Transparent: The Importance of Visibility and the Positive Portrayal of Trans Individuals

Jul - 01 2015 | no comments | By

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When Transparent debuted in 2014, it garnered critical acclaim and a lot of media buzz. By the time the show took home two Golden Globes, one for Best Comedy and one for Best Actor in a Comedy, Transparent was already one of the most-watched new shows on a streaming service. Now that a second season is in the works, it seems the show has real potential for staying power.

But what makes Transparent so unique? It’s certainly not the first show to respectfully and realistically portray a trans character. Long before Transparent there were films—both in theaters and made-for-TV—that featured trans characters and strong, moving performances that shed light on the struggles of being a trans individual in America. Just look at Boys Don’t Cry, which won Hillary Swank an Oscar for her performance. Of course, there’s also Orange Is the New Black, which has made Laverne Cox a household name. Now she tours the country with her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, drawing huge crowds at college campuses, community centers and even churches.

But unlike Orange is The New Black, which features a trans character, Transparent’s narrative is all about a trans character and her family. And audiences are loving it! According to Deadline.com, the show has “smashed Prime Instant Video Records,” and is also the most binge-watched show on Prime Instant Video.

Timing might be a significant factor here, as audiences seem more ready than ever for nuanced portrayals of gender and sexual identities. As Adam and Eve points out, this past decade has seen the most significant and lasting political victories for the LGBT community. They cite, of course, the repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, among other pivotal court cases. Support of same-sex marriage is at an all time high. The Huffington Post reports that support for trans rights is also on the rise. As the article points out, this growing support, which can even be seen in historically more conservative areas, may very well be a direct outgrowth of the visibility of trans characters in film and television. The more visible a group becomes, the harder it is for people to ignore their struggles and treat them like second-class citizens.

This points to a unique feature of Transparent: the fact that we are watching Maura Pfefferman navigate her new identity along with her family. TV.com suggests, “While we’ve recently seen an increase in the number of transgendered characters in major roles on scripted TV shows—including, most notably, Orange Is the New Black and Glee—Transparent represents a kind of milestone in its central focus on Maura’s newly public transgendered life.” By focusing on the transition itself—in all its physical, emotional and existential complexity—viewers are invited to go on a journey with this character. Moreover, Maura’s self-actualization prompts her family to renegotiate their own identities and desires, which is a significant facet of the show.

This undoubtedly sends the message that the trans experience, while it may be difficult and confusing, can have positive impacts on the people around you. It’s something that takes place on an individual level, yes, but when shared can really inspire people.

And there’s already one prominent case study to support the positive impact of this particular narrative…

AP_bruce_jenner_jt_150207_4x3_992In Bruce Jenner’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer, he actually talked about watching Transparent and how it helped encourage him to talk openly about his transition. Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, was inspired to create the show because of her own parent’s trans experience. She spoke to People Magazine about Bruce Jenner’s comments, saying, “Knowing that Transparent helped Bruce to see a family where somebody came out and everybody survived, my first phone call was to my parent to say, ‘Look what your bravery did. Your bravery allowed me to tell this story. And this story allowed this person to come out.’”

At the end of the day, it comes down to empathy, and empathy comes from experience—whether first-hand or from witnessing another point of view or way of life. In an interview with Time Magazine, Laverne Cox put it best: “More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.”

Hopefully, Transparent’s second season will continue to be a bright light for the trans community, bringing the trans experience into more homes. And maybe in some of those homes there will be children, fathers and mothers who will find the courage to tell their own stories of self-actualization and acceptance.

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