As part of breaking with the heterosexual matrix and its dominans, both series question our idea of marriage as the destination for a happy, fulfilling life. With this, both Sense8 and Transparent points to those structures (marriage and monogamist relationship constellations) that are part of making sure the idea of the heterosexual matrix is seen as natural and ‘right’ – this is challenged by the sexuality of the characters.
Sense8 portrays a break with the stereotypical portrayal of male homosexuality in the medias through the Mexican sensate, Lito. Beside this, Lito’s storyline is also part of challenging the idea of monogamy and ‘traditional’ relationship constellations. Lito is especially interesting, since he becomes the embodiment of just how much the heterosexual matrix can affect identities that break with this discourse. In the presentation of Lito, it is already indicated how torn he is. It is especially evident when he, during the shooting of his new movie (Lito is an actor), is alone in his trailer where he is talking to himself trying to get a grip and be able to finish the scene: “Who are you? Who am I? Blow your fucking brains out. Where’s that coming from?” (22:53 in Limbic Resonans). He punches himself in the head while repeating: “Who am I? I’m Tino El Caido. I’m the fallen one” (ibid.: 23:05) – and points to a picture of himself:
“You’re a liar!” (23:36 in Limbic Resonance)
The camera is placed behind Lito, depicting him looking at a picture of himself as ‘the actor Lito’, which is further underlined by the mirror, where we see his face. This over-the-shoulder frame makes sure that the viewer sees what he sees while at the same time looking at him from the outside, as an onlooker. The intention is clear: Lito is torn between being two people at the same time – the person his fans see, while Lito, and the viewer, have gained access to another, more private, side of him.
As a reaction to living this double life, he starts to hump the wall in a very ‘masculine’ way. As if he is trying to convince himself that he is a ‘real’ man who does not have trouble performing:
(23:47 i Limbic Resonance)
“I’m a man! Bah – Bah-pah!”, he exclaims, while looking like someone who gradually starts doubting it. This is underlined by the scene pictured above where the venetian blind might insinuate bars. These bars become almost symbolically depicted in the mirror, which further underlines this feeling of being caved in, imprisoned. Not only is he imprisoned by society (the trailer could be understood as a symbolic prison), but also by ‘himself’ (the mirror as a reference to the fact that he can no longer see himself). With this in mind, Lito is imprisoned by the heteronormative discourses that dominates society and the media world. His repeated attempt to ‘out’ himself as a liar might insinuate that Lito’s hyper-masculine appearance is nothing more than a performance he too is captured by.
Ali experiments with her gender expressions in several ways throughout the seasons of Transparent, but it’s especially present in the fourth season (which mainly takes place in Israel). Ali’s personal journey towards finding her true ‘self’ becomes a big focus point in the fourth season of Transparent, where Ali’s trying to put her frustrations and thoughts regarding her journey towards understanding her gender identity into words:
[Maura:] What’s going on? [Ali:] I don’t know, I just – I don’t, I don’t feel right. I don’t feel good. [M:] I understand… I felt that way (…) I understand [A:] I just don’t feel good in my body. (…) I don’t feel.. in my body… [M:] Do you think you’re trans? [A:] I… I… I don’t know. I don’t know if I… feel like a woman. Whatever that means
(7:23 i Babar the Borrible)
Ali’s uneasiness of being ‘that kind of woman’ society wants to define her as comes from her having seen Maura being treated very unfairly by society (See The bathroom problem,She’s a woman right? Well he said he has a penis (said posts are underway)), simply because she does not meet the current discourses (defined by the patriarchy) that dictates how one should look and who to love in order to be accepted as a ‘woman’. Ali starts to question everything she knows and becomes more and more aware of how forced we actually are when it comes to “choosing” (well, conform to) certain categories based on binary understandings:
Seems like it’s about human rights to me (…) the arabs and jews. Just blacks and whites, men and women. Fucking binary. Everywhere you look, screwing things up
(13:28 in I Never Promised You a Promised Land)
Ali is therefore to be seen as a representative for the many people, who identify as in-between the narrow identity-/gender- and sexual categories which society is currently founded on. Ali, as well as Transparent in general, tries to break with those neither-nor categories:
In another attempt to stir the pot and challenge traditional binary separations of ‘men’ and ‘women’ (et al.), Ali goes to the ‘men’s’ side of the Wailing Wall in Israel, since, as she points out, this separation gives more power to ‘men’ as a category (they have three times the space ‘women’ have), which she refuses to accept:
This act might not just be because she is in a state of rebellion, but also because she questions her own gender identity, which means that she can, the same way she could when she wore the strap-on (Strap-on, strap-off) come to feel the privileges that comes with being a ‘man’ and only by doing this, will it be possible to dismantle the master’s house – not with the master’s own tools of course (oh, how we LOVE Audre Lorde). Since the core project of Transparent is to challenge patriarchy’s dominant societal position – and the suppression it causes.
As Ali’s identity journey continues, she questions both her own understanding of gender as well as sexuality. This means she goes from being only attracted to: “dudes (…) dudely-dude, dude. The dudelier the better” (11:25 in The Wilderness):
(12:58 in The Wilderness)
to being queer and in a relationship with her best friend, Syd (Carrie Brownstein).
Ali goes from being heterosexual to queer in a fairly short amount of time, which brings her to question more than just her sexuality:
Ali: (…) I’m just saying, what if we didn’t just have this sort knee-jerk heteronormative…
Syd: (…) Listen to yourself, you’ve been queer for like 30 seconds?
A: See, that’s my point (…) What is being queer if not questioning everything, right? What it means to be… to be in a relationship it’s loving and trusting and generous… and we can do that however we want. We can make up our own rules (…) Just be open and brave
(03:31 in The Book of Life)
She starts questioning the idea of monogamy. This means that Ali throughout the series is a character that breaks with the classical idea of relationship constellations. This can be a way for the people behind Transparent to open up discussions on relationships by representing characters that seems to favor ‘open relationships’ as well as embodying queer identities.
This might be helpful to people who do not understand what queer is – here, Ali is the example of how much the term (according to herself) potentially entails (this is not to say that all queer agree with this definition (case in point)).
Despite the fact that Transparent does not define queer specifically, the series puts the term on the agenda and thereby shift the general understanding that you are either man or woman, straight or gay or that a relationship has to be monogamous.
As shown in What is normal? // Nomi, Nomi represents an example of a trans woman, whose storyline isn’t based on the fact that she is not cisgendered. Maura (Jeffrey Tambor – buhu), on the other hand, is an example of how Transparent has embraced the fact that she is a trans woman, making it central to her storyline, since she starts transitioning late in life, and we, the audience, is invited to join her journey towards finding herself and becoming an ‘intelligible’ woman.
The first time we are introduced to the woman Maura, who was previously shown as the male ‘Mort’ is through an establishing shot of Los Angeles’ LGBT(Q)-center. After, we are further invited to participate in her life. We are presented with a big, more or less empty room. At the center, 10-15 people are gathered in a circle, which suggests they are all participating in a support group:
In the following shot, we see a close-up of some of the people at the meeting, which creates a feeling of actually being present and participating, not just looking at the people present. With this, we are in feeling with the characters via a subjective camera:
The camera continues to pan, shedding light to the very different faces of the participants who all make up a diverse group of individuals: young and old, different skin colors, men and women.
In relation to this, it is important to note, that Transparent portrays the LGBTQ-environment, and especially trans* people in a relatable and diverse way, and that all trans*, queer (people who belong under a much broader umbrella than the one provided by the heterosexual matrix) characters are played by people who lives these life in real life (the only cisgendered to play a trans woman is Tambor as Maura) This is definitely part of creating credibility in the storylines and stories that Transparent are portraying (Soloway in Moylan 2016).
Then we hear a rather deep, ‘masculine’ voice telling us about an episode in Target, while the other people (and their reactions) are still in the frame:
(21:29 in Pilot) (21:39 in Pilot)
While telling the story, the camera reaches the person talking. The viewer meets Maura for the first time (before her children):
Maura, who we were previously introduced to as ‘Mort’ has long, dark brown hair, earrings, make-up and a purple dress. In other words, she looks different from the first time we saw her. “Thank you for your share, Maura” (22:24 i Pilot), says the woman who is leading this support group. ‘Mort’ is Maura – and we have been invited to her support group for trans* people. This is a very welcomed first!
The fact that we, the viewers, are introduced to the Maura before her kids can be seen as a well planned strategy by the creator. This is a tool that, according to Mittell, creates a relation between the viewer and the protagonist/character since ‘we know something others don’t’. Furthermore, Maura opens up and talks about very personal feelings and experiences in a fragil (and realistic) situation, which underlines this potential character engagement that occurs when we are given access to her thoughts, feelings and conceptual universe (Mittell 2015: 129).
In relation to ‘queer gaze’, Soloway explains:
“I can tell a woman directed this because I feel held by something that is invested in my feelings. In my body. That my emotions are being prioritized over the actions”
(Soloway 2016: 19:23)
This quote makes clear exactly what is happening in the abovementioned scene with Maura in the support group and her ‘self outing’ to the viewer. The subjective camera opens up a space for us to enter her thoughts in a brilliant way. This is an act of trust that trusts in ‘I see you seeing me’ and in this way the viewer becomes part of the journey that Mauras has just started. Which, among other things, includes ‘coming out’ (see our post on ‘Coming Out’ which is underway) to her children.
This very intimate insight into Maura’s thoughts (in the very first episode) is part of creating an understanding of as well as empathy with Maura as a person. We are part of her most vulnerable journey (‘transition’) away from a life dictated by the heteronorm. We see Maura. We are not looking at her. This is an extremely important difference. Maura continues:
(…) One more thing. I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids and I didn’t do it… Because it just wasn’t time, you know? But I will and it will be soon, I promise you. I promise you. I promise you [raises her right hand]
(23:07 in Pilot)
The same way Maura opens up to the viewer about her being Maura and not ‘Mort’ as her children wrongfully believe, she also promises the viewer that she will reveal her true self to her children and the rest of her family. We are therefore in on her secret. This effect (operational reflexivity mixed with intertextual references) appeals to a:
(…) til et præeksisterende kulturelt fællesskab, hvor referencerne giver mening for tv-seeren, fordi de er genkendelige og har en funktion. Mittell opfatter den operationelle refleksivitet som selvbevidste virkemidler der indbyder seeren til både at engagere sig i og værdsætte fortællingens udformning
(…) to a preexisting cultural community, where the references makes sense to the viewer, since they are recognisable and has a function. Mittel(l) sees the operational reflexivity as conscious tools that invites the viewer to engage in – and appreciate the way the story is being told
This means that the viewer engage with the series on a deeper level which works to make sure that we potentially feel ‘obligated’ to continue to follow the Pfeffermans and their lives to know what happens to them. At the same time, this means that the viewer feels compassion and empathy for Maura as a character (Mittell 2015: 50).
This scene helps the viewer to get an insight into the division Maura feels – both when it comes to family and society – who expect her to be ‘Mort’ (which means death in France). It is made clear here, that Maura lives two different lives – and has done for decades, which becomes more and more clear throughout the series.
Very early on in the show, Transparent portrays gender as being everything but pinned down- it is performative (as Butler talks about). The division Maura feels is further substantiated in the following frame:
The tiles in the background looks like bars and might therefore symbolize imprisonment (something the series continues to do throughout). This can be seen as a symbolic imprisonment of Maura and other trans* people caused by a cisgendered society that constantly punishes those who do not fit the frames of a heteronormative society. They become the opposite of ‘intelligible genders’.
Exactly because trans* people are forced to be aware of the necessity of performing ones gender a certain way according to which community/space they are in (not to say, cisgender people don’t perform their gender – but they are under less societal pressure) – and the expectations towards gender of that space, the LGBT(Q)-center is an example of a safe space, where the frames are wider – and the tables have turned. In here, for a little while, they are not the minority.
This might also be a reason why some trans* people choose only to live ‘openly’ in closed spaces as fx in this support group.
Both Nomi and Maura are presented as complex characters who are not solemnly defined by the discrimination that is often used to portray trans* people in the medias. An examples is Boys Don’t Cry (1999) that is one of the most acknowledge film about a young trans man’s tragic destiny (based on true events). Hilary Swank’s oscar nominated portrayal of Brandon Teena’s fight for love and a life as the boy he is ends brutally when he is raped and killed by his girlfriend’s brothers.
Soloway, Jill (2015-): Transparent. Pilot, Amazon
Moylan, Brian (2016): Transparent’s Jill Soloway: I was ignorant about trans politics.The Guardian. Found here
Haastrup, Helle Kannik (2014): Blog: De nye tv-serier. Udfordring og fordybelse. Rusk. Found here
Mittell, Jason (2015): Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8147-7135-8
Soloway, Jill (2016): The Female Gaze. Master Class, TIFF 2016. Listen here
The reason we focus on the importance of a new and different form of representation in the media (‘queer gaze’) is articulated very precisely by Hernando Fuentes (Alfonso Hererra) – a supporting character in Sense8. During an art-lecture, he questions some of the things we normally accept as truths. One is that there are many different races, where he points to the fact that there is only one: the human race. Other examples are of so-called truths are: cisgenderness, heterosexuality, and patriarchy as the ‘normal’, as well as the structures that are part of otherising minorities.
Very explicit and boundary-crossing pictures of Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Hernando having sex have been published. This means Lito has been ‘outet’ (forced to ‘come out of the closet’) as homosexual by the media. Hernando realizes what has happened during a lecturer because one of his students makes sure the image is casted on to the big screen.
(13:55 in Happy F*cking New Year)
Rather than panicking, Hernando chooses to use this opportunity to point to some important issues when it comes to art, objectivisation, fetichising, and ‘the gaze’: “Art (…) is a language of seeing and being seen…” (12:59 in Happy F*cking New Year).
This means, Hernando, a homosexual man, gets a voice. He talks about how making art to make one’s own story heard is not necessary received with positivity by the receiver, since this person will always view the art from their own point of view.
(…) this is where the relationship between subject and object reverses. And what was seen… now reveals the seer. Because the eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion… prejudices. Which is to say the beholder will always see what they want to see (…)
(14:27 i Happy F*cking New Year)
Otherizing isn’t just about the fact that there are people who fit the category “the Other” (Hall 2013: 247), but the fact that this way of ‘thinking inside of boxes’ (boxes we are all part of reproducing) makes them ‘the Other’, simply because the boxes are not wide enough.
(14:54 in Happy F*cking New Year)
In this way, he doesn’t just get to defend himself and thereby receive a voice, he gets to expose the ones who are not able to look beyond prejudice created by the heterosexual discourse: the cisgendered, heterosexual man as the definition of human. Because of this discourse, other categories such as women, trans* people, homosexuals are produced in his image – and treated accordingly:
[w]hereas someone (…) with a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defining biases, such a beholder might see an image of… two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure. But also… vulnerable. (…) both of them connected to the moment, to each other. To love. And as I have suggested before in this class… art is love made public
(14:13 in Happy F*cking New Year)
In this way, he address why art that breaks with the structures of heterosexual matrix is extremely important. A matrix that permeates society and defines us all – even the white, cisgendered, heterosexual man – and keeps us captive in those subject positions that patriarchal discourses offer. By doing that, we become able to embrace the collapse of society (and of the world as we know it). (For more examples of that check out the post on Pride, which is in production right now)
The above mentioned spells out why these progressive tv-/streaming series are so important to the social debate. They break with ‘naturalized truths’, that maintain peoples in stages of otherness. Through characters that represents this otherness an opportunity for engagement is created so that even a cisgendered, heterosexual, (white) male is able to get a glimpse of what those ‘dangerous’ lives that threatens us and ‘life as we know it’ are like.
Straczynski, J. Michael, Wachowski, Lana & Wachowski, Lilly (2015-): Sense8. Netflix.: Happy F*cking New Year
Hall, Stuart (2013): The Work of Representation. SAGE Publications. The Open University, London. ISBN: 978-1-8-84920-547-4