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'Transparent' is clear in its message, appeal

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight,   Students and Faculty

Everyone's family is neurotic to some extent.

So when Amazon released its second season of "Transparent" last week, it continued the long-standing tradition of TV shows celebrating these family quirks. The fact that the main character is also a transgender middle-aged man is just one aspect of the overall celebration.

The show, available on Amazon Prime, centers on the life of Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) and his three grown children who are navigating their own personal secrets amid their father's revelation that he is transitioning to life as a woman, Maura.

Because the show's portrayal of Mort's gender identity is just part of the things the family deals with, the show is taking a major step forward in terms of transgender equity, says Anneliese Singh, associate professor in the University of Georgia College of Education's Department of Counseling and Human Development Services. Not only do the storylines push the boundaries of more traditional issues, she says, but the show also does a good job of balancing the real issues that permeate the lives of trans people.

Singh, whose research includes transgender resilience, is also leading part of a national study exploring factors that shape people who identify as transgender.

"I think this show places trans issues front and center as an everyday experience," she says. "The show especially highlights older trans people's experiences, which is rare to see in the media. For instance, when trans people disclose their gender identity later in life, they are often thrust into a different developmental state—it may take them back to their childhood or adolescence. And I think it's really true to form how those things are kind of thought about."

And because trans-specific issues are mixed in with issues that any family deals with, it helps to reinforce how normal they really are.

"Trans people have experiences of divorce, family drama, questioning themselves, just like all people do," she adds. "So the show is really neat in that it focuses on the trans experience, but it also pulls in these universal themes—the drama that can happen with your family around the dinner table, or even gathering for a family photo."

In one clip, the family is gathered at a wedding for a group portrait. Tambor's character, who now goes by Maura, asks the photographer if he would prefer she put her chin up or chin down. "I'd say chin down for you, sir," replies the photographer.

Maura, in a flowing white dress, is taken aback. "Did he call me sir? OK, we're done."

The show's choice of lead character is groundbreaking not only because of Maura's transgender status, but also because she isn't the sidekick, says Jeffrey P. Jones, director of the Peabody Awards and Lambdin Kay Chair and Professor in the entertainment and media studies department within Grady College.

"It's not a typical drama or dramedy ensemble cast, like "Ally McBeal" or "Seinfeld," with a character off to the side who is transgender," says Jones. As a result, it allows the family's issues as a whole to tell the story. "Their quirkiness is part of the normalcy of it all, including the transgender character."

As a nontraditional TV network, Amazon has the ability to push boundaries, he adds. Recent TV trends show traditional broadcast networks taking on live broadcasts, unscripted shows such as "The Voice" and "So you Think You Can Dance" and highly promoted live productions such as the recent successful version of "The Wiz." As a result, the more cutting-edge shows are found on cable networks like FX, HBO, Showtime and now on-demand networks like Netflix and Amazon.

This also tends to separate audiences into traditional viewers and viewers who binge-watch a series whenever they want. It creates a different kind of demand, he says—one that's perfectly suited for a show that's pushing even more boundaries.

Add to that recent cultural shifts in gay marriage and laws protecting transgender people, and you have the perfect timing for a show that reaches a cutting-edge audience.

"We know there are trans people out there, but we don't know how exactly how many due to underreporting and poor data collection methods," says Singh. "But we do know they exist, and that trans bias exists, and federal laws are finally being written to protect them and as a result people feel more safe disclosing who they are. ... It's almost like 'The Golden Girls; a lot of people are watching it, and a lot of younger people are watching it. There's a cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal."

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