Some People Like Hearing Sad Things

Creator's Statement

This project began with an image. In the pilot episode of’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.

Nicole Erin Morse’s video essay interrogates a dramatic set piece from the pilot episode of Jill Soloway’s Zeitgeist-defining Amazon series Transparent. Through repetition and variation, the piece draws out the history of the disciplinary construction of gender variant identities that underpins the scene. More subtly, it locates white, class (and, extra-diegetically, cis-gender, male) privilege even in the look back at the disciplinary gaze. The video opens by playing the scene through in its entirely. Maura, the show’s patriarch-turned-matriarch played by Jeffrey Tambor, shares an experience of gender policing with a group of “real” gender-nonconforming and trans Angelenos cast as her support group in the actual LGBT community center in LA. Using chapter headings, text, juxtaposition and multiscreen techniques, the video picks out a number of elements from the sequence: the circling camera as a mechanism of surveillance; the fluorescent light and tile walls as analogous to the “scientific” grid and illumination used in early photography’s cataloguing of deviant types (including gender nonconforming people); the scripted nature of confession; and the institutional mise-en-scene of such visual mechanisms of identity policing. The video essay makes its argument successfully, as these Foucauldian technologies of deviant visibility are indeed quite subtle in Transparent. Isolating them reminds the viewer that television can be seen as another such technology. Other visual material adduced in support includes excerpts from a contrasting contemporary transgender representation, the activist documentary Campus North North North, and sequences from later episodes of Transparent, including from the second season flashback storyline that features Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. This material foregrounds the way that queer and other deviant subjects have participated in their typologizing as a basis for visibility and identity construction. It also suggests operations by which some are rendered abject and unworthy of returning the gaze, even within the show’s progressive logic.

Transparent is positioned as an ambivalent object of study—one that deploys disciplinary technologies as well as appropriating them as a “reverse discourse.”  One of the most striking elements of the visual material is the contrast between the fictional Maura/real Tambor and the extras who make up the support group. Maura’s superior class status overlays her differences in age, race, and gender presentation from the extras in the scene but can’t cover over the awkwardness of filming in a real space. The circling camera comes to rest on Maura in a frame that excludes everyone else; this framed image displays “the look back,” “the grid,” “the confessional mode.” Those lingering just outside the frame are not extended the same invitation to speak; the camera that produces Maura as a fictional character passes poor people of color by.  Ironically, Maura speaks of her kids’ selfishness even as she hogs the camera with a monologue that is on one level about the freedom to shop.

The video foregrounds how Maura takes up space by contrasting her portrayal with the fragmented visual and verbal presentation of the young African American trans woman at the other end of the hotline that Maura answers in another scene set at the center. It also illustrates precarity by juxtaposing its Ur-scene with a support group meeting from a later episode that uses an entirely different cast, as if it didn’t matter who supported the show’s lead. And however successfully the video focuses on theoretical and formal dimensions of Transparent, these scenes populated by trans and gender-non-conforming extras inevitably bring into relief the controversy around the show’s casting of a cis-gender actor as the lead.  Making this disjuncture even more acute is the fact that in the course of the video’s review process, Tambor went from being an ally of the trans community to stepping down from his role in Transparent-- accused of sexual harassment by trans members of the cast and crew. Morse was able to incorporate this turn of events into the tape’s themes of power and the confessional mode, but the cultural noise of these extra-diegetic elements is hard to muffle.

The resonances of celebrity are a key driver of fan remix, and harnessing and taming them can be a challenge to the relatively contained format of videographic critique. So too with the ramifying significations of serial narrative. Morse’s close look at one scene from Transparent reframes what is centrally a family drama, and viewers of the series will have to adjust their expectations--it is difficult to both make a theoretical argument and guide a reading. For others, the video’s density of visual and aural tracks will require recourse to the accompanying author’s statement. Only on several viewings—and Morse’s revision-- did I recognize the line spoken at the end as the source of the video’s title. Does Some People Like Hearing Sad Things lead viewers to understand ourselves as among those people? We may then be moved by its ways of seeing from complicity with disciplinary society’s demands of trans people to a place that queers sadness itself.


I must start with a confession – I am a big fan of Transparent (seasons 1-3) but the same cannot be said of the audiovisual essay. As the transformative power of the digital age impacts film studies, I favour its force to make us look outwards rather than turn within. That said, I prize strong arguments and intellectual innovation and, through [in] Transition and scrutinising this video essay, have been persuaded of the form’s potential for contextualised critique.

The real strength of this piece lies in its compelling illumination of the relationship between the policing of identity and the disciplinary ‘gaze’, in all its literal, critical and figurative aspects. Morse’s crafting of screen space to juxtapose moments from the pilot episode with those from elsewhere in the series and beyond it, is fundamental to this and works very effectively to draw out new meaning and enhance our understanding of the text. The faux collective/therapeutic circles, confessional mid-shots and multiple (mis)recognitions/ID checkpoints are woven into a fairly powerful (only fairly because overly poetic) statement on institutional and individual control. Poetry does compromise power here, for me, for despite or rather because of the provocation, and visual pleasure, of these aesthetic and experiential echoes, of circles and lines, hums and hand movements, there is just too much going on in ‘Some People’ for their meaning to be clear or…well…especially meaningful. A ‘dialectical interplay’ of un/critical conventions is most definitely revealed but it is too partial in a variety of ways, which I’ll point to, I hope, in what follows.

More successful is what Morse does with grids. Framed by the words, ‘The history of scientific representations of sexual variance is full of nude bodies before grids’, they are rendered visible in the pilot episode and found/placed across those key moments of (mis)recognition as well the ‘flashbacks’ to the Institute for Sexual Research. Including Del LaGrace’s grid-backed portraits, ‘Gender Optional’, ties the gesture as well as the show firmly to trans activism (and its discontents). From the first, Morse suggests, Transparent must be read as revealing (the role of the gaze in) the historical and scientific regulation of gender. But there is more to it than this, and here lies what I find most flawed in the piece. It is not just sexual variance at stake in that grid but race and, more specifically, Jewishness.

The grid’s eugenicist and Nazi amplifications loom large in Transparent and in Morse’s visual content but any reckoning with them has been distilled into two, far too fleeting, gestures about white-black dynamics. Morse seeks to comment on race – as the show’s enactment of a fairly conventional ‘imperial gaze’ – by integrating the Manet painting which builds upon the black trans character’s transience. The latter’s exchange with Maura epitomises the tricky but hugely revealing contemporary relationship between Jewishness and race/racism, but this dimension has been missed. The complexity of Maura’s character and her family’s privilege – as well as her children’s sexual misadventures – is fundamental to the show’s representation of identity and institutions etc. but also explicitly (and, in relation to queerness, problematically) tied to Jewishness. With Villarejo’s noting that Transparent is ‘arguably the most Jewish show that’s ever been on television’ (Film Quarterly, 2016), we get the full sense of the inadequacy of Morse’s take. The tendency to overlook this dimension or, more troubling still, to read the Jewishness of the show only into its treatment of Israel, especially in season four, should not be left unchallenged.

Maura’s ‘look back’ is foundational to Morse’s approach and argument. It epitomises a defiance of the objectifying/disciplinary gaze, even as Maura is implicated in its enactment. Yet, ‘Some People’ suggests that the look back is even more complicated than Morse allows. When the prologue introduces us to Maura, she is (always) already looking back. Within a single take that moves around the support group refusing a freezing of any trans spectacle, the camera finds Maura in a returned gaze and, I’d suggest, a more irrefutable one than that which Morse hones in on later in the sequence. What is more, the Pfefferman children, like the other key Jewish players, especially Solloway herself, will keep command(eer)ing the gaze: Sarah’s penetrating ‘look back’ at Maura’s disciplinarians in the bathroom, Josh’s iPhone snapshot at the hospital bedside. The powerful, defiant, and queer/trans, gaze is hooked, then, on more than this privileged look back, and privilege, as I’ve already noted, is tied to identity beyond gender. What resonates most for me, in the later look back that is so central for Morse, is that it occurs when Maura speaks of the selfishness of her kids. Selfishness, solipsism, a return to the self… a turn within… can all be connected to the ‘look back’, to Maura’s strange privilege (as trans woman and Jewish and, ultimately, as Jeffrey Tambor) and to the schadenfreude highlighted by Morse’s title. ‘Some People like Hearing Sad Things’ certainly draws out the bounty and pitfalls of Transparent, but also of the audio-visual essay. With regard to both, for me, fundamental issues remain hidden.