. Cold War culture generated racial and sexual paranoias as part of its mechanisms of maintaining the family, the nation, and the American way of life.

Like the shifts in perspective, it’s not always clear whose memories are recounted in Transparent’s flashbacks, nor whether these retrospections are entirely reliable. While Maura is at Camp Camellia, Ali is left home alone and escapes to the beach. Ali’s memories of this are both melancholy and opaque. She may have lost her virginity the weekend she was supposed to have her batmitzvah. At this time, Maura was often absent in her own world of furtive yearning.

The Pfeffermans’ best kept secret may have been the truth about Maura’s gender, but other secrets are cultivated, both as a form of intimacy, and also of manipulation.

A lack of transparency is sometimes a means of maintaining the status quo. Think of the way in which people hide extra-marital relationships or conjugal unhappinesses. The Pfeffermans’ best kept secret may have been the truth about Maura’s gender, but other secrets are cultivated, both as a form of intimacy, and also of manipulation. Maura promises money to all of her children and instructs them to keep these transactions a secret from their siblings. “Because that’s our family religion, right? Secrecy,” Ali says.

The trauma of (re-) discovering family pasts can be a queer kind of trauma. That is, retrospection or looking back at something painful from the past can upset—and transform—our understanding and perception of the sexual and gender status quo in the present.

Josh visits Rabbi Raquel at temple and he arrives just as she is winding up a sermon with the story of how Moses and the Jewish people wandered the desert for forty years after the exodus from Egypt. The fine print of this story is that the freshly liberated Israelites were in fact very close to the Promised Land but they were waywarded by Moses, in cahoots with God, so that those who had lived as slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt would die out before they arrived. Nobody with the memory of slavery was allowed to enter, even Moses himself; God was sure that the living memory of serfdom would contaminate freedom in the holy land. That’s a seriously biblical method of dealing with collective trauma.

And yet, in the persistence of the re-telling of the Exodus story every year during Passover, the requisite to remember is upheld. Generations of Jews became inheritors of this injunction to remember the slavery in Egypt. It’s a kind of conflicted relationship to the traumatic past. Don’t remember/remember. There are related types of memory paradoxes among Jews in the passing on of Holocaust memory. Past trauma is painful, sometimes so horrible it is unspeakable. But there is an injunction to speak about it and speaking about it can be transformative in the present. Looking back at histories of queer suffering and secrecy can also both undo and upset the present, and transform it.

We are encouraged to view gender as innate, as a product of the body’s biology, but influential theories of gender have shown us the ways in which gender is relational. That is, social environments—including powerful institutions, groupings of men, and families, for example—shape our ways of relating with others. When the gender of a family member changes, so too does the familiar social script, and we must negotiate and manage new and possibly unfamiliar roles and relationships. The families of trans people may participate in a radical process of “undoing” and “re-doing” gender. “It just means we all have to start over,” says Ali.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Phil Maciak writes:

Transparent asks what happens to a family when one of its foundational parts reveals itself to be something unexpected. It’s about that revelation, about that process of self-discovery and identification, but it’s also about the relationality within the group. Mort is now Maura, and the show is dedicated to focusing on that evolution, but what, it also asks, does that make everybody else?’

Shelly becomes a widow at the end of the series. What makes this a groundbreaking TV representation is that in wanting Ed’s life to be over, Shelly is not demonised for supposedly abdicating the woman’s caretaker role. Shelly has endured unbearable isolation and feels abandoned by her children. Like Maura’s transition, Ed’s death will be a relief for Shelly but will have consequences for her relationship with her children. Becoming a widow is a life change that precipitates a role change that precipitates relational change.

They adjust previous perceptions of their father’s gender, but also, in so doing, their understanding and practice of existing gender and sex-related roles.

Put simply, “undoing and re-doing gender” is the active resistance of a traditional gender script, and it happens in relational ways. The Pfeffermans are engaged in this process as they adjust previous perceptions of their father’s gender, but also, in so doing, their understanding and practice of existing gender and sex-related roles. Gaby Hoffman, who plays Ali, says, “Maura’s coming out is invigorating, in ways which are positive and difficult; it’s turning everyone on, not sexually, but maybe a little of that too.”

At the Shabbas dinner table Maura takes on (and transforms) the Jewish matriarchal role of lighting the candles and saying the blessings. Ali invents the name ‘Mopa’, a portmanteau of ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. Sarah starts using it. People tackle gender transformations in the family using both creative strategies and pragmatic approaches, while often continuing to honour timeworn rituals.

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue. Get your copy now.

Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender studies who works on film, TV, sex and popular culture. Listen to him talk on fortnightly culture podcast The Rereaders.