Thursday, 19 March 2015

My whole life I've been dressing up

I'm going to try something a little different, and review a TV series. 
Disclaimer: Transparent is about a white upper-class Jewish trans woman, Maura, coming out when her children are adults.  Since I'm atheist and cis, I'm sure my understanding of some things will miss the mark so please jump in for discussion/correction in comments.  Second disclaimer:  I don't watch a whole heap of tv or movies. Sometimes when my very clever friends talk about tv I don't understand them.  So this will be unsophisticated.

Transparent came out last year, winning awards and critical admiration, including from trans activists.  Early on in the show Maura comes out to her eldest daughter Sarah, who asks "Does this mean you're going to be dressing up like a woman?"

There's some reaching out to other trans* folks from Maura that speaks clearly to why we need support groups and retreats and safe places for all trans and gender diverse people.  One of the scenes I found most painful was a summer camp Maura attended years earlier for transfeminine people.  Camp members are describing someone being kicked out of the camp for using hormones.  "This is a camp for men," they heartily agree, "men who like to dress as women!"  Maura is visibly uncomfortable, and it feels like she's finding out that even that space - which she has been experiencing, until then, as joyful and full of wonder - may not be safe.

There are other painful slices of transphobia. Maura enters a women's bathroom with her daughters, who assure her it will be fine, despite her obvious discomfort.  They call her "Dad", which leads to other women in the toilet misgendering Maura and telling her she must leave.  Sarah's rage - which no doubt you'd feel - explodes and worsens the situation and Maura slinks away, finding an empty construction site portaloo she can safely use.  A good reminder to cis allies that the most important way to support someone is to make sure you respect what they want whether you understand why or not, because getting it wrong might well be dangerous.

The show is ostensibly about Maura, but actually we spend just as much time, if not more, watching her painfully self-involved children.  I'm assuming this is supposed to show the whole gamut of reactions to Maura transitioning, but it's hard to read her family's behaviour as having anything to do with her.  They are all complete train-wrecks, and while their indifference to Maura's feelings is horrific at times, it's how they treat everyone.  Sarah and Josh don't care when their mother's partner of many years, who seems to have dementia, disappears.  Josh scares his first girlfriend in the show so much she asks his boss to keep him away from her, though he thinks he's showing her love.  Ali's best friend tells her at one point that Ali's been making her feel awful for years.  I'm not sure the nuances of transphobia are well-served by this, though it's frequently good drama.

There's an argument over whether we should be interested or emotionally moved by what's going on in Maura's family anyway.  For many, shifting the focus from the person most vulnerable to structural oppression - Maura - might not be ok.  And it's a story we're more familiar with, right?  How cis people feel about trans* folks.

When I came out as bisexual I sent my mother books by and about queer women for every birthday and Christmas for a decade.  Good books, by Alice Walker and Lisa Alther and Jackie Kay and Sarah Schulman and Joan Barfoot and Marge Piercy....She read them, swapped them with friends.  I thought I was helping my mum see my life.  Years later, she thanked me for sending her books "about how other parents coped with having queer children."  I said I didn't think that's what they'd been about.  She was surprised.  I think, in a way, we were both right.

So while I'm much more interested in seeing Maura and her story being told than I am in another story about cis people, I feel disappointed that so far Transparent, in my opinion, has dodged telling the stories of her children's engagement with a transitioning parent with any depth, simply because they're all such self-involved jerks.

Maura's youngest daughter, Ali, changes her gender presentation quite dramatically during the show.  By the end, she's been wearing masculine clothes for a couple of episodes and has a much more androgenous haircut.  Some reviewers suggests this happens without commentary to juxtaposition how easy it is for women to play with presenting in a masculine way compared with the frequent and difficult reactions Maura gets to her transition.

I find this troubling.  While it's not helpful to play oppression olympics, the idea that there is no cost for women expressing masculinity is very different to my experience.  I've presented in a range of ways across my life, and spent lots of my early twenties looking pretty much like any stereotype of a sporty butch queer women you've ever seen.  During that period I was frequently asked to leave women's toilets, verbally and physically threatened by men, called "it" by men, asked if I was confused by men, told all I needed was a "good fuck" by men.  At one family gathering, the partner of one of my cousins drunkenly asked me "what are you?"  I think he was confused by my shaved head and breasts, they make bogans a little basic in Christchurch.  One of my friends, a beautiful butch, was recently so frightened about a road trip to the States and the violence she might experience there that we spent lots of time pre-planning safe stops, based on their LGBTIQ friendliness.

You get the point.  Maybe Ali's demographic cope much better with androgenous presentations.  But simply pretending there's no issue feels dishonest to me.
I'd be remiss, dear reader, if I didn't comment on The Biphobia.  Again.  Sarah's married life is turned upside down when she meets an ex-lover who's a woman.  So she does what every Bisexual should, and Cheats on her partner.  With the Other Gender.  Oh, and she tries to do it again later, after she's left her husband for the sexy ex, when she's hiding in the laundry with her husband.  Us Bisexuals, can't help with the Cheating.  We're just always wanting all of the genders, all of the time.  In case you're not sure this storyline is actually a thing, just cast your mind back to Orange is the New Black's central bi character, Piper, who um, does exactly the Same Cheating Bisexual Thing.

Actually maybe Sarah's not Bisexual.  It's not like that word is ever mentioned, for goodness sake. Towards Sarah or the other character who has relationships with more than one gender.  Because Biphobia.  Again.

There's been much commentary about the fact that a cis man, Jeffrey Tambor, is playing Maura.  He's wonderful in the role, and clearly an ally, plus I suspect an actor of his calibre may have significantly increased the chances of Transparent being made in the first place.  Some people have suggested it's marginally more acceptable to have a cis man playing a trans woman because Maura is beginning her transition.

This seems like slightly ridiculous transphobia to me.  Are we really saying a trans actress, assigned male at birth, wouldn't be able to pull off playing a trans woman pre-transition?  Whereas a cis man can pull off playing a woman?

We've seen similar arguments recently to justify non-disabled actors playing disabled characters.  As with white actors playing Black characters, all of these casting decisions reveal discrimination - an assumption that people (which people?) will identify more readily with able-bodied people, with white people, with cis people.

If cripping up and blacking up are unacceptable, so is transing up.  Cis people playing trans characters speaks to centring of cis experience even when a trans story is being told, and it needs to stop.  It's great to see a variety of other roles in Transparent are played by trans actors, and a trans woman is joining the writing staff for season two.  On the subject, it's no surprise to me that the central character here is white and middle-class.  I wonder if we'll see any intersectionality in season two, an exploration perhaps of the rates at which trans women, especially trans women of colour, are targetted for lethal violence?

These reservations aside, Transparent is a good watch.  The writing is tight, the acting superb.  Much as I might dislike Maura's children, watching them behave badly is a bit like watching an election result you're not happy about - it's hard to look away.  Gender and sexuality themes are everywhere.  Seeing a multiplicity of transfeminine and one transmasculine (to date) characters is a treat.  Maura may not be able to tell every transfeminine story - who could? - but she normalises a particular kind of trans experience for a mainstream audience.  We need more stories which do that, if we want to end transphobia.

1 comment:

Joffrey Tambor said...

Transparent is transphobic bullshit and cis appropriation.