How ‘Transparent’ Boldly Called Out A Complicated Feminist Issue
The second season of "Transparent," the award-winning Amazon series that tells the story of Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a father of three who comes out as trans later on in life, is officially back (and streaming in its entirety) for its second season.
We've already praised the series' second go-round for its moody and effective flashbacks to the vibrant LGBTQ scene in Weimar-era Berlin, but now it's time to discuss the series' best -- and most difficult to stomach -- Season 2 episode: "Man on the Land." Because "Man on the Land," which takes place at a hippy-dippy, women-only music festival, somehow manages to do the unthinkable -- it manages to call out one of feminism's most painful biases through a critical, but also understanding, lens.
The episode takes place at the (fictional) Idyllwild Wimmin's music festival, which Maura, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), and Sarah (Amy Landecker) flock to after eight episodes of self-searching and spectacular dating failures. The festival itself initially plays as almost parody, with bared breasts, drum circles, a tampon-making workshop, alt-rock bands singing about menstruating on sticks and hating dicks, and weed. So, so much weed.
But before Maura, who has been dealing with what comes next after you come out to your family all season, is able to spend 10 unfettered minutes in this women-only paradise, she's hit with a painful reminder that -- once again -- she does not belong. Anywhere.
The Idyllwild Wimmin's music festival, you see, isn't for all women. It's for "women born women," god-given vaginas and uteruses included, and this obviously does not include Maura. The "man on the land" title comes from a (ridiculous) phrase that some of the women yell out whenever a poor maintenance worker shows up to fix their Port a Potties, "so nobody gets triggered, or too excited."
Now, this is where it gets important that the series' creator, Jill Soloway, penned the episode. Yes, the episode has a little bit of "fun" with buzzy social justice concepts like trigger warnings and safe spaces -- and a couple of the radical feminists featured are, again, a parody of feminist stereotypes -- but at no point does it seem like "Transparent" is outright condemning any of them.
It's natural (I hope) to disagree with the feminists for so aggressively misunderstanding what it feels like to be a trans woman, but it's also easy to understand their desire to spend a couple of days in the woods with people who are just like them.
Though most important of all, of course, is the fact that Soloway didn't make this up for dramatic effect. Feminists and the transgender community have been at odds over what sort of privilege comes with being born with a penis -- whether or not that penis is wanted -- for decades, and a quick Twitter search for the term TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) proves that the issue is no less painful for trans women today as it was in 1973, when the West Coast Lesbian Conference was marred by attempted physical violence by TERFs against a transexual performer.
The contemporary argument, and the argument that Soloway seems to support, is that gender is a matter of identity, not biology. But the feminists whom Ali befriends (of course it's Ali, by the way) argue that the ability for a person born male to choose to live as a female is yet another example of male privilege -- because we natural-born females, of course, are pretty much stuck with the uteruses and the pay disparity and the rape culture we've got.
Soloway gives these women their chance to speak, but what I truly love about "Man on the Land" is that it doesn't really need to go out of its way to justify Maura's position, outside of her brief insistence that she's always been in too much pain to feel her privilege. This position, of course, is that she's just looking for a place to unwind and have a little fun in her femininity. This is the 19th episode of "Transparent," so anyone watching is already well aware of Maura's journey, as well as the fact that she's not here to gawk at anyone's breasts.
Also, I'm just going to go ahead and guess that Soloway and the "Transparent" crew assumed that a decent portion of its audience would be at least slightly aware of the extreme discrimination and violence that often goes hand-in-hand with being a trans woman; a community that dealt with 22 murders in 2015 by August, and continues to face an astonishingly high rate of suicide (one in four is the average, FYI).
Maura is almost definitely aware of these numbers, which is why her defiant laughter as she leaves the festival shouting "man on the land!" is pitch-perfect for this beautifully uncomfortable and thought-provoking episode.
Best yet, Maura's grand exit from Idyllwild is juxtaposed with flashbacks of her mother and her transexual aunt at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) in the aforementioned Weimar-era Berlin, as Nazis destroy decades worth of records on groundbreaking gender-reassignment surgery. This not only is heartbreaking, it also A, really happened in May of 1933, and B, is easily the season's boldest metaphor yet for the power of fear and hatred.
I don't think that Soloway was suggesting that TERFs are as hateful and terrified of change as these Nazis -- not at all, in fact, as that argument would be absurd. But this is a show that's not afraid to shed a light on suffering or bring up some really tough questions, which is why "Man on the Land" should go down as the Season 2 episode to remember.