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
Sense8 tries to eliminate the label-thinking that surrounds gender and sexuality, whereas Transparent investigates these labels and in connection to that try to change the meanings sticking to those (this is especially evident when it comes to the label woman).
In the following analysis we will, firstly, look at a character from Sense8, Nomi, and two from Transparent, Maura and Ali (post about this is already cooking) in order to investigate how they each represent a more diverse understanding of gender and what it means to be ‘woman’ – and how they are limited by the heterosexual matrix. Nomi, Maura, and Ali are all part of creating a more diverse understanding of gender and sex as categories and challenge a cis-gendered conceptual universe in different ways. They make up three different ‘stages’ in the transition towards an ‘intelligible’ woman.
Next, we will look at Lito, Sense8, and Sarah, Transparent, to understand in which ways the series transgress the boundaries of the heterosexual matrix, including how they challenge traditional ideas on relationship constellations as part of breaking with the matrix.
We don’t have to wait long to be introduced to a non heterosexual (queer) couple that consists of a cisgendered- and a transwoman. In fact, it is one of the very first things introduced in the pilot. In this way, Sense8 breaks with most other (even newer) tv- as well as streaming series – especially since they represent a great number of non-normative identities that challenge the heterosexual matrix (and its predominance in the medias)
Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is introduced through a close-up of two hands holding a needle while extracting an undefinable fluid from a little, clear bottle:
With this, the reader is introduced to Nomi through her reflection, which is interesting when considering Foucault’s theory on the function of the mirror as the place where utopia (non-existing place that reflects society in its perfect form) and heterotopia (existing counter-place) meet. The mirror both challenges and depicts the real world. Heterotopia is represented through the hormone treatment (injection) and the fact that the mirror only shows a woman, not the needle. Nb. The mirror metaphor is recurring for both streaming series, which underlines the series’ intention of creating a heterotopia, where queer identities and cisgendered-, binary-, hetero- identities are equal.
In the following frame, Nomi lifts the towel exposing her butt, whereafter she injects the fluid.
Next, we see the bathroom that Nomi uses. In the foreground of the frame, we see a naked woman lying in a bathtub:
In this, rather short, opening scene, we are able to decode a lot of information about Nomi, which requires an invested viewer who might have gained knowledge and information about the series (and thereby know about paratextual elements) (Mittell 2015: 194). This knowledge can forinstants be acquired by seeking out knowledge about the actresses. Mittell describes that this can be part of creating further engagement with the characters since the actresses’ off screen role can open up for other, more in-depth understandings of the character since the boundaries between private and professional life as well as facts and fiction become blurred. This, through a mixture of former roles, and/or the persons visibility on social media. In this way, the actress life outside of the series functions as an intertextual reference:
In all of these instances and many more, viewers approach a character with a wealth of star-connected contexts from both on- and offscreen references that help shape storytelling practices, highlighting the centrality of actors in constituting characters within serial television
(Mittell 2015: 122)
The paratextual knowledge (prior knowledge) ensures that the viewer quickly knows that Nomi is a transwoman just like the actress. Clayton is very open about her life as transgender on social media:
The series appeal to an audience with paratextual knowledge (that has more knowledge than usual about the subject matter), who shares a desire for transgression.
It is worth noting, that Nomi is presented with her girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman), who is cis-gendered and seems relaxed and comfortable with her (naked) body. Nomi, on the other hand, wears a towel that covers her ‘female traits’, which might be a reference to society at hand, where it is easier to accept a biological determined female body than a non-cisgendered (despite the fact that Nomi, when accepting the mainstream terms, ‘passes’ as a ‘real’ woman).
The injection can be understood as a performative action, which underlines how the series follows Butler’s approach to biological as well as social gender as being performative and not biologically determined. The fact that she needs hormone treatment at all underlines how the boundaries of the body has to be crossed – by stopping the processes that would normally make sure, Nomi was not accepted as a woman (which proves just how caught up by the idea of binary genders we are – since one needs to look like a woman to be admitted into the ‘woman’s category’). With this, the intentions of the series are obvious – to break with the idea of a heteronormative, romantic relationship as the only kind of relationship. Sense8 is not a show that intend to follow the heterosexual matrix!
Later, still in Sense8’s first episode, we are presented with an establishing shot of an apartment, that seems to be split into two rooms: a bedroom and a living room. The colors are low-key and warm (candle lits and lanterns), which underlines the cozy and comfortable atmosphere in the rooms:
While the camera slowly moves towards two people that are barely visible in the back of the room, a woman moans, louder and louder. Considering the expected conceptual universe of the heterosexual, average viewer, it is supposingly a man and a woman having sex (an assumption based on dominating discourses and representations of gender and sexuality in the media: heterosexual men and women).
Next, we see a medium shot of the two people, still far too away to give away their identities. It is not until the third frame, we are able to determine who they are; Nomi and Amanita, having sex:
This is, in every way, a break with the heterosexual matrix as being the only ‘right’ one. Nomi is a transwoman in a queer relationship with another woman.
In this frame, Amanitas wears a strap-on-dildo. Nomi who is penetrated by Amanita. The first important and interesting element in this scene that breaks with heteronormative discourses, is a trans woman (Nomi) with an active sexuality. This is a rare sight and breaks with tendencies to fetichise trans* people in tv-/streaming series. A more recent example of fetichising trans* characters is the character Sophia Burset in the award winning, inclusive and normally very diverse Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (2013-) by Jenji Kohan that has been criticized (by gender researchers etc.) for desexualising Sophia and hypersexualising many of the other female characters (Householder & Trier-Bieniek 2016: 10).
At the end of Nomi’s very loud climax, the camera zooms to show Amanita taking of the strap-on and letting it hit the ground. In the same instant the series cut to a close-up of a rainbow colored dildo where sperm, very explicitly, splashes to all sides as it hits the ground:
By explicitly showing the sperm in this way, the series very clearly states that Nomi is a woman – a real woman. Period. It is even convenient to talk about a form of symbolic castration, where the series disassociate themselves from the idea of the fallos symbol as something belonging to a man (they thereby break with the power that penis normally represent). Choosing a rainbow colored dildo (rather than a more realistic color) is in no way a coincident, since it does not symbolise a penis and in this way, not a man either. With this, the series does not try to reproduce heterosexual sex (simply because of penetration) but a queer (homosexual) relationship that too has a right to penetration sex: the rainbow colored dildo can thereby be seen as an intertextual reference to, and a symbol of, Pride and LGBTQ identities.
The dropping of the rainbow colored dildo on the floor combined with the intertextual reference to Pride are important factors when it comes to introducing, and understanding, Nomi as a person: A woman who is not controlled by her ‘unintelligible’ sexuality or her non binary gender – who is not one to be limited by existing norms. Everything that could connect Nomi to the male gender (the rainbow colored strap on as a symbol of fallos) is literally thrown to the ground with a bang. This can be seen a part of the series symbolic ‘fuck you’ to the heterosexual matrix as well as biological gender as being destiny.
The sex scene between Nomi and Amanita is uncompromising and has no intention of sparring the viewer. The use of unaccustomed, potentially transgressive elements such as a strap on dildo is definitely part of challenging the viewer’s heteronormative conceptual universe, which is exactly the intention of the series. The abovementioned scene is just one of many in which Sense8 portrays a ‘Butler approach’ when it comes to gender representation as well as sexuality. Heterosexuality as being the ‘natural’ and the biological ‘woman’ as being the only ‘right’ woman is simply non existing in Sense8’s universe. Instead, they encourage the viewers to throw away their existing (ignorant) ideas on sexuality, gender, and relationship.
Mittell, Jason (2015): Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8147-7135-8
Householder, April Kalogeropopulos & Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne (2016): Feminist Perspectives on Orange Is the New Black: Thirteen Critical Essays. McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6392-0
Straczynski, J. Michael, Wachowski, Lana & Wachowski, Lilly (2015-): Sense8. Netflix: Limbic Resonance
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