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The Ironic Conservatism of “Transparent”

Most of the reviews I write deal with blockbuster movies, since that’s the type of film I know most readers will be seeing. That said, I also try to make a point of engaging with art that falls outside the domains with which I’m conventionally familiar. Since I happen to already be an Amazon Prime subscriber, I thought I’d give “Transparent” a look (particularly given how much I enjoyed Amazon’s “Mozart In The Jungle,” which is excellent and well worth seeing). Additionally, “Transparent” won big at the Golden Globes a couple of weekends ago, which makes this a particularly topical subject.

“Transparent” is the story of three disaffected young Los Angeles adults and their father, who is transitioning to a female gender identity. While the series’ framing story is the journey of the eponymous Maura (depicted with remarkable charisma by Jeffrey Tambor, of “Arrested Development” fame), in a unique twist, it is not Maura but rather her cisgender children who are depicted enduring the lowest lows. Sarah (Amy Landecker) abandons her husband and child in favor of a torrid affair with her college lover; Josh (Jay Duplass) is a struggling music producer who carries on sexual relationships with his young ingénues; Ali (Gaby Hoffman) has failed entirely to launch into adulthood. It is through an almost obsessive focus on the decadence of these three protagonists that the show’s greatest irony is revealed:

While in the midst of laying out a vision of social progressivism, “Transparent” simultaneously presents a deeply subversive critique of the modernist cultural ethos.

First, a limiter: this is by no means a suggestion that “Transparent” is not firmly grounded in a progressive value set, particularly regarding the concept of gender identity. It most certainly is. The substance and legitimacy of that value set, however, are not subjects of this particular discussion. What fascinates me is the portrait “Transparent” paints of interactions between moral agents in the contemporary context, and within which of these interactions one may find genuine human flourishing.

According to the contemporary modern vision, – the Disney-esque Follow-Your-Heart-At-All-Costs, Burn-Your-Bridges philosophy – the highest level of self-actualization is attained through the unfettered embrace of one’s own autonomy. This is a road that, as the miserably dark, ego-absorbed journeys of Sarah, Josh, and Ali highlight, leads to precisely the opposite of internal fulfillment.

Conversely, Maura’s story unfolds as an exercise of individual autonomy within the context of community. It is Maura’s community center which provides her with the courage to come out to her children. It is Maura’s celebration of Jewish traditions which helps her turbulent family cohere. It is Maura’s love for her children through which the compassion of her character is most fully evidenced. On a core level, Maura sees her identity not just as a function of her gender/sexuality, but as a function of her friendships with the people around her, her love for her children, and the religio-cultural values that anchor her life. “Transparent” affirms that our sense of self-definition, as well as the roles we inhabit, are not actually dependent on rejecting social structures and values in the pursuit of an amorphous ideal of pure autonomy; indeed, one of the series’ most touching moments is a family Shabbos celebration – an a-modern touch if ever there was one. Throughout the series, the truest forms of happiness are depicted as inextricably bound up with traditionally “conservative” norms of family, self-sacrifice, and community.

In short, individual autonomy within a framework of communitarian obligations is not necessarily an oxymoronic concept.

As a good example of the opposite tendency, “Girls” (at least what I’ve seen of it) offers no such juxtaposition between self-constructed alienation and a life-wholly-realized. Yes, Lena Dunham’s characters are insufferably self-centered, and no, there’s no counterpoint drawn: accordingly, “Girls” ends up as a study of the vapid unpleasantness brought on by fully realized modernity. “Transparent” works as unintentional social critique precisely because it depicts alternatives to the pure gratification of Self, and so avoids lapsing into jejune pop-nihilism.

Visions of fragmentation have dominated the zeitgeist of cultural storytelling for several decades now. Guided by the sterile, ultra-existentialist vision of Camus and Sartre, narratives in fiction have portrayed social alienation as a necessary consequence of self-fulfillment and the emergence of genuine personal identity. Perhaps, as the millennial generation begins to shape the ethos of a post-postmodern era, this presumption is beginning to change: though as yet classical teleology appears unlikely to make a cultural comeback, recognizing the innate human impulse toward flourishing-in-community is certainly a valuable start.

General Note: This show addresses and depicts mature sexual themes. It is not suitable for general audiences – and indeed, probably only appeals to a very niche group of art-TV aficionados. This piece is a work of critical analysis, not endorsement.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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