2014 was a big year for the trans community – for better or for worse. But perhaps the biggest thing that happened that year, in terms of making transgender issues into a topic of discussion, was the release of the critically-acclaimed, comedy-drama series Transparent. Transparent features cisgender-man Jeffrey Tambor as the star of the show, playing a trans woman, Maura Pfefferman, who comes out to her family and to the world in her seventies. The show faced much criticism for its decision to cast Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman as he is a cisgender man and not a trans woman and such casting, as many trans activists claim, only serves to perpetuate the mythical but harmful narrative that trans women are merely men in dresses. This situation was made exponentially worse when it was revealed in 2017 that Tambor would have to exit the show due to several accusations of sexual harassment made by, of all people, the few actual trans women who had been cast to play trans characters on the show and to work behind the scenes. All of these events happening in tandem led many who had initially praised the show to question whether the show was actually helping the trans community in their quest for liberation. However, as a trans woman, I still believe that, despite all of these missteps and controversies, there is still much potential for trans liberation to be found in the show. I will not overstate this potential, however, as I believe that to do so would be letting much of the atrocious mistakes in representing trans people off the hook. I will be analyzing what I believe to have been the very best part of Transparent, so we can gain a better understanding of what it did manage to do right.
I suppose we should begin our discussion of the star of the second season, Hari Nef, and the entire Berlin flashback subplot. This is quite honestly the one thing that got me to finally watch the show. I had always been scared that the show was merely some neoliberal cash-grab meant to make money off of the interest in trans issues that existed in the mid-2010s. While the show does feel like this at times, I was pleasantly surprised to find much greater depth lay underneath when I put in the work to finally binge the show. Actress Hari Nef has been both a favorite and an inspiration of mine ever since I first discovered her on the first season of Netflix’s addictive drama series You. Beautiful, intelligent, and well-spoken, how could one not draw inspiration from her? So when I saw her in a series of clips we were shown in my LGBT history course this semester, how could I not immediately want to see more of the show? And so I, of course, watched the whole show right when I got home that day; I managed to finish all 4 seasons and the “Musicale Finale” in under 5 days (not sure whether that was an achievement or a cause for concern)! But, in retrospect, these clips which I had first seen from the show, even though I had little to no context to situate them in, remained the most impactful scenes of the entire show. These clips – the first from episode 8 of season 2, “Oscillate,” and the second and final clip from about 20 minutes into episode 9 of season 2, “Man on the Land” – served to show me what existence of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (variously translated as Institute of Sex Research, Institute of Sexology, Institute for Sexology or Institute for the Science of Sexuality) meant to the sexual and gender minorities in Berlin of the 1930s. It was tragically the beginning of the end for many. Hari Nef plays the Jewish “transvestite” ancestor of Maura, named Gittel, who works at and frequents the Institute. We see that she is always experiencing pure joy when she is at the Institute and being her authentic self, regardless of whether she is dancing, working, or simply being and existing.
This is sharply contrasted by one scene in which she is home and being scolded by her mother for wearing women’s clothing and presenting as female. Interestingly enough, this theme of the Institute being a paradise for Gittel and others is exemplified when they put on a costume party – which features the story of Adam and Eve (Eve being played by Gittel) being acted out. During this performance, Gittel’s mother comes in and Gittel, covered by a mere fig leaf and pasties, becomes clearly distraught. She fears, above all, being taken away from this paradise that has been created for her and others. She fears this so much so that she refuses to escape Berlin and head to America when she realizes that she will have to resume presenting as a man. And so, Gittel decides to not take the visa and to stay. The very next time we see Gittel, in episode 9’s flashback, her paradise finally comes crashing down when the Institute is raided by the Nazis and the entire library’s books and records burned. Gittel is then taken by the arms by two Nazis in uniform and dragged off into the darkness of the night, never to be seen ever again. It is hard to watch these scenes without crying – let alone getting emotional.
These scenes impacted me to such an extent that I have now begun to devote my free time to researching this Institute and its impact on the gay, lesbian, “transvestite,” cross-dressing community of Berlin, and the world as a whole. For those interested in learning more about the Institute, I recommend first watching these clips so you can truly see and feel what it meant to those people who found community and understanding there. Secondly, I recommend checking out Robert Beachy’s impressive history of gay and gender-nonconforming identified people in Germany: Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. I am already a quarter of the way through it and cannot recommend it enough. It is a superbly well-researched book. Please leave in the comments below whether you would like to see an article on that subject and/or whether you would like to see more retrospectives on Transparent as a whole, diving more into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this critically acclaimed show!