Seeing double:visibility, temporality, and transfeminine history in Transparent
At the Chicago premiere of her independent television pilot, Southern For Pussy (2015), trans artist Zackary Drucker described a conversation she had with transfeminine pioneer and Warhol muse Holly Woodlawn. Drucker said that Woodlawn commented, “you are our future,” and in response, Drucker replied, “No, you are my future.” Rather than the linear, unidirectional time that J. Halberstam has dubbed “straight time,” [open endnotes in new window] the future of transfeminine history that Drucker describes is mutual and multiple. Or, as Drucker put it that evening, the future “goes both ways.” In Amazon’s Transparent, transfeminine history emerges as precisely this kind of multidirectional, multifaceted relationship between past, present, and future. Moreover, this vision of history is created through a striking practice of double casting actors in multiple roles in flashbacks that extend from Los Angeles in 1994 to 1930s Berlin. Although she was not directly responsible for this casting decision, as a producer on the show Drucker herself has been closely involved with Transparent’s depiction of transfeminine history. Moreover, double casting is used in Transparent to explore themes that Drucker addresses through doubling in her independent work, including intergenerational connections and transfeminine history.
In this article, I examine how Transparent uses doubling as an aesthetic strategy, hypothesizing that Drucker’s artistic contribution to the show might be located in this use of doubling, and believing that the alternative temporality of interpretive scholarship itself enables a “look back” that might be able to make trans creative labor visible. This intervention seems necessary, for while she is credited as an associate producer or co-producer, and despite her own formidable artistic credentials, Drucker is typically described as a “trans consultant” for the show, a description that suggests that her primary contribution is educating the cast and crew about the lives and experiences of trans women. In other words, her contribution is reduced to her life experience, which effectively sets aside her talent, creativity, education, and vision. Yet although both Drucker’s independent work and Transparent use doubling to make transfeminine history visible, my attempt to excavate evidence of her artistic influence through close analysis of Transparent’s use of doubling is ultimately inconclusive, raising questions about the evidentiary potential of visuality. Furthermore, visibility itself is a double-edged sword in relation to media by and about trans people, given that the transphobic trope of the genital reveal is an extreme example of an epistemology of vision, in which knowledge is made available through sight. In this trope, perhaps exemplified most viscerally by the reveal scene in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992), the truth of a trans person’s identity is assumed to be found in their genitals. The trope of the reveal assumes that truth can only be accessed by looking “under the surface” for proof.
Provocatively, Transparent provides a particularly complex case study of how “looking under the surface” can function as a mode of spectatorship. For viewers of Transparent, including myself, information about the series’ double casting is made visible through Amazon’s new “X-Ray” feature.
This data-base driven feature is available for much, though not all, of Amazon’s streaming video, and it can be opened with a simple gesture. By dragging a finger or a mouse across the screen, the viewer can instantly access production information about the scene, including, in the case of Transparent, headshots of the double-cast actors. Through providing this instant overlay of otherwise suppressed information, X-Ray transforms scenes from narrative media into opportunities for analysis, categorization, and new modes of spectatorial control and investigation. As such, X-Ray lives up to its name, which recalls the long history of medical images that both represent and actually produce our relationship to the body. Moreover, because of the values programmed into X-Ray, Drucker’s own contribution disappears once again, since the feature is scripted to prioritize the visible bodies of the actors over the invisible labor that takes place offscreen.
Transparent: context, reception, and
trans creative labor
Created by Soloway after her own parent came out as trans, Transparent follows Maura Pfefferman and her family as she transitions, exploring a variety of issues related to what is hidden and what is revealed, issues that extend far beyond the transitioning parent referenced in the series’ punning title. Although gender identity is initially the predominant theme of the show, Jewish identity quickly emerges as an equally critical site of exploration, tension, history, and doubling. As Maura transitions, her youngest child, Ali, begins simultaneously exploring a genderqueer identity and researching family history, investigating the way epigenetic trauma effects the descendants of Holocaust survivors, including the Pfeffermans. Meanwhile, Maura’s son, Josh, gets engaged to a rabbi and has to confront both the harm of childhood sexual abuse and his own lack of spiritual identity. While the other central storylines deal less directly with questions of Jewish identity, both the eldest daughter Sarah and Maura’s ex-wife Shelley are shown to be seeking significance and direction in life, and at moments each woman seeks guidance from people at the temple. Although the family is deeply dysfunctional, the series rarely positions Maura’s transition as a symptom of this dysfunction. Instead, both family members and outsiders assert that “secrets” are the source of the Pfeffermans’ problems, emphasizing the series’ pervasive interest in revealing what lies hidden beneath the surface.
Although the decision to cast Jeffrey Tambor as Maura has courted controversy, the series has also been positively received, both within the entertainment industry and within the LGBTQ community. Winning two Golden Globes in 2015, Transparent made history as the first online series to win the Golden Globe for best series, and helped establish Amazon’s video streaming service as a major competitor to Netflix and Hulu. Yet perhaps as a result of its groundbreaking success and its empathetic, three-dimensional representation of an older transgender woman, Transparent has primarily been discussed through the lens of industry history and through what Stuart Hall has described as the “politics of representation,” neglecting formal aesthetic analysis of the show’s artistry and, in particular, the creative labor of its trans cast and crew members. In considerations of the work of marginalized artists, critiques that emphasize the experience of a marginalized identity over aesthetic questions are not unusual; Darby English points out that work by black artists is too often simplistically understood as so many representations of “an abstract and unchanging” essence, ignoring the specific formal strategies and interventions of individual works. For English, this tendency towards generalization, in which works by black artists are understood to be merely examples of some coherent and unifying identity, impoverishes both criticism and creative practice, and demands new approaches. Although English primarily discusses single-author art works, his argument also holds true when analyzing the distributed authorship of television, in which people with marginalized identities are too often reduced to their identities through the role of “consultant.”
The queer press has discussed how trans artists contribute to Transparent, yet even these analyses usually emphasize the politics of representation and the work of the trans consultant, focusing on how accurately the series represents trans people rather than how such representation functions aesthetically. In an early review, Pink News describes the many different ways that trans people were involved in the production of the first season, stating that the presence of trans artists both on and off screen “ensure[s] issues were portrayed as honestly as possible.” Writing in The Advocate, Cael Keegan asserts more cynically that the presence of trans cast and crew members serves as a shield against criticism of the show’s politics, stating that Transparent “seems to have gotten trans representation ‘right,’ or at least, politically correct.” Autostraddle.com’s trans editor, Mey Rude, addresses both on-screen representation and economic representation in her description of Transparent’s efforts to incorporate trans artists in every aspect of the show’s production. Rude writes that “Transparent is hoping to create a new trend in Hollywood. One where trans people get to be a part of their own stories, where trans people get a piece of the money that’s being made off of their struggles.” But although representational accuracy and economic justice are critical issues, an exclusive focus on the politics of representation overlooks the creative labor of trans artists like Drucker.
Trans artists as trans consultants
When trans consultants offer their expertise to media producers, their labor is often narrowly understood as a means of authenticating media about trans people and as a strategic compromise that allows trans consultants access to steady employment. These interpretations assume that trans consultants play an informational rather than a creative role, an assumption that seems unwarranted at best in the case of Transparent, since the show employs trans consultants who are artists in their own right. Indeed, in describing the role that he and Zackary Drucker play on Transparent, Rhys Ernst says that their responsibilities extend well beyond “shepherding the politics of representation,” as they are involved with writing, hiring, casting, production, and postproduction. As Ernst points out, the term “trans consultant” obscures the fact that he is a filmmaker himself; meanwhile, Drucker works across media in photography, video, and performance art, and the two were featured together in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Although in other cases, such as the feature film The Danish Girl (2015), the work of trans consultants seems to be circumscribed by representational politics and historical accuracy, Drucker’s and Ernst’s role on Transparent seems open to other possibilities.
As I have discussed elsewhere, Drucker’s artistic practice consistently emerges from collaboration, explores transfeminine history, and repeatedly features the image of the mirror and the figure of the double. Her long-standing collaboration with Ernst is no exception. Before their work on Transparent, Drucker and Ernst collaborated on the short film She Gone Rogue (2012) and a photography series, Relationship (2008–2013). In both of these projects, themes of collaboration and transfeminine history emerge through imagery of mirroring and doubling. For example, in She Gone Rogue, Drucker doubles herself through false eyeline matches in scenes reminiscent of the work of feminist filmmaker Maya Deren, and her character is metaphorically doubled by transfeminine pioneers Holly Woodlawn, Vaginal Davis, and Flawless Sabrina. Meanwhile, in Relationship, Drucker and Ernst double each other in androgynous selfies and stark silhouettes.
|False eyeline matches allow Drucker to look at herself, chase herself, and flee herself as Darling and Darling’s doppelganger in She Gone Rogue.|
Drucker also explores doubling in collaborations with her mother, Penny Sori, and her mentor, Flawless Sabrina. In FISH: A Matrilineage of Cunty White-Woman Realness (2008), mother and daughter mirroreach other in highly stylized framings against a hot pink background, while in Southern For Pussy, the two double each other once again, albeit more naturalistically. Drucker’s long-standing collaboration with Flawless Sabrina includes her short film At Least You Know You Exist (2011), which shows Drucker and Flawless Sabrina doubling each other. Furthermore, this film pairs the aesthetic strategy of doubling with invocations of queer temporality. While the ghostly texture of the 16mm footage, in the intentionally imperfect digital transfer, evokes the fragmentation of transfeminine history, Drucker’s voice periodically repeats the statement “god knows if we’re going forward or back.”
|In matching wigs and makeup, Drucker and Penny Sori interrupt each other, both aurally and visually, as they finish and pervert each other’s statements, in FISH (2008).
[courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Gallery Los Angeles]
|Zackary Drucker and Flawless Sabrina in At Least You Know You Exist (2011).
[courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Gallery Los Angeles]
Going forward and back in Transparent
In the work I describe above, Drucker uses aesthetic strategies commonly employed in the fine arts and art cinema, such as composition and editing, to explore collaboration, intergenerational doubling, and transfeminine history. In Transparent, however, these themes emerge again, through a strategy is unusual in mainstream television: double casting. Double casting connects two of the show’s threads with which Drucker is reported to have been closely involved: the 8th episode of Season 1, titled “Best New Girl;” and the subplot in Season 2 that reveals a transfeminine ancestor in the family's history. In both cases, Drucker's involvement is documented primarily through her own reports and accounts from other cast and crew. In interviews and public presentations, she and Ernst describe their role as including everything from providing notes on scripts, to casting many of the queer and trans roles, to offering feedback on rough cuts. According to Drucker, “there are entire plot points that we've seen through from the beginning,” and in Drucker’s case, she contributed to the plot, script, wardrobe, and casting of “Best New Girl.” Of the Berlin subplot in Season 2, she says, with a pun on the gender neutral pronoun “hir,” that she was involved in “shaping the hirstorical context, and casting, as always.”
The first two seasons of Transparent reveal that Maura and Ali have a strong bond, a link that becomes especially evident as Ali begins exploring a genderqueer identity. Furthermore, both “Best New Girl” and the Season 2 subplot reveal that this connection is not only a connection between this mother and this child, but also a connection between these two family members and the family's past. Across Season 1, Transparent moves between current events and the summer of 1994, when Maura begins exploring her identity seriously. “Best New Girl” largely takes place in 1994, when Maura's children are all in their teens, and this episode explores a variety of significant relationships that develop one weekend when Ali cancels her bat mitzvah. Maura takes advantage of the change of plans and escapes to a camp for cross-dressers. When Drucker discusses this episode, she notes how critical she thought it was to capture the historical tension between those who identified as male cross-dressers and those who, like Maura, would transition.
At the camp, Maura and her friend Marcy meet Connie, the supportive wife of one of the campers, and eventually this friendship leads to a climactic scene in which Maura and Connie drink, flirt, and dance. While Maura is at the camp, young Ali is left to her own devices, and she encounters a genderqueer role model in Jules, the bat mitzvah caterer. As these two storylines play out through parallel editing, we enter into the relationships that Maura and Ali are developing, while also becoming deeply familiar with the faces of the actors who realize these storylines: Emily Robinson, who plays a 13-year-old Ali, Michaela Watkins, who plays Connie, and Bradley Whitford, who plays Maura's friend Marcy. Our familiarity with these faces will become important in Season 2, when all three actors return, double cast as Pfefferman ancestors and their friends in Berlin in 1933.
|Maura’s friend Marcy (Bradley Whitford) introduces Maura to transvestite culture, but in “Best New Girl,” Marcy is shown to be deeply attached to preserving the distinction between trans women and men who cross dress. This distinction between the two friends’ attitudes towards feminine gender presentation is partly indicated by clothing, hair, and makeup, as Maura’s appearance tends towards a more naturalistic look, while Marcy’s outfits appear more like costumes.||When Connie (Michaela Watkins) and Maura meet in “Best New Girl,” the intimacy of their interactions, particularly the moments in which they look at each other, offers insight into Maura’s emerging trans lesbian identity.|
This charged encounter between Young Ali and Jules (Mel Shimkovitz) gives additional context to Ali’s experimentation with gender throughout Season 1 (Season 1, episode 8).
Through the technique of double casting, a technique more common in theater than in television, the faces of these actors haunt the family. This produces a network of intergenerational connections in the historical subplot woven throughout Season 2. In this season, the family's Weimar Germany past intersects with stories unfolding in the present, as Ali researches epigenetic trauma and seeks to understand how the Holocaust continues to affect her family. Emily Robinson goes from playing young Ali to playing Maura’s mother, Rose, a young girl struggling to cope with a fractured family as she supports her trans sister, Gittel. Michaela Watkins no longer plays Maura's love interest, and instead appears as Maura's grandmother, Yetta, a woman who loves her children but cannot accept that one of her children is a trans woman. And Bradley Whitford, who had introduced Maura to transvestite culture as Marcy, returns as Magnus Hirschfield, the historical sexologist whose trans-affirming research was destroyed by the Nazis. Hirschfield is mentor and protector to Gittel, who is clearly positioned as a transfeminine ancestor for Maura. Finally, one more actor returns in Season 2 from the set of actors we met in “Best New Girl”: Mel Shimkovitz, who goes from playing Jules in “Best New Girl” to playing Jude, a transmasculine person who is part of Gittel’s community at Hirschfield’s Institute for Sex Research. In these two flashback plot lines, the only central characters who aren't double cast are Maura and Gittel, played by Jeffrey Tambour and Hari Nef, respectively. Yet they nonetheless double each other metaphorically, if not literally.
Emily Robinson as Young Ali and Rose.
Michaela Watkins as Connie and Yetta.
Bradley Whitford as Marcy and Magnus Hirschfield.
An understandable family resemblance between Rose and her granddaughter Ali is clearly apparent through the double casting of Robinson as both characters. Watkins is also recognizable as both Connie and Yetta, although the logic of double casting Maura’s Season 1 love interest as her Season 2 grandmother is more complicated. Whitford, on the other hand, is barely recognizable across his two roles as Marcy and Magnus Hirschfield, and X-Ray helps to elucidate this instance of double casting.
Double casting is not the only way that Transparent represents intergenerational doubling and transfeminine history, for the show also creates moments when characters from two different time periods coexist within the same frame. This happens briefly in “Best New Girl,” when a pan moves from young Ali to Ali as an adult, as the adult Ali reminisces about the adventure that took the place of her canceled bat mitzvah. In Season 2, as these moments become more frequent, Ali is often the link between the present and the past. For example, the first episode of Season 2 ends with a shot that shows Ali on a hotel balcony, with Gittel appearing, anachronistically and unbeknownst to Ali, in the background. The sense that the family history haunts Ali is deeply tied to Jewish history more broadly, and in addition to epigenetic trauma, Ali researches the anti-Semitic and misogynistic “Jew shoes” that some Jewish women were forced to wear, shoes adorned with bells that warned gentiles of a Jewish woman’s approach. As Ali’s interest in Jewish history increases, and the boundaries between past and present become more permeable, Ali eventually finds herself wearing the shoes in episode 9 of Season 2.
|Although Shimkovitz is recognizable in both roles, X-Ray can again be helpful in identifying the double casting, given that Jude tends to appear in the midst of crowd scenes.|
In this episode, the bond between Ali and the family's past builds to a climax, intercutting between a present-day women's music festival and Nazis burning Magnus Hirschfield's library in the 1930s. The key sequence begins with Ali walking in the woods, and as she walks, she passes an old woman who looks at her askance. Ali doesn’t realize what the audience immediately recognizes: this woman is Yetta, Ali's great-grandmother. As Ali continues walking, she sees a bonfire in the distance. This is hardly an unexpected sight, given that she is in the woods near the music festival campground. However, as she gets closer, she finds Nazis burning the records from Hirschfield's Institute, while Rose and Gittel look on. Ali and Rose catch sight of each other across the bonfire, and then approach each other, just in time to watch, together, as Gittel is dragged away by the Nazis. Just as the records from Hirschfield's Institute were destroyed, setting back global knowledge of transgender history and medical research, Gittel also disappears from her family's history. It is unclear that any of the contemporary generations, including Ali, consciously understand this part of their family history. For Drucker, who owns an extensive collection of trans autobiographies, discovering, telling, and preserving trans history is not only an artistic opportunity but a political responsibility. And yet simultaneously, the disappearance of trans history cannot be untangled from the particular dangers that visibility poses to trans people.
|For any viewer who has difficulty recognizing Yetta amid the darkness of the scene, X-Ray offers immediate clarification, albeit while blurring Yetta’s face through the overlay (Season 2, episode 9).|
|Across one intercut close-up of Ali, the bonfire from the music festival campground transforms into a book burning bonfire (Season 2, episode 9).|
|This scene bridges time and space through the simple technique of cutting along eyelines to establish relationships between characters who are otherwise irrevocably separate. While Rose and Ali are able to touch – with Ali (Hoffman) simultaneously connecting to both her grandmother and her younger self (Robinson) – Gittel remains in a separate frame, linked to the other two by eyeline matches only.|
The epistemology of visibility and
Through analyzing Drucker's independent work and some aspects of Transparent with which she has been closely involved, I have suggested that Drucker’s contribution to Transparent may include far more than representational accuracy. As Drucker herself notes, artists draw subconsciously on other works, and although Drucker herself didn’t make the decision to double cast the roles played by Robinson, Watkins, Whitford, and Shimkovitz, her work is well-known among Transparent’s creative team. However, just as Ali struggles to locate the precise pathways epigenetic trauma takes through her family tree, it seems impossible for me to prove definitively that the doubling in Drucker’s independent work influenced Soloway’s decision to double cast these eight characters.
As I grappled with the implications of producing an argument that was speculative rather than definitive, I had to confront the role that visibility—evidentiary visibility—plays in my own scholarly practice. Particularly in the history of trans representation and media production, evidentiary lacunas are arguably more common than definitive proof. Furthermore, media representations of trans people display a disturbing interest in evidentiary visibility, particularly through the trope of the reveal.
In the trope of the reveal, “the truth” of a trans person’s identity is exposed, usually by making their genitals or secondary sex characteristics visible. The reveal encourages a kind of spectatorship that is concerned with the relationship between the surface and what lies beneath, a relationship in which transgression appears as any challenge to the assumption that the surface should function as a transparent or self-evident arbiter of truth. Although the trope of the reveal is a trope that is specifically associated with trans representation, the role of the genital reveal in determining identity is also a salient question in relation to Jewish identity, making issues of evidentiary visibility doubly fraught in relation to Transparent. According to Halberstam, temporality and visibility become intertwined in the trope of the reveal, since the reveal alters the spectator’s relationship to what was previously seen. This produces a particular type of alternative temporality in media, a mode that Halberstam dubs “the rewind,” for in this mode the audience “rewinds” the story metaphorically (or literally) to reinterpret it as a new story: a story of passing. In Transparent, however, the alternative temporality produced by the double casting is multidirectional, in contrast to the linearity implied by “rewind.”
Yet since it is an Amazon production, spectators are still encouraged to look “beneath” the surface of Transparent for the truth, using the “X-Ray” feature that Amazon has created in partnership with the Internet Movie Database. In fact, I used the X-Ray feature myself to confirm my suspicion that Emily Robinson was double cast as young Ali and Rose, and it was through the X-Ray feature that I discovered that Michaela Watkins, Bradley Whitford, and Mel Shimkovitz were also double cast. Furthermore, X-Ray can also be used to seek out actors with noticeably Jewish last names, something that has particular relevance in the case of Transparent, but that is also attached to a long history of Jewish identities and Jewish names being alternately concealed and revealed in Hollywood.
According to the Internet Movie Database, “X-Ray for Movies and TV” can be accessed “with a simple screen tap” while streaming content from Amazon, and it “will display the cast members in the current scene, the title and performer of the music you’re hearing, and trivia such as goofs, location information, and general facts about the video.” By clicking on the information thus revealed, the spectator can learn even more about the cast, music, trivia, etc. Strikingly, X-Ray functions much like the trope of the reveal as described by Danielle M. Seid. Seid writes, “in literature and film, the reveal presents previously ‘hidden’ or unknown information to the audience.” Looking yet further beneath the surface, the true nature of the X-Ray feature becomes apparent: through connecting spectators to additional information about the media they consume, audiences can be directed to opportunities to purchase material associated with this media, such as featured songs.
But is the logic of visibilty that is apparent in X-Ray the only mode through which visibility operates, or does the complicated logic of visibility offer other, albeit comprised, possibilities? Although Seid describes the negative, troubling, and problematic aspects of the reveal, she also notes that the reveal can offer an opportunity “to exert agency and reveal oneself, to determine the meaning of one’s own life and body.” As such, the reveal is arguably central to Transgender Day of Visibility, a holiday created in 2009 by trans activist Rachel Crandall as a positive counterpoint to Transgender Day of Remembrance. In a statement on Transgender Day of Visibility from the set of Transparent Season 3, Drucker herself states that, “as a woman named Zackary,” she herself has tended to choose visibility. Yet though the X-Ray feature ties visibility to monetization, and although the position of trans consultant also transforms visibility into compensation, non-binary poet Alok Vaid-Menon notes that trans visibility often doesn’t result in increased funding for trans “organizations, campaigns, and struggles.” Additionally, Vaid-Menon describes visibility as “a form of (nonconsensual) labor that we have to [perform] in order to make our experiences coherent to others.” Seid notes that even when trans people choose to be visible, visibility does not necessarily affirm their identities, but rather invites continual contestations. According to Halberstam, visibility opens up possibilities for discipline and control.
Visibility is complicated, but the tools and methods through which visibility is negotiated matter. In her statement on Transgender Day of Visibility, Drucker observes that “what's been integral to our survival is actually invisibility,” as historically trans people have tried “to blend in and erase their histories.” However, in her independent work and as a producer for Transparent, Drucker uncovers and shares these erased and forgotten histories, crafting alternative temporalities within which transfeminine history emerges through intergenerational doubling. The aesthetic strategies she employs are profoundly different from the cataloguing approach of a tool like X-Ray, although cataloguing and archiving plays its own role in preserving trans histories. In seeking to make her creative labor visible, I hope that my own research operates outside of the logic of visibility apparent in the trivia-ization and monetization of a tool like X-Ray—despite the fact that that my work was facilitated by its database.
Ironically, because X-Ray doesn’t document producers, Drucker herself only appears in X-Ray during a single scene in which she plays a small role as the leader of a support group. And despite the efforts of Soloway, Drucker, Ernst, and others to include a variety of trans people on and off screen, even some of the trans actors who appear in this scene disappear in X-Ray.