Debra Ferreday suggests that the TV series Transparent shows how the media can operate as a site of cultural struggle, and help liberate us from rigid sex and gender systems.
In May 2014, Time magazine featured on its cover the actress and activist Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and the first openly trans person to appear there. The headline declared 2014 to represent a ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, a term which went viral, heralding a period of unprecedented visibility for trans people.
This ‘moment’ - described by Time as ‘America’s next civil rights frontier’- has raised complex questions around visibility, representation and mediation. The general mood in the mainstream media is rather self-congratulatory: when Caitlyn Jenner chose the cover of Vanity Fair to come out in spectacular style, for example, more difficult questions seemed to be swept away - especially questions about the years of bullying and abuse she had previously suffered at the hands of the press that now celebrated her as an icon. The focus on celebrity figures who do little to disrupt feminine gender norms has led to concerns about whose stories get to be represented in this cultural moment, and whose are excluded. As the activist and blogger Alok Vaid-Menon sums up, ‘Society’s message to trans people feels like: ‘Congratulations! As long as you look like a conventionally attractive, respectable, thin cisgender model.’ Certainly it seems a little early to celebrate the end of transphobia when trans people are still disproportionately likely to be victims of violence, and trans youth recently faced having their very existence debated by a charity whose supposed role it is to protect young people.
Menon concludes that perhaps we need to see the ‘tipping point’ not as the conquest of a new frontier – a fantasy which suggest the incorporation of trans people into a nationalistic fantasy of US identity – but as an opportunity for reflection. Perhaps we need to see this opportunity as not just relating to the ‘issue’ of trans - as though trans people were a single, homogenous group that can simply be ‘represented’ through media visibility – but on the relationship between gender, sexuality and media in general, and by extension, what a liberatory media representation of sex and gender might look like. Below I turn to the Amazon streaming TV series Transparent – an ambitious, richly entertaining family drama – which illustrates how media can operate not just as ideological machines or as spaces for more improving representations of minorities, but as a site of experimentation and struggle.
This relates to John Storey’s work on culture in this website: as he writes, ‘both text and audience produce meaning: in political terms, a text can help change how we see the world, but so can the meanings we find in it’. Storey calls attention to the complex ways in which identities are produced in dialogue with media, arguing that ‘signification has a ‘performative effect’; it helps construct the realities it appears only to describe’. This idea of signification as performative has been hugely important in theories of gender and sexuality. In 1990, Judith Butler proposed the idea of gender as performative: that is, while dominant ideology sees gender as the natural outcome of biological sexual difference, gender is in fact not something we are, but something we do: the identities we see as natural consist merely of the repetition of particular stylised acts. This means that we learn how to do our gender through constant citing of the same normative practices: and it follows that in an increasingly mediated society, media representations are central to this process.
Butler’s work is important for feminism because it takes a fluid rather than rigidly ideological view of the way institutions operate to produce gender difference, and I want to suggest that this queer-inflected feminism offers a more nuanced way of looking at media than the model of media as ideological institution that dominates much discussion of gender on the Left. The problem Storey identifies – that ideological critique denies agency to media consumers, seeing them as ‘cultural dupes’ – seems particularly intense in relation to women and minorities, who are often seen as particularly vulnerable to ideological brainwashing: there is a certain kind of feminist criticism that can feel like little more than an alibi for attacks on cultural practices traditionally associated with women, queer subjects and people of colour. This can produce moments of aggression that seem in excess of the professed desire for better representation: the writer who wished Kim Kardashian dead – a view she claimed to be entirely compatible with her self-identification as a feminist is a recent example.
Queer feminist approaches to media studies take a stance that is in a sense both more radical, and more attentive to the highly complex ways in which audiences actually engage with media. A key figure here is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who famously argued that the omission of queer identities from mainstream representation was not simply a side-effect, but was central to Western art and literature: the closet, she writes, is central to Western thought, and normative, heterosexist representations are haunted by the queer identities they exclude and silence. Sedgwick questions what she calls the ‘minoritizing view’ of sexuality – that is, the idea that a minority of individuals are born gay, and that depictions of homosexuality are only relevant to the ‘deviant’ few who fit that category, in favour of a ‘universalising’ view which positions queer identity and its denial at the centre of Western culture.
Often, representations of gender fluidity are situated firmly within the minoritizing model. In The Danish Girl, where Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the central character, Lili, presents her as fragile, damaged and ultimately tragic: her untimely death is succeeded by the restoration of heterosexual romance when her wife, Gerda, falls in love with a cisgender man. The film’s obsession with medical issues is typical of transphobic discourse: its final act consists of little more than a series of failed medical procedures, with Lili literally fading before our eyes. The film approaches trans people as curiosities: we are invited to take a prurient peep, but then our assumed anxieties are soothed through the restoration of heterosexual order in much the same way that crime cinema opens up the possibility of terrible violence only to end by restoring a sense of justice and hence safety. Not surprisingly, the film attracted the dismay of trans and feminist critics.
Sedgwick’s work suggests that this minoritising view is inadequate to explain straight audience’s fascination with queer subjects, who are fascinating because they suggest that all gender is constructed. While some of us might think of ourselves in terms of binaries – male/female, gay/straight –the reality is much more arbitrary and more fluid.
Transparent, which has just completed its third series on Amazon, centres on the experience of Maura Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, an older trans woman who is anything but the ‘conventionally attractive, respectable, thin cisgender model’ stereotype – although she is white, middle-class and wealthy. Maura is a retired academic who, in her previous identity as Mort, has not always been respectful of her female counterparts: the series deals partly with her relationships with her three children and her ex-wife Shel, and partly with her attempts to cope with the pressures of coming out, and with coping with her past and current privilege. But what is important about Transparent is that Maura is never presented as an anomaly in a world of ‘normal’ cisgender subjects: instead her transformation is the catalyst for sometimes jolting change in those around her. Through Maura’s network of old and new relationships, the show has explored marriage and divorce, marriage equality, racism, Jewishness, abuse, abortion, women and ageing, male privilege, bisexuality and the BDSM scene, to name just a few. Writer Jill Soloway, who was inspired to write the script by her own father coming out as a trans woman, has spoken of her desire to address intersectionality through ‘the questions of whether or not women, people of color, and queer people have similar or different struggles, especially for people who are sometimes both, who are women of color or queer people of color’. ‘What’, she asks, ‘do trans women owe each other if one is black and one is white; what is the trans sisterhood, and does it transcend race’?
It’s to the credit of Soloway and to extraordinary performances by the core cast that the show manages to do all this and still be warm, funny, and believable – there are no conventionally likeable characters, only believably complex, sometimes contradictory human beings. Moving beyond the model of trans* people as anomalies who have rights and who must be treated as equal but who nevertheless deviate from what is assumed to be the norm of fixed, intelligible gender identity, Transparent shows that gender identity – all gender identity – is political. It is also deeply about the ways in which gender identities do not exist in isolation – as the individualising discourses of neoliberal capitalism would have it – but are embedded in social worlds: from Maura’s support group, which includes a number of real-life trans activists who were also consulted in the writing of the script, to set-piece disastrous family gatherings (a Thanksgiving dinner that almost turns violent: a huge, vulgar wedding that ends in the break-up of the happy couple), these are characters firmly located in a social world - and that can be both oppressive and liberating.