My family has been waiting for the debut of Transparent, the Jill Soloway show (of Six Feet Under), with giddy anticipation because it is a show about us. My dad came out as a woman very late in life, and watching Jeffrey Tambor play a trans woman in her early 70s feels like watching my dad on TV. The way she touches her hair all the time, the way she code shifts back into a masculine voice when she feels threatened, and the very specific aesthetic of a baby boomer who did not get to wear flowing skirts and bohemian jewelry in the 1970s but is making up for lost time by going full white witch.
I assume other people watch this show and think “Everyone has secrets. Does anyone really know their parents? Are my parents’ secrets the source of all my problems?” And, indeed, this show is so good that anyone could be moved and troubled by its themes. But this is a show is about MY FAMILY. This is so eery that it has caused me to wonder if there is a whole subculture of upper-middle-class liberal families with dads who are coming out as women in their 60s. It kind of makes me want to join a support group where we would all talk about the weird way we over-share trans dad info at dinner parties. “My dad is a architect, but she is retired.” Wait for the reaction. “Did you say she?” Boom, you are a dinner party success!
There is a strange thrill in finding out that your family is more interesting than you thought. And oh how this information would have helped me when I was deep in the trenches of queer studies courses in college! A whole undergraduate thesis could have been devoted to the topic. Lena Dunham must be furious that her dad did not come out as a woman. Think of the personal essays it could fuel!
But what is so delightful about watching Transparent is that the show captures both the “fun” of this specific predicament and the sadness. The way you let go of the sentimentally charged “dad” in exchange for a word (Moppa, Maddie, their first name) that is more respectful of their self-presentation but also weirdly unemotional. The realization that your anger and resentment are not magically erased or even really altered by this new information. Maybe you felt like your dad never really understood you. Well you didn’t understand them either. Unfortunately, this leaves you in exactly the same place you were before: no understanding.
My transparent is irrationally hopeful about social progress, and I think that she would say that this show captures a hyper-specific experience that will be unrecognizable in twenty years. No one will grow up with a dad who comes out at age 60 because people will not live with such rigid gender binaries. No dad will have to go to trans-phobic cross-dressing camp. No offspring will try and rewire their pronouns after thirty years of standard usage. But the show has also made me confront what is not special at all about our family, and what will probably still be true in twenty years: parents will still keep secrets, they will still try to buy you off to assuage their guilt, and children will still be fundamentally incapable of empathizing with their parents’ humanity.
Universal or not, I am riding high on the specificity of Transparent as a show. May you be so lucky to someday turn on a TV show and have it be about YOUR life. Is there some lucky person who feels this way about the Gilmore Girls? But more importantly, the show’s specificity is what makes it funny, tragic and compelling.