Now that Amazon's Transparent — last year's breakout, Golden Globe–winning hit — is coming back for its second season this fall, I have friends who are gushing about the binge-viewing opportunities to come.
Alas, as a heavy (OK, addicted) Amazon Prime user, I'm thoroughly sick of seeing the face of Jeffrey Tambor slathered in ruby-red lipstick and topped with a wig on the home page every time I log on. Whenever I see Tambor’s visage, I'm reminded of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s recent New York Times column that tapped into this zeitgeist of admiring Transparent's use of a "schlumpy, older person rather than a gorgeous [transgender] fashion model" to make its portrayal edgy and real.
"That Transparent depicts a schlumpy, older person rather than a gorgeous fashion model is good for both trans and cis folks alike," wrote Boylan, an adviser on the show, in February 2014. "It captures the surprisingly universal problem of being defined only by our biology, rather than our spirits. It should make us stop and think about what it means to be a man, or a woman, and the struggle that so many people face in trying to live our truth. This isn’t a problem unique to transgender people; it’s the same for all of us."
So having someone who looks like a man in a dress and wig is so much more real? Just like having a gay character wearing pastels with a limp wrist and lisping is so much more real, I guess.
If they cast someone who was beautiful and young and hot, she/he might not look, well, visibly transgender. This reminds me of the early days at GenderPAC, when reporters at our events would ask me to find someone for their photographers to shoot. If I pointed out a lovely transgender woman, they would look upset and ask for someone "who looks more transgender." This is why TV shows and movies almost never feature trans men. The don't “look transgender enough" because chest hair and a beard send such compelling gender signals of maleness.
And this hints at what is really going on with Transparent. What the show is really doing — like most entertainment about trans women — is playing to cisgender prejudices about what trans women must look like. And by all means, we must "look transgender." You could think of it as a new form of blackface; cisgender actors dress up to play transgender characters for cis audiences in ways that play to their prejudices and reassure them about our gender inferiority.
In this, Transparent follows in the footsteps of Normal, the HBO movie which featured large-boned, schlumpy, older white male Tom Wilkinson as a trans woman. And The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which featured large-boned, schlumpy, older white male Terence Stamp as a trans woman. And The World According to Garp, with John Lithgow playing a large-boned, schlumpy, older white transgender woman … well, you get my point.
Perhaps one of the few exceptions was Transamerica, which starred petite, cisgender female Felicity Huffman. Alas, she too played a schlumpy, older white transgender female; so perhaps this was not so much an exception after all.
For Amazon, a schlumpy old white man playing a transgender woman is a win-win. They score major liberal brownie points for being "edgy," "hip," "uplifting," and "real,” while making the trans thing palatable and nonthreatening to the cis-ies. This coincides with the old Hollywood playbook for gay characters, where straight actors are cast and the characters are completely desexualized in an effort to make mainstream audiences comfortable. Casting this recurring parade of similar, masculine-looking actors avoids confusing and angering straight male viewers who would be furious if they were ever presented with a sexy female character who aroused them but then turned out to be a beautiful transgender woman. Tall, old, balding Tambor — or Lithgow or Stamp or Wilkinson — makes sure that debacle will never happen.
Maybe Jared Leto’s female trans character in Dallas Buyers Club is a small indication of change. Leto’s Rayon is not schlumpy, though she’s more tragic and thin than beautiful, alluring, or sexy. She also remains the exception to the rule.
So why is our diversity and beauty not reflected? Some would argue that Transparent is inspired by a true story of a person who transitioned in later years so it's reflecting real life — but we have no idea what the intensely private trans woman who Tambor's character is based on looks like. The truth is that most cisgender audiences want us to look a certain way, so those are the stories that get greenlit and the actors cast to play us. Because what could be more poignant and visually entertaining for cisgender viewers than for a very masculine guy to solemnly announce that he's "really a woman"? This is followed by comedic storylines of them trying and failing to look feminine through hair and dress and makeup — all the while subtly reinforcing the notion that trans women are gender failures defined by their inner maleness.
Last year you could watch this dynamic playing out in real time on The Piers Morgan Show and Katie, where even sophisticated and progressive interviewers simply couldn't stop themselves from reducing transgender actresses to the status of their male birth sex and genitalia. Whenever we appear, cisgenders need to be reassured that we're never, ever "normal." We can never be more than our bodies and we must always appear as visibly, comfortably, reliably different.
Next time cis viewers need to reassure themselves that transgender women are strange and masculine, they should stream Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. We get to play us. We don't have to charm anyone. And with all the knives, there's not a single old schlumpy white male left standing.
RIKI WILCHINS is an activist, stand-up comedian, and author of Read My Lips.