When I first heard about Amazon Instant’s Transparent, I was rather excited. Web-exclusive series are definitely the new face of television, and as established in Orange is the New Black, they’re becoming a place for trans talent to shine, and a career incubator for actors who might otherwise struggle to break into Hollywood and the popular consciousness. They’re also becoming a place where marginalised stories are being told and discussed, creating an environment for narratives that weren’t possible before, which is extremely exciting. We live in a world where television is truly pushing boundaries.
Transparent sounded like it was about to explore something that doesn’t get much air time: The lives of people who transition later in life. People can and do transition at any age, but in an era when people are finally starting to pay attention to queer and trans youth and their own struggles, queer and trans elders are sometimes being left out. That holds especially true for older transgender people who are just starting to take the first steps in their new lives as they explore their gender and consider transition and where they want to go with it.
Transition at any age is difficult, complicated, and sometimes overwhelming. For older adults, though, it can come with layers of particular issues. When a trans woman starts to transition, for example, she may have children who think of her as ‘father’ and a wife or husband who associates her strongly with masculinity. Friends and family know her by her birth name and her assigned gender, and have difficulty understanding her real identity. She’s known at work as one person, and demands recognition as another — something that can expose her to risks like harassment as well as denial of promotions.
Coming out and transitioning at 50 is very different than 15 or 25 or any other age, and every trans person also has a unique experience. While we’ve seen a handful of narratives about the young trans experience, we’ve seen almost none about that of older trans people. That was the possibility represented in Transparent, and I was rather thrilled — I wanted to see this narrative centred from the point of view of a transgender person, exploring her experiences with her life, her family, her social connections, everything that shifted around her as she transitioned. I saw huge potential for the series.
That was all before I heard who had been cast in the lead role.
Jeffrey Tambor is an amazing actor. He’s talented, I loved his work in Arrested Development, and he has a fantastic career to his name. He has an impressive acting range and he’s a very expressive, intense actor. When he gets into a role, he really bites into it, and he’s committed to seeing it through, no matter how dark, or ridiculous, it gets. I have nothing but admiration for Tambor and the vast majority of his work.
However, Jeffrey Tambor is not a woman. He’s very decidedly a man.
Yet, he was cast in the role of a woman.
Gender is complicated stuff. There are times when it would be appropriate to cast a cross-dressing man, like, say, in the role of a cross-dressing man. Or in a series exploring the history of stagecraft and performance, where men often played women due to restrictions on women on stage. For that matter, women in trouser roles would also be perfectly reasonable. Settings in which a man dressing as a woman and presenting as a woman — at least, for part of a series — definitely present themselves, and it’s not like they never happen. Pop culture is a big and diverse place and so are gender expression and identification.
However, having a man cross-dress as a woman is transmisogynistic, no matter how much the Transparent crew want to claim otherwise, no matter how many critics heap the series in accolades, no matter how many viewers talk about how amazing and inspiring it is. The casting decision was transphobic, and so, too, is the series itself by extension, because we are talking about the lead, anchor role. In which the role of a woman was played by a man.
The problems with the casting are myriad. One is that it reinforces the belief that cross-dressers are also transgender. Some do identify that way, others do not; plenty of men cross-dress and are categorically across the board men, as for example in the drag community. The mixup between cross-dressing and being transgender is common and it has serious consequences in addition to creating confusion that makes it hard to talk about gender and identity. Regardless as to how an individual cross-dresser identifies, being a trans woman is a very specific identity.
It also perpetuates the extremely dangerous ‘men in dresses’ stereotype about trans women, one they never seem to be able to escape. Society often treats trans women as little more than men tarted up in some frilly underwear and long hair. That’s not how it works. Trans women are women (some of whom like to wear dresses). They are not men. Men should not be cast in roles designed for women.
Suggesting that trans women are really just men at heart is a big problem with serious consequences for women — like the hundreds of trans women killed every year for being who they are. Transparent does nothing to fight trans stereotypes and transphobia, and while it has no social obligation to do so, it should be criticised for actively perpetuating damaging social attitudes about being transgender, especially since it’s claiming to be doing something great for trans representation. It’s ludicrous to applaud a series that casts a man in a woman’s role, and all the excuses Transparent provides for ‘needing’ to cast a man in the part are, frankly, offensive. They’re offensive to women, they’re offensive to trans actresses, and they’re offensive to our trans elders who are forced to look at depictions like this one if they want to see their lives mirrored in pop culture. This is what they get. We apparently can’t do better than this.