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.
The relationship of Ali and Syd (as well as Ali’s relationship with Gender Studies professor, Leslie) represents the non-heterosexual queer relationship, where existing norms and discourses do not dictate how they live their lives as well as how they ‘do’ their relationship, gender, and sexuality.
Their relationship works as a place where Ali questions monogamy and as a safe space for her to experience with her gender identity as well as redefining phallus and what it can symbolize.
In the below mentioned scene, Ali walks in to the living room with a confident smile (as she is ‘in character’) and places herself in front of Syd. She is wearing a ‘wife-beater’, boxers (for men) and her long hair is done as if she has short hair, which makes her appear more ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’. The entire scene appears comical and overacted – almost like a caricature. Her way of dressing is a way for her to challenge and play with the viewer’s understanding of gender while also reproducing the stereotypical understanding of a gay / queer relationship that consists of a female and a male part:
Syd quickly points out that Ali is breaking the pagt (the strap-on belongs in the bedroom) and repeatedly asks her to take it off. Nevertheless, Ali continues to perform her role as a powerful (heterosexual) man, who in every way feels superior do to ‘his’ (erect) penis.
Ali puts the strap-on in front of Syd’s face to indicate that she must put it in her mouth next (this is obviously ironic):
Here, Ali and Syd represents a break with the heterosexual matrix and its claim to phallus (penetration), since it exemplifies how two women can have sex ‘with’ phallus, but without heterosexuality.
The way Ali parodies ‘a man’ underlines how one, by performing ‘the male gender’ almost automatically walks, talks, and acts differently according to the privileges given to you because you are born male in a society dominated by a patriarchal order.
I’m going to do everything with this on now. I’m going to do the New York Times crossword puzzle with a dick on (…) I’m going to make tea with a dick on (…) I’m going to throw pebbles in a pond with a dick on (…) I’d like to have some feelings and watch the rain with a dick on
(10:43 in Mee-Maw)
This is also a way of changing the meaning of phallus and its powerful position. This is done by placing it in other non-sexual correlations than what we are used to – doing crossword puzzle, drinking tea, being sensitive, and looking at the rain (‘with a dick on’). The mystery of phallus is hereby removed while its power is being taken away (a form of power men have defined themselves, which Transparent is trying to break with through queer gaze) by redefining it as something ‘safe’ and well known. The remarks ‘with a dick on’ underlines the fact that it is possible to perform one’s gender. The strap-on is something you can take on and off which means that phallus is redefined as something that belongs to everyone, not just men. With this, we witness another ‘fuck you’ – this time (in line with Lacan) aimed at ‘the big Other’ (phallus as the symbol of authority as well as potency (not a real organ)), whereby the series demonstrates exactly how hollow the idea of ‘the big Other’ (the flawless, metaphysical authority) is – both sexually and identity-wise (Rösing 2007: 36, 42, 49).
This is seen when Ali takes off the strap-on and throws it to the floor right before the mood goes from humorous and charictuarizing to intimate. Ali embraces Syd (without the strap-on):
‘Having a dick on’ is something you choose. It has no power in itself, but they, on the other hand, do. With this, it is clear that Transparent seeks to create a new and different societal structure when it comes to power: also in the bedroom. Ali takes on phallus (the power) in order to let it manifest itself in her, next she throws it to the floor, while still keeping the power – ‘female empowerment’ right there!
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.
A third example of a ‘diverging identity’ (on more than one level) is Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) in Transparent. She is a character that goes from identifying as a cisgendered, heterosexual woman to being in a relationship with different women as well as questioning her gender identity. It is made clear throughout the series that she most definitely embraces what Butler defines as ‘queer’, since she is not dictated by the heteronormative matrix or her ‘assigned’ gender as defining og determining for her identity:
(00:50 in Pilot)
Ali is asleep and then wakes up, rather suddenly, and gets ready to get out of bed. The camera turns around, away from Ali, only to find her again. With this, we don’t meet Ali as person, but rather her reflection in the mirror. This means that we meet Ali in a utopian, perfect world, which is quickly brought back down to earth (Ali’s queer world as a counter place to the heterosexual matrix). Here, Soloway’s ‘queer gaze’ is manifested:
The female gaze seeks to destroy all gazes. She is other gaze, queer gaze, trans gaze, intersectional gaze, she is the non gaze, emanating from the center of not a triangle but a circle – undivided, the feel with me gaze, the being seen, I see you gaze, truth gaze
(Soloway 2016: 41:45)
As viewer, we are ‘in feeling’ with Ali, since we move with her and experience her as she experiences herself. The camera is subjective. It tries to gain access to the character. This is a welcomed contrast to ‘the male gaze’, where we look at a person – often with an objectifying gaze. The right to subjectivity is one of Soloway’s main purposes with her intersectional, feminist approach to creating tv-/streaming series.
Next, we follow Ali as she gets up from her bed and leaves the frame. On the wall next to the bed, is a picture of a naked woman, which indicates that Ali is a woman who owns her sexuality. An impression that is constantly proven to be true throughout the seasons.
After, we cut to Ali who has turned her back to the viewer. The light is low key and hard which creates a dramatic and sad, yet exciting atmosphere.
While almost sleeping, Ali walks away from the viewer giving us an opportunity to study her room a little closer. Despite the low key light, the mess caused by magazines and notebooks is obvious. It is clear, that the room lacks structure, which proves to be symptomatic to Ali’s life in general. In this way, one could argue that the mess is a symbol of where Ali is in her life right now direction-wise, since she turns out to be the character that goes through the most developing stages in the four seasons. It is interesting to note, though, that despite the physical chaos, she seems relaxed. This is further underlined by the images, since we then cut to a close-up of two hands pouring water into a coffee machine. By shifting the focus, the mess we saw before is symbolically boxed out. After, we cut to Ali drinking her freshly made coffee, while thinkingly staring out into empty space:
(01:13 in Pilot)
The lines in this setting creates a frame around Ali while also creating an expression of her state of mind. The vertical lines in the left side of the frame might indicate a form of courage, which we will later experience as the courage to explore her sexuality and starting out as an academic student. The tilted lines indicates both action and unease, which we, later in the series, come to experience both as curious and identity seeking, where Ali often looks for answers to questions like ‘who I am?’ and ‘what do I want’. The horizontal lines gives the impression of peace and harmony. Harmony is further underlined by the fact, that it is branches that make up the line, and not metal as is the case with the diagonal lines. The branches then becomes a symbol of nature, which again is a symbol of exactly peace and harmony, and also freedom. Later in the series, we will come to understand Ali as a person who is well-balanced and in many ways one who does not care about norms and societal expectations of what she should do or how she should look. It is interesting to note that the branches are placed behind the other lines, which can be interpreted as the fact that the harmony Ali contains is hidden behind the outer chaos she is in.
In her search for the answer to who she is and what she wants, she goes from being out of job and living off of her Moppas money to being a university student and then later follow in her Moppas footsteps by teaching at the university.
The way the series uses the camera along with a character that appears withdrawn underlines how Transparent uses ‘queer gaze’. The above mentioned frame projects a feeling of safety and ‘being held’ due the atmosphere of cosy domesticity. Despite the potentially trivial, rather normal, things she does, Transparent chooses to focus on exactly those feelings and moods Ali is surrounded by, which can, potentially, appeal to the viewer in a way where one feels like they see her (and might also feel seen) whereby one is invited to engaging with her. This is exactly why this rather intimate situation creates a feeling of ‘I see you seeing me’ due the relatableness occurring between viewer and the character.
As shown in What is normal? // Nomi, Nomi represents an example of a transwoman, 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 transwoman, 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 transwoman 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, ‘maskuline’ 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