Transparent promises smart, sympathetic portrayal of trans character

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In the pilot episode of Amazon’s Transparent, released in February, Ali, Josh, and Sarah are surprised to receive a phone call from their father, Mort. Though certainly not estranged, you get the impression that Mort keeps a loving distance from his grown children. The call from nowhere summons the trio to their father’s for a BBQ dinner where they sense he has something heavy to share. A cancer diagnosis, probably.

Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) is determined to share what’s on his mind, but his children talk over each other in a mishmash of conversation. Mort cuts through the squabbling long enough to quash the cancer fears but doesn’t get to share the big reveal he intended. 

After his children depart, Mort confesses to an unknown caller that he couldn’t share his secret. We then see him slip into a silk robe, let his hair down, and recline into bed. We’re looking at the same man from the dinner table, but Mort has now transformed into someone who wasn’t present before.

This scene hints at what is fully revealed later—Mort is transitioning. He’s living as a trans woman named Maura. 

Little other plot is revealed, but it’s clear we’re seeing Mort at a time of unique vulnerability. Recently divorced from his wife (Judith Light), he’s struggling with his burgeoning identity and worried about what his children will think. Do they have the emotional IQs to handle such a revelation? 

Transparent, set for a 10-episode release on Amazon Instant Video in September, tramples convention by casting a trans character as the lead—and doing so with compassion, honesty, and willingness to explore the complexities of late-in-life transitioning.

Even bolder is including this lead character in a show that is clearly intended for a wide mainstream audience. Mort doesn’t exist within an isolated LGBT community. He faces the prospect of “coming out” as Maura to three children who are immersed in their own issues. Youngest daughter Ali (Gabby Hoffman) is a hopeful Millennial who just can’t launch; Josh (Jay Duplass) is a financially successful band manager with infantile tendencies; and eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is a wife and mother who suddenly discovers her former lesbian flame (from college) teaching at her children’s school.

While sincere portrayals of gay and lesbian characters are increasingly common in episodic TV, transgender characters have struggled to achieve similar representation on putatively “mainstream” shows. Trans character Sophia Burset (played by Emmy-nominated trans actress Laverne Cox) on Netflix’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black proves that television creatives can present trans characters intelligently and sympathetically. Furthermore, Burset’s appeal among the broad viewership of Orange indicates audiences are ready and willing to embrace fully-realized trans characters. 

Like OITNB, Transparent offers an opportunity to develop a three-dimensional trans character. I’m hopeful that it also encourages viewers to think more deeply about the challenges inherent in achieving any authentic self, trans or otherwise.

The show is produced and written by Jill Soloway, whose prior work on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara leaves me pretty darn excited to see how this family grows, struggles, and transforms together in the show’s first season.

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