Feeling Real: On “Transparent”

Amazon's "Transparent" as seen through the lens of Maggie Nelson's novel "The Argonauts."

By Caitlin WoolseyFebruary 13, 2016

Feeling Real: On “Transparent”

IN THE OPENING SEQUENCE of the final episode of Transparent, the three adult Pfefferman siblings share rare moments of pure play, hurtling gleefully into the pool at their childhood home, gently splashing one another, and convening an underwater tea party. This passing scene is one of the most delicate in the often dark second season. It also evokes what the pioneering British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called the sense of “feeling real” — of feeling in touch with one’s self and body, and with others. Winnicott believed that feeling real is essential to living a life. Yet how does one actually go about feeling real? And not only as one’s own sense of self evolves, but also in counterpoint to the complex, messy reality of other people?

Transparent creator Jill Soloway probes precisely these kinds of questions. Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) transition from Mort to Maura no longer dominates the narrative arc of season two. Instead, the scope of the show has broadened to more closely follow each member of the Pfefferman clan, as well as the rich cast of secondary characters who orbit them. Ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) zealously seeks to rekindle their long-abandoned relationship; oldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) struggles to discern what she wants while also learning how to be adrift; son Josh (Jay Duplass) oscillates between manic commitments to his fiancée, Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), their unborn child, his teenage son, and the much older woman with whom he was involved while he was himself just a teenager; and youngest daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) robustly explores her gender and sexuality, as well as her family history and Judaism.

Maura’s “rebirth” remains at the heart of the Pfefferman’s shared story, but season two makes abundantly clear that her transition is not a single significant decision that causes a cascade of secondary consequences. Rather, this is a transition comprised of many tiny actions, both on the part of Maura and on the part of those with whom her life is entangled. Yet even as the show pursues the distinctive trajectories of each individual character, it might be most accurate to say that the central figure of season two is the Pfefferman family itself. Each person remains deeply self-interested, yet the family operates like a single organism — unruly, self-defeating, and inextricably bound.

In her memoir The Argonauts, published in 2015, which holds theory alongside (and up against) life experience, Maggie Nelson observes: “So far as I can tell, most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics.” Reading this, we might think of the tension between self-realization and selfishness, to which most critical reviews of Transparent have pointed. This tension is evident in how Maura relies on Shelly for stability but also bristles whenever Shelly counts on affection or accountability; or Raquel’s decision to break off the engagement after she miscarries and Josh urges that they wait to try again; or the way Ali deploys feminist and queer theory to justify her wariness at the prospect of a monogamous relationship with her best friend turned girlfriend Syd (Carrie Brownstein). What is most compelling about how Transparent grapples with this tension between gratifying another and gratifying oneself is that the show does not seek to isolate the precise threshold between selfhood versus egotism, but rather engages with the primary aspect of Nelson’s observation — the slippages between the two, and how that slippage might relate to ethics.

The Argonauts is an instructive companion to Transparent. Both examine the construction and fluidity of gender and sexuality, experiences of alterity, the thorny and nested nature of family, and the ways we navigate the communities we create, whether familial or cultural. Soloway deploys familiar dramatic tropes: season one ended with a funeral; season two opens with a wedding and closes with a birth. But rather than relying on these tropes to advance rote narrative arcs, the show slyly veers into more ambiguous terrain. Which is to say — into the complexity of life. The moments most susceptible to melodrama or farce, such as the ill-fated wedding between Sarah and Tammy (Melora Hardin), swerve away from banality, and instead begin to unravel the characters and their relations from the inside. For all the secrets that do erupt to the surface, Soloway restrains the exposition in favor of experimenting with cinematographic tactics to elicit a visceral sense of the characters’ states within the viewer’s own perceptual experience (such as the vertiginous, grotesque sequence when Sarah walks down the aisle). We are never privy to the difficult conversation in which Sarah tells Tammy the marriage is off. Instead, in the arresting final shot of the episode, the camera slowly pans horizontally across the wedding night hotel rooms inhabited by the Pfefferman family. We catch snatches of intimate conversations between Maura and Shelly, Josh and Raquel, Sarah and Tammy. A lone Ali is shadowed by a spectral presence, which we later learn is that of her transgender great-aunt. The camera does not linger too long on any single vignette. Instead, the restless movement of the camera's eye suggests that each of these relations, intimacies, and tensions are in and of themselves less central than the fact that each is already intertwined with the other stories unfolding just a thin plaster hotel wall away.

The Pfeffermans are often devoted, frequently grotesque — and always overly conjoined. Characters positioned at the periphery of the family organism are the ones who assert boundaries. Consequently, they precipitate many of the decisive narrative turns. Raquel was clear with Josh from the time they first met that her top priority is to have a baby; when he wants to step back and take their time, she is decisive in her choice to leave. When Ali wants to be “with” Syd in the loosest sense of the word, Syd retorts, “I can’t do this version of us. So figure it out,” and she leaves. Ali clearly hopes to sustain both a romantic and scholarly involvement with the poet Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), but even this radical free-thinker abides by the university policy: she tells Ali she has to choose between the two roles. Vicki (Anjelica Huston), a woman Maura befriends at the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, who becomes her first lover post-transition, gently refuses Maura’s request that Vicki accompany her to visit her estranged mother, citing that such a visit would be too intimate, and she’s not ready for that. In a moment of self-awareness, Maura responds: “I get that, I admire that. Boundaries, right? We need boundaries.”

At root, then, Transparent is not so much about being transgender, or even about embodying the particular liberal upper-middle class West Coast Jewish milieu that the Pfeffermans inhabit, but rather a study in how we negotiate our individual selves and our collective selves. Soloway reveals her investment in the broader ethics at stake here, which transcend the particular idiosyncrasies of the Pfefferman clan, by pointing to the equivocal boundaries at play in broader cultural contexts. Idyllwild represents a hard-won space of liberal, feminist autonomy, but also remains deeply divisive, with its exclusion of trans women and anxiety over S&M practices. Several characters explicitly address the destructive effects such divisiveness can inflict, particularly in an environment like the Festival which is purportedly grounded in ideals of inclusivity and freedom of expression.

Yet the antidote to such divisiveness is not necessarily the erasure of all kinds of boundaries. The tender but fraught friendship between Maura and Davina and Shea (the winning Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette), trans women who have supported her emotionally and practically, emphasizes the many partitions within the transgender community itself. The show implies, for example, that different attitudes toward relationships with men (or what Ali would call the patriarchy) are determined as much by privilege as by personal beliefs. There is not one transgender experience, Transparent reminds us, just as there is not one female experience.

Much of the critical praise for Transparent has emphasized the show’s groundbreaking topic, and its audacious and provocative treatment of issues currently at play in contemporary cultural discourse. Having watched my own young adult sibling transition, I am particularly attuned to how vital and rare it is to have a show such as this one, which departs from convention in the kinds of stories it tells, and the ways it tells them. Yet to me, Transparent feels just as radical for how it grapples with the often messy and ambiguous rapport between self and other, the search to feel real, common to us all.

In The Argonauts, Nelson proposes that when we’re thinking in terms of progress, of revolutionary acts and achieving greater freedom, perhaps it’s the word “radical” that needs rethinking. She submits that instead we might “angle ourselves” toward a concept of openness. But she wonders:

Is that good enough, strong enough? You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is — working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows. And the thing is, even you don’t always know.

The openness Nelson describes is implicit in the individual transitions of each of the Pfeffermans, and in their intersecting orbits. Yet this openness should not be understood as absolute permeability. Rather, it is the openness within, despite, and because of boundaries, boundaries (however porous) that the Pfeffermans desperately need. This is the juncture at which the characters find themselves over and over throughout season two: letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is.

At the close of the final episode, three generations of Pfefferman women — Grandma Rose in her wheelchair, Maura’s sister and Maura, and Ali — stand side by side on the beach, gazing toward the Pacific as the sun begins to set. Interspersed is footage from Maura’s birth, in which Rose’s husband proclaims he’s convinced it will be a girl, but the doctors of course announce the arrival of a boy. This juxtaposition gestures toward the cycles of life, but one gets the sense that in Soloway’s world, there is never a cycle, but rather endless small transformations. Through these transitions — which is to say, over the course of a life, with all its darkness and humor and joy — on occasion we might get lucky enough to intersect with those around us in meaningful ways that allow each of us to feel real. But as Nelson reminds us: even we don’t always know.


Caitlin Woolsey is a PhD student in History of Art at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Caitlin Woolsey is a PhD student in History of Art at Yale University. Her work centers on postwar practices of experimental poetry, sound performance, and collage.


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