“In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being at rest. This notion we reject, for our perspective is that of existentialist ethics. Every subject plays his part as such specifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence; he achieves liberty only through a continual reaching out towards other liberties.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
“I am Courtney Cox’s asshole.”- Jill Soloway, “Courtney Cox’s Asshole”
The scene that sets the action in Jill Soloway’s Amazon Studios hit binge watch Transparent is a moment of accidental revelation. Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest of Mort-turned-Maura’s three children and a married mother, has been furiously making out with her ex college girlfriend-turned-interior decorator in Maura’s bedroom. The two have recently reunited, and are there under the guise of “redecorating,” which sounds flimsy but then again, it’s LA. Just as the action begins to really get handsy, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) walks in.
“Hi girls,” she says weakly, aware of the simultaneous revelations that have just been uncovered: she’s wearing full makeup with a dress and wig, no longer hiding her trans identity at the age of 70; her married daughter’s hands are down an also-partnered woman’s pants. But there’s no moral parsing on the part of either parent or adult child over what is being awkwardly learned. Following a quick explanation and some surprise, Maura’s gender identity is easily embraced.
If existence precedes essence, as Sartre and de Beauvoir would insist, then the essential self is something like an untethered helium balloon that a person must actively try to grasp in order to feel as though she’s at least headed in the direction of actualization. The problem with self-actualization is that it’s, well, selfish. Aggressively communal societies like, say, North Korea or your average run-of-the-mill doomsday cult, emphasize sublimating the individual in service of the unit—foregoing the helium balloon of self-actualization in the name of a greater common “good.” We have precisely that “yay, we’re cogs!” ethos to thank for documentary images of perfectly synchronized rhythmic gymnastics routines featuring a thousand people totally in sync, or self-styled villages clad in a sea of white robes. Sure, being convinced en masse that the world’s going to end on the twenty-third hour of the final day of the fourth month of this year has its own set of pitfalls, but isn’t there a beauty in some shared purpose?
In Transparent, as with much of Soloway’s work, pursuit of the self is a shared purpose. In a world that may or may not be godless (though at least culturally informed by Judaism), the members of Transparent‘s Pfefferman family hold self-actualization as a guiding principle for shaping the course of their lives. Arriving at the essence of each individual self becomes their humanistic end and salvation; it is in the shared support and encouragement of the family unit that this ultimately solitary act becomes collective, and even political.
The existentialist is in fundamental opposition to the good late-Capitalist drone (hi, y’all) who sees work as a means to inner salvation and purpose. As the labour movement sounds its feeble death knell and pensioned 9-to-5s become footnotes in a generation’s life experience (passed along as mythology to subsequent, incredulous generations), we convince ourselves that busyness—or, more cynically but probably also more true, meaningful participation in a contract economy—will deliver us from the shapelessness of our fragmented secularity. Work will set us free.
In this faulty model of self-appeasement, a developed, glossy exterior self is relied upon in place of a rich inner world. Soloway’s repeated use of image-obsessed Los Angeles as a backdrop shows how this can both enhance and distract from the quest for truth. In Transparent, Maura’s other daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) chops off her hair as a physical representation of what Soloway has described as the character’s increasingly genderqueer inner leaning. Alternately, middle child Josh (Jay Duplass) is always chasing the newest “It” trend, be it a dopey must-have T-shirt or twee stylistic accents for his musical acts (witness: a triangle player as the centrepiece for his prized band, Glitterish), all the while hunting (not-so-subtly) for mother figures to bed—that is, a comfy regression—everywhere he turns. More blatantly, there’s Maura who, after a lifetime of cross-dressing in private, adopts a woman’s costume (costume in the sense that gender is, as you probably remember from Women’s Studies 101 or like, getting ready this morning, largely performed) full-time.
The extent to which the exterior—or superficial—self can alternately inform or reflect a person’s essence is something that has clearly played out through Soloway’s work. Even “Courtney Cox’s Asshole,” the short story that landed Soloway a writing and producing credit on the HBO hit drama Six Feet Under, largely concerns itself with the futility of playing prescribed roles in what might charitably be described as the sellout capital of the world. In the short story, an unnamed narrator who works as Courtney Cox’s personal assistant laments her lost ability to orgasm in between compulsive manicure appointments and damage control over the rumour that her employer seeks anal bleaching treatments. (This was apparently the stuff of scandal-worthy gossip in the early 2000s.) The narrator explains:
The idea is that she goes to some Ruski waxing bitch in Beverly Hills, and they swab bleach on the tiny, puckered door to her back room, and slowly, the skin there turns a delightful light pink, like the girls in the magazines, instead of doo-doo brown, as most assholes are, from years of misuse. Something tells me I could use a good bleaching myself. Luckily, I’m not that kind of person.
The implication here is not subtle: consumer choices define us, and the lengths we’ll go to alter our physical selves reflects directly on the types of people we are. There’s nothing inherently shameful about wanting a pretty pink asshole, but it does hint at a person’s priorities. Both the narrator and fictionalized Courtney Cox of the story would rather not be associated with these presumed priorities; whether or not Soloway or the real Cox would isn’t so relevant.
Alternately, this isn’t to say that the pursuit of an enlightened inner self in lieu of work or a buffed exterior is treated by Soloway as some noble, ascetic virtue. On the contrary, that Transparent‘s four main characters remain conspicuously unemployed by the season’s end (though Maura, at least, is retired) is presented as evidence of not only the Pfefferman wealth, but more pressingly, the family’s stunted psychic and emotional development. Sarah self-importantly orders around the hired help while her husband brings home the bacon (or, in this family’s case, organic tempeh strips); when Maura downsizes to a trans-inclusive housing community, Sarah inherits the original family home. Josh spends the bulk of his time as a music producer sleeping with the talent (when not bedding his childhood babysitter) before losing the gig altogether, while the youngest, Ali, subsists from parental stipends while screwing her personal trainer.
“They are so selfish,” Maura laments of her three adult children to her trans support group. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”
Yet as the season progresses, we come to realize that the Pfefferman children cannot see beyond themselves in large part because they cannot see themselves at all. Like Maura, they are struggling to reconcile who they are with the roles they are expected to play. All four are decidedly late bloomers, a point of exasperation, but one which the show approaches with compassion.
Author Claire Messud famously made headlines in 2013 when, in response to a question about the unlikability of her novel’s female protagonist, told off her interviewer: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” Soloway has similarly bristled over the accusation that her characters—and, in particular, her women—are difficult to sympathize with. Courtney Cox’s assistant clings to racist stereotypes and crafts offensive fantasies to get off; the women of Six Feet Under were all notoriously flawed (“which is to say they act and think like recognizable human beings,” as Michelle Dean once wrote); even Transparent‘s Maura has lived as an old rogue actively hiding her true nature from those closest to her. When asked by a reporter at a Television Critics Association panel why her shows are short on sympathetic characters, Soloway replied that “rootable women, or likable women, is a kind of trope that I was asked to be part of [while working on] getting network pilots picked up for a decade.” It makes a statement to write women who aren’t always nice. For one, it demonstrates that they’re human.
The Pfefferman family’s sloppy humanity is ultimately what drives Transparent, which has been approved for a second season. In rejecting the status quo of likability and assimilation, these flawed and unrooted characters are also rejecting stagnation. Defiantly, they are staking out room for self-discovery, which is an embarrassing but emotionally resonant process to watch. Embarrassing, because it’s an endeavour we’re socialized to believe is indulgent; resonant, because it’s one we know to fight for nonetheless. Besides, the pursuit of an honest or integrated self is essential for empathetic connections with other people—it is a way of dissolving the boundaries and categories that we restrain ourselves with and from. In real life as in fiction, self-discovery is a mandate that expands the once-narrow confines of feminism into a genuinely intersectional and trans-inclusive movement. New truths are hard won.
Under the lead of Maura’s wobbly feminine awakening, the other members of the Pfefferman clan will likely continue to fumble as the show continues because that’s what makes the series what it is. The characters are convincing as people because they are replete with transgressions, regressions, and doo-doo brown assholes, reaching—as they dare—for something real.