Warning: This post contains spoilers for Transparent, season 4.
Transparent has never been a show to shy away from controversial moments. From the very first season, which sees a father of three declare his intention to transition in his late 60s, Jill Soloway's poignant and funny dramedy has been pushing boundaries of what we expect from television.
"Groin Anomaly," the second episode of the season, shows Davina (Alexandra Billings), Maura Pfefferman's (Jeffrey Tambor) mentor and friend, lying face-down in bed getting a massage from her partner. Suddenly, she flips over, exposing her penis.
If this were any other show, I would have serious questions about the motives behind such a scene. It's certainly unexpected, and for some, I'm sure, uncomfortable. It would have been easy to slip in for salacious shock value, or media attention. But in an interview with The Daily Beast, trans actress Alexandra Billings explained that the storyline actually came from her. She and co-star Trace Lysette approached the writers and showrunner Jill Soloway with the idea, in an effort to showcase a wider range of transgender experiences.
"I said I don’t think it’s ever been done before, where you see someone who’s a trans body that was pre-op, especially of a certain age, who looks a certain way," Billings, 55, told The Daily Beast. "I’m not built like a model. I’m built in a very specific way, and I’m at a point now where I’m okay with my body. I like it. I don’t love it, but I like it. I’m okay with it. I’ve made peace with what I look like. I’ve traveled through years of not only my HIV and also my silicone injections and all the things we go through in order to survive. I wanted to show everything, but I said I don’t want to be objectified. I don’t want to be sexualised. And I don’t want to be fetishised."
Billings is no stranger to firsts. In 2005, she became the first trans actress to play a trans character on TV, in Romy & Michelle: The Beginning. The Transparent scene, she has made clear, is part of her quest to normalise trans bodies in the public space.
In fact, season 4 of Transparent is devoting more time to Davina's backstory, shifting the focus from just examining the repercussions of Maura's transition. "Groin Anomaly" shows her struggling with the physical effects of AIDS, and the effect her HIV-positive status has on her relationship. We see how she contracted the disease, even before she transitioned, and the negative reaction even within the gay community at the time when she expresses her desire to inhabit a woman's body. All of this contributes to a deeper understanding of Davina as a character — and the more fully fleshed out she is, the less she feels like a token trans mentor here to dole out wise advice.
That's why the nude scene — and the flashbacks that follow — is so important. It's a way to give voice to a trans woman who is ready to show herself and her body to the world. And maybe one day, if Billings has her way, it won't even be worth writing about.
You can stream the fourth season of Transparent on Amazon Prime now.