How Has The World Changed Since Transparent Premiered?

When the Transparent pilot first appeared on Amazon in February 2014, Laverne Cox hadn’t appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and Caitlyn Jenner hadn’t come out. Jill Soloway’s show about Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) transition was immediately hailed as “groundbreaking.” The world has caught up a bit since then.

“I started working on Transparent two and a half years ago when Jill was developing the pilot, and the cultural landscape was so different back then. It was before the quote-unquote ‘trans tipping point,’” the show's co-producer and trans consultant Zackary Drucker told us. “We’ve made these enormous strides, I think, over the past two years, and I think it absolutely informs our flexibility on Transparent with the trans characters, because we are all kind of moving forward more rapidly. I think the challenge for the writers on Transparent is not to give the cultural context too much weight and let it dictate the creative decisions.”

But Transparent's second season, available on Amazon December 11, invites audiences to remember that trans visibility isn’t just a recent phase. The new season intertwines stories of the present-day Pfeffermans with the Pfeffermans of yore, specifically Maura’s trans aunt, Gittel (Hari Nef). Gittel spends time at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin in 1933. Hirschfeld has been called the "Einstein of Sex." Gittel’s mother (Michaela Watkins) wants to take her family to America, where their father is, but Gittel sees the Institute as a place where she is safe.

“I think that by illuminating moments in history when trans people have flourished, we’re offsetting the misconception that trans people are new,” Drucker said.

In that sense, this season goes hand in hand with this year's film The Danish Girl, which begins in 1926. The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, tells the fictionalized story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), a real-life artist who was an early recipient of gender reassignment surgery. The film has been criticized, however, for focusing more on the story of Lili’s spouse, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), rather than on Lili herself. The Danish Girl treats Lili as an anomaly, but Transparent shows how trans people used to thrive in certain circles.

Before being tapped to appear in the series, Nef, a transgender model and actress, hadn’t heard about the community Gittel is a part of.

“I had no idea that the intersections of gender and sexuality that were being explored at that time and in that place in history bore so many parallels and so many similarities to [those] that the world is only just starting to uncover and experience,” Nef told us. “I was shocked. I had no idea that any of this existed.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Gittel’s story does not have a happy ending, and for Nef, the tragedy resonates. “At first I was super thrilled, and then I got really mad and sad,” Nef said of her research process. “All of this stuff was squashed by the Nazis. It was the first thing they targeted just months after coming into power... There was medical research there that got destroyed. We didn’t hear about trans anything again until maybe the '50s. Then it was underground until basically five years ago or, like, three years ago. If the Holocaust hadn’t happened that way, where would we be now?... Where would I have been in my transition? What would my education had been?"

Transparent does, however, stay rooted with the present-day Pfeffermans. Drucker said that the serialized nature of television allows the show to move past the "transition narrative." This season Maura obtains a testosterone-blocker drug and finds a romantic interest. Her children's lives are all in various states of disarray, but the entire family is growing along with the public discussion.

“These characters are evolving with the times. The conversations they are having are more sophisticated than they would have been a few years ago,” Drucker said. “When I watched [Caitlyn’s] Diane Sawyer interview, I was so relieved, because it felt as though they were establishing a foundation of basic language. Up until this point, there has been such staggered legibility with our community. Some people are in a really advanced place of conversation, and some people are at a really beginning level. Now that we’ve established that beginning level thanks to Transparent, thanks to Caitlyn, thanks to all of the pioneers who are putting themselves out right now, we’re able to kick the conversation into the future."

Transparent's second season derives its power from acknowledging that though the Pfeffermans are tied to a specific cultural moment in the 21st Century, they carry the weight of a past that's both familial and universal.
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