If you’re a trans person of a certain age, and if you’ve been out and open and living your life on your own terms for a significant amount of that time, like I have, then maybe you too can’t help but be a little miffed these days.
After all those years of waiting, when you finally see your community presented decently in the media today, you know it’s a near-certainty that you won’t see anyone who looks like you or reflects the kind of life you live. What you’ll see regarding actual trans people and lives when turning on your TV these days are young, pretty celebrity trans women, and not much else.
What about those of us who are too far along in life — too old frankly — to hope to ever look as attractive as Janet Mock or Laverne Cox? What about those of us who don’t feel our lives are credibly represented by either the mainstream or community media’s infatuation with celebrating youth while ignoring those who did the hard work that’s been necessary over the last generation to bring our culture to a place where those celebrations are now possible? Where are those stories?
Maura, the lead character in Amazon Studios’ Transparent, played by veteran actor Jeffrey Tambor, is a 70-year-old retired college professor who decides to transition and begin living her life as the woman she’s always known herself to be. Not only do we get to see Maura’s struggle to come out to her self-involved children, but through flashbacks we see the process of her discovery of who she is through the limited resources available to her at the time.
When Maura picks up a magazine titled Transformation in a pornography store in 1985, it feels real because I know that I have that very same magazine tucked away in a dusty cardboard box somewhere, and I remember purchasing it in a very similar store around the same year.
The cross-dresser get-away camp Maura attends with the friend she met in that store and the feelings of amazement and confusion we see in Maura remind me of the weekend parties for trans women I attended back in the ’90s. No, it’s not my life, not exactly, but Transparent resonates with me in a way that yet another mainstream media story about yet another trans person half my age never will.
Transparent reflects the experiences of older and late-transitioning trans women in a way nothing else in popular media ever has, and that matters. Anyone who spends any time at all with trans women knows that far more of us look more like Maura than like Carmen Carrera or Candis Cayne. Transparent is one of the first times we’ve seen that reality reflected in popular media.
Yes, it’s a great show, and Jeffrey Tambor and the rest of the cast are great in it. The character of Maura is note-perfect, but it’s also a show about family and how three adult siblings handle not only their father’s transition from Mort to Maura but also their own very different lives. There’s comedy, there’s drama, and there’s pathos, but there’s also truth, and a well-written and brilliantly acted storyline that makes Maura and her family probably the single most realistic fictional portrayal of the trans experience that I’ve ever seen in mainstream media.
For me, it’s the truth part that matters most. Many trans people of my generation will see some of themselves in Maura’s story, and trans women especially will take comfort in discovering that Transparent reflects so much of the reality of our lives without demeaning or devaluing them, and without indulging in the stereotypes we were saddled with for so long.
More than just a great television show, in Transparent I see hope for the future, that we really truly have reached that tipping point Time magazine talked about, that moment in our culture when we’re finally seen as real people, when America can say at last that we’ve learned how to have fun with trans people and identities instead of just making fun of them.
More than anything else I’ve seen, Transparent gives us, as a community of trans people and allies, an all-too-rare glimpse of what it looks like when we’re portrayed in the media as real people with real lives and real families, not just a collection of stale and outdated stereotypes. In this way, the comparisons to Will & Grace are apt. What we don’t yet know is what happens next.
Currently, Transparent is available only to those who subscribe to the Amazon Prime service. While you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of the service and watch the first season without paying a dime, it then costs about $100 a year to continue. Will & Grace had the advantage of being availabe on network television. The big question now is, will Transparent be popular enough to have that kind of impact? What will happen when the next season comes out and those who watched the first season for free will have to pony up $100 before they can watch? That concerns me. On the other hand, you have to believe that with the buzz Transparent is generating, similar projects are being talked about, if not already planned.
It’s an interesting, exciting, even thrilling time for trans people and our stories in the media. Transparent is the latest step forward on a journey that has increased its pace from a crawl to a walk, a jog, and now a full-out run.
Fortunately, there’s at least one important way in which real life differs from the version presented in the media, especially for those like me who binge-watched Transparent’s first season: At this rate, there’s good reason to hope that we won’t have to wait another year to find out what happens next.
REBECCA JURO is a journalist and radio host who writes about media for The Advocate. Her work has been published by The Bilerico Project, The Huffington Post, Washington Blade, and Gay City News. The Rebecca Juro Show streams live Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. Eastern.