As 'Transparent' ends, has trans representation on TV improved?

Patrick Ryan

"Transparent" – Jill Soloway's groundbreaking dramedy about a sexagenarian (Jeffrey Tambor) transitioning into life as a woman – is coming to a haphazard, high-kicking end with "Musicale Finale," streaming on Amazon Friday. 

Despite its critical acclaim and eight Emmys, the show was imperfect, drawing criticism from the LGBTQ community for casting the straight, cisgender Tambor as trans woman Maura Pfefferman (a choice that Soloway would rectify if "Transparent" was made now). 

But what the series meant for trans visibility will long outlast its recent dire headlines, which have centered on Tambor's 2017 exit following allegations of sexual misconduct by a former assistant and co-star, which he denied. 

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When "Transparent" premiered in 2014, there were only three prominent trans characters across broadcast TV (Fox's "Glee"), cable (MTV's "Degrassi") and streaming (Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"), according to GLAAD's "Where We Are on TV" survey. But GLAAD's most recent report found a sharp spike in the 2018-19 season, with 26 regular or recurring trans characters on all three platforms, led by Ryan Murphy's FX drama "Pose," which boasts the largest number of regular trans characters on a scripted series.

Jeffrey Tambor won two Emmy Awards for playing trans woman Maura Pfefferman on Amazon's "Transparent."

Showtime's "The L Word: Generation Q," a reboot of the 2004-09 lesbian drama premiering Dec. 8, features trans men and women in its cast. Netflix's "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" and "The OA" had trans teens in recent seasons, while the streaming service's animated reboot of "Rocko's Modern Life" ruffled some feathers in August with the introduction of Rachel, a character formerly known as Ralph in the '90s Nickelodeon cartoon. 

CW's "Supergirl" ushered in TV's first transgender superhero with Dreamer (Nicole Maines) last season, while the charismatic Jules (Hunter Schafer) was a breakout character on this summer's button-pushing HBO drama "Euphoria," who navigated relationships with both men and women, and happened to be trans. 

Rue's (Zendaya, left) friendship with Jules (Hunter Schafer) becomes something more in the first season of HBO's "Euphoria."

"Jules is a very complicated character, and there's a hunger for stories that show trans people as full people," says Alex Schmider, GLAAD's associate director of trans representation. "So often we've seen our stories be reduced to transition and center around our trans (identity), that this is the most important and interesting thing about us. While it is an important part of who trans people are, it isn't everything. ... It's about having our stories told from our perspective. 'Euphoria' just feels like a reclamation of that storytelling." 

Schmider credits the new wave of trans representation in large part to Laverne Cox, who became the first trans person to win an acting Emmy for her portrayal of Sophia, a divorced hairdresser convicted of credit card fraud on "Orange," which wrapped its seven-season run in July. 

She was "playing a transgender role that was multi-dimensional, and had a background and storyline that wasn't fixated or reductionist to a transition narrative," Schmider says. "That really was the beginning of a tipping point that Laverne Cox actually created herself, when she leveraged that relatively small role into a national conversation about trans stories and trans actors being to play those roles in ways that are critically (acclaimed)." 

Laverne Cox as inmate Sophia in Netflix's female-centric prison series "Orange is the New Black."

"Transparent," too, moved the needle in front of and behind the camera: hiring trans crew members and writers, including Our Lady J, and centering stories on Maura's trans friends and youngest child, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who identifies as the nonbinary Ari in the show's final installment, a 100-minute standalone episode. 

The series "normalized a kind of gender nonconformingness in a way that I think changed the cultural conversation and changed the way trans people are treated," Soloway says. "It had this kind of patina to it of success, and the family all had their issues and the trans person in the family was the least complicated, emotionally. So we changed the geometry of how it feels to otherize trans people ... and I think that allowed a lot of people to be able to be more accepting of transness and their families and their friends and themselves."

Scarlett Johansson, shown at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, pulled out of a movie after pushback when she was cast as a trans character.

Tambor's now-contentious casting also changed what people are willing to accept when it comes to trans stories. Straight cisgender actors including Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club") and Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") have won Oscars for portraying trans characters, but Scarlett Johansson was the target of backlash last year when it was announced she would play a transgender man in the upcoming movie “Rub & Tug," leading her to exit the project. 

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Coming-of-age indie film "Adam," available digitally Nov. 19, stirred controversy for its straight, teenage protagonist (Nicholas Alexander) who pretends to be a trans man in order to date a lesbian. Based on a 2014 book by Ariel Schrag and directed by former "Transparent" producer Rhys Ernst, the movie sparked the hashtag #BoycottAdam on social media and petitions that garnered thousands of signatures, urging people to boycott the film's theatrical release this summer due to its "hurtful view on the trans community." 

Ernst, a queer transgender man, largely brushed off the negative reactions, saying, "What surprised me was that was the lack of willingness of some folks to give a trans director the benefit of the doubt." 

Jari Jones, left, Maxton Miles Baeza, Margaret Qualley, May Hong, AC Dumlao, Nicholas Alexander and Chloë Levine in "Adam."

He hopes more trans creators will be given opportunities to tell such stories in TV and film, leading to more "complex" narratives than we've seen even in recent years. 

"We're in this new phase I've heard referred to as the sort of 'saint phase,' where trans characters have to be perfect; they can exist, but they can't have flaws and everything is aspirational," Ernst says. "I'm excited to get into the next phase ... to have more complicated characters that might be flawed or challenging." 

Contributing: Bill Keveney