Last month Amazon.com’s Instant Video service debuted its new TV series, Transparent. All ten episodes went live to stream via the Internet in a model copied from Netflix, with its many original series.
Transparent, a comedy/drama, is the creation of filmmaker and television writer Jill Soloway. It stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a Southern California transgender woman who has lived most of her life as a male and is now, late in life, beginning her transition to female. She has an ex-wife and three adult children. The show is about her transition and the effect it has on herself and her family.
Jeffrey Tambor is not a transwoman, of course, and this fact has made Transparent the subject of some controversy in the transgender community. In July the pilot episode was screened in Los Angeles at the Outfest Film Festival, and in the panel discussion afterward, a transgender blogger criticized the casting of Tambor in the leading role, calling it “transface” and insisting a transgender actress would have been a better choice.
Soloway defended her casting decision thusly: “Maura is coming out late in life. A lot of people in that situation do not physically transition. At this point in the story, it’s possible to have a cis male play the character.” She added, “Jeff was in my head before the issue became politicized to me. I didn’t see a controversy.”
I’m guessing by “do not physically transition” she meant that for someone so old (I don’t know exactly how old Maura is supposed to be, but Tambor is 70) hormone replacement therapy does little to affect a transwoman’s appearance. Breast growth will be minimal, and facial features won’t soften and become more feminine in appearance as they would for someone who transitions earlier in life. It was an odd way for Soloway to phrase it, but if that’s what she meant, she’s probably correct. And she’s not without experience in these matters; her own father came out as transgender in 2011. Transparent is fiction, but it’s informed by her own family’s experiences.
My partner and I have seen the first three episodes so far. Maura’s experiences in the present day, and especially the flashback scenes set in her repressed and closeted past, dredge up powerful emotions in me, so it’s not the sort of show I could binge on. But I’m enjoying it, and I think it’s fine that Tambor was cast in the part.
I agree it’s usually best to cast an actor who is a member of a particular race, minority, or community when making a film or TV show about a character in that category, when possible. Transgender people should play transgender people; Asians should play Asians; actors with Asperger’s should play people who have Asperger’s.
This is especially true when the minority in question has a history of being marginalized by Hollywood. I’m thinking of the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, who notoriously was played in all of his popular movies by white actors. Caucasian actress Donna Reed played Sacajawea, who was Shoshone, in The Far Horizons. A year later, Shirley MacLaine played an Indian princess in Around The World In 80 Days.
All outrageous casting choices, and I’m certain they were a result of the racist assumption, which I hope is going away, that Caucasians are the “default” race in the U.S., and they’re who Americans wanted to see as protagonists on screen, even in roles that aren’t Caucasian.
But sometimes the story makes it impossible to cast authentically. Melvin Van Peebles’ great comedy Watermelon Man was about a racist white man who spontaneously turned into a black man overnight. Since one actor played the role both before and after the transformation, would it have been “right” to cast a black man or a white man?
Sally Potter’s movie Orlando is about a person who lives 400 years, half as a man, then half as a woman. Whomever Potter cast would have to play against sex and gender for 50 percent of the scenes. She cast the great Tilda Swinton; should she have cast a male actor?
Another example that comes to mind is Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. His character, Lt. Dan, lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. Sinise has both his legs; the director painted them out using CGI special effects. Ideally, you’d hire an amputee actor to play an amputee, but Lt. Dan’s story begins in the time before he lost his legs. Casting Sinise was a practical choice. An amputee couldn’t have played the character with legs as easily as Sinise played him without legs.
If Transparent were set entirely in the present day, and Maura were past her transition, I’d also have been critical if a transgender actress hadn’t played her. That’s not the case. Maura is just beginning her transition; in the first episode she hadn’t told her loved ones her secret and still presented as male most of the time. Furthermore, many scenes are set in the past, in the time when Maura, still Mort to everyone she knew, was still learning how to cope with her gender dysphoria.
A transgender actress could play those scenes, sure, but it would be a lot to ask of her emotionally (I know I couldn’t do it), and could be a makeup and special effects challenge, depending on how different the actress looked from her pre-transition self. I remember thinking how brave it was of Laverne Cox to play her character’s pre-transition self in flashback scenes in Orange Is The New Black; later I learned it hadn’t been her, but her (formerly identical) twin brother in those scenes. That was a brilliant casting move, but one that wouldn’t be available for most productions.
Tambor is good in the part because we still see so much of Mort in the show. He’s also good, I’d argue, precisely because he’s not transgender.
Much of the U.S. still thinks transgender people are bizarre, exotic, even mentally ill. There’s a whole lotta Othering going on. Jeffrey Tambor is a well-known actor who has been on TV screens for decades now. People know him and like him, and know he’s not transgender himself. That makes him the perfect guide to take audiences along on this journey, to show them that, just as Jeffrey Tambor is an ordinary, sympathetic individual, so is Maura, and by extension, all transgender people.
Parenthetically, Tambor was also in the cast of Arrested Development a show I enjoyed, but which was guilty at times of some shockingly transphobic attempts at humor. So another good reason for Tambor to play Maura is so he has a chance to pay off that karmic debt.
Yes, casting Tambor to play Maura meant a transgender actress didn’t get the job, and it’s fair to guess unemployment is even worse among transgender actresses than for transgender women in general. But Soloway’s not ignoring the transgender community. According to this New York Times story from August 31:
Soloway enacted a transfirmative action program, favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones. It wasn’t just a corrective to the trans community’s high rates of unemployment. Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day. ‘I really want it so that there’s no moment, on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.’ As of this writing, 20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.
She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.
Those two consultants are Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who know as much about being transgender as any three people, even though they are only two.
Transparent is doing right by us. It is respectful, carefully thought out, and thoroughly researched, and by her life experiences and by her hiring, writing, and production decisions, Jill Soloway has shown she has the authority and credibility to tell her story the way she’s telling it. It’s not transphobic in any way, least of all in the casting.
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