This project began with an image. In the pilot episode of Amazon.com’s Transparent (2014 - ), the trans matriarch Maura Pfefferman breaks the fourth wall as she speaks to her support group, facing the camera and looking directly in the lens as she describes an encounter with identity policing. Initially, I thought that this moment of direct address was entirely unique within the series, and as a participant in the Scholarship in Sound and Image Workshop at Middlebury College, I began playing with footage from the series, seeking to understand the impact of Maura’s “look back” at the audience. However, as I sought to develop an argument about the uniqueness of this moment, I discovered something that I had not expected. In fact, Transparent is rich with moments in which Maura—and only Maura—looks directly into the lens.
Yet there was still something drawing me to this particular image from the pilot, and I returned again and again to the scene itself, watching it over and over within Adobe Premiere Pro, playing with it according to the rules and parameters of the workshop, and finding out that, indeed, the media object did “teach [me] about itself” (Keathley and Mittell 6). As I discovered, and as my videographic essay reveals by exploring the scene repeatedly, this scene functions as a critical node in a network of connections across the series. These links raise formal and political questions that are central to Transparent—and to broader issues in the representation of trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming people. For example, the disciplinary function of the support group becomes especially evident as the camera repeatedly circles around the circle of the support group, enhancing the pressure to perform a self-confession.
Other unexpected critical insights emerged from the multi-screen approach that I had chosen. Juxtaposing this scene from the pilot alongside other moments from the show exposes some of the failures in Transparent’s engagement with race, extending beyond the mere lack of representation across the series to the issue of how the show’s few characters of color are represented. Although the series authorizes Maura to look back at the audience, the same power over the look is not extended to Eliza, a black trans character who speaks to Maura during Maura’s volunteer shift at the LGBT Center’s crisis hotline in the third season. As Maura asks Eliza to speak, moving into the disciplinary role of the one who demands that the other confess, we see only Eliza’s lips moving, and her look—towards anything—is obliterated. Eliza’s look is blocked, and not only is she prevented from looking into the lens, but for the majority of the episode, her eyes are simply cut out of the frame by tight close-ups that show us only her mouth, framed by her green hair. Using a frame hold, I was able to extend one of the rare moments when Eliza’s eye slips into the frame, however briefly. Yet there is nonetheless an element of violence in my critical gesture, for her eye remains partly cut off by the edge of the frame, as the frame hold effect freezes her movement, pinning her in place for my examination of the dynamics of looking in Transparent. Ultimately, by using a multi-screen approach to examine a single scene repeatedly, I discovered a network of connections across the show that resist any simple declaration that Transparent is either politically progressive or politically regressive in its representation of transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people. My video essay recovers—and produces—a dialectical interplay between moments in which the show critiques representational conventions and moments in which the show enacts these conventions.
Keathley, Christian and Jason Mittell. The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image. Montreal: caboose, 2016.
Nicole Morse is an assistant professor of Multimedia Studies at Florida Atlantic University with a focus on LGBTQ Media. Their research has been published in Jump Cut, Feminist Media Studies, and Porn Studies, and they are developing a book manuscript about self-representational art by trans women artists tentatively titled Selfie Aesthetics.