‘Transparent’s Depiction of Aging is As Probing as Its Treatment of Gender

It’s hardly hyperbole to state that Transparent is the most astute program on television regarding gender and sexuality. But Transparent‘s strength in exploring allegiances and antagonisms between the mind, the body, and society is also bolstered by its simultaneous awareness of and specificity towards age.

Aging is treated by the show as yet another socially determined factor of life to be understood and appreciated, investigated and tested. Transparent — which returns for a third season on Amazon Prime as of today — creates some of the most intimate portraits of older characters TV has seen. I’ll readily admit that at least prior to Season 3, the bewigged, lightly sepia-ed flashbacks have been the poorest-executed, most jarring aspects of the show — but they elevate it on a philosophical level. Transparent‘s multi-generational cast, and its decision to show that cast in flashback, allows the series the temporal room with which to form a vision of individuals as walking histories.

Transparent is not afraid to confront old age, and the sexualities of people 60+ — or to do so in a way that feels honest and neither verges on body horror nor on Nancy Meyers-esque affirmation, apparently the only two modes in which elderly people are allowed to be sexual onscreen. The show centralizes the experiences of older people while approaching them with the critical lens of identity-oriented ideologies, the kind more often affiliated with millennials and generation Y-ers. (As displayed in a scene at a feminist retreat in Season 2, the series is critical of the trans-exclusionary politics of second wave feminism, while also acknowledging that movement’s place in history.)

One of Transparent‘s most beautiful moments is the revisitation of a domestic routine between two characters that happens to be sexual. In Season 2, Maura has the chance to revisit a sex life that returns to her, seemingly stuck in amber: She performs her old move, “flicky flicky thump thump,” on her ex-wife, Shelly, before feeling the crushing weight of the patterns she affiliates with a former self, a self from which she wishes to move on. The scene is stunning not only because it unsensationally features a sexual act between older bodies, but also because that’s not all it does: It uses sex to tell a story about these older characters, a story that can only be specific to people who’ve lived long enough to understand the beauties and shortcomings of lifelong rituals.

In a series of roundtables between the cast, creator Jill Soloway, and a smattering of varyingly annoying bloggers like myself, Judith Light (who plays Shelly) detailed why the scene came off so sensitive and emotionally meticulous:

What was kind of remarkable about it was that [Jill] cleared the entire building. Nobody was even there to sit and watch the filming. There was a bubble machine that they made for the bubbles over me in the bathtub. And Jill was the one who came in and put the bubbles over me, because there was no crew person there to do that, because she removed everybody from the set. Before we started, she had us all stand there and take a moment of silence, that the scene would be received in the way that we wanted to give it. Which was to talk about something that has not been talked about — forever, as far as I can tell. Mature people and their sexualities! A lot of people say, ‘nobody wants to see old people getting it on’ — and people responded in every generation in the most excited and generous way. We think we know what people want to see, and then you have a show like Transparent, and you say, ‘oh no they actually really do want to see that.’

The show is assiduous about both the corporeal challenges of people who’re older and the ideological ones. In Maura and Shelly — as well as Anjelica Huston’s character, Vicki, who at the beginning of Season 3 is Maura’s girlfriend — we see three very liberal older people clinging to mores that they may not realize reflect past liberal ideals rather than present. In the first episode of Season 3, Maura takes an overly maternalistic approach to a trans woman of color who calls a suicide hotline, physically seeking her out in a Latino and black neighborhood with an earnest — albeit misplaced — notion of enacting a white savior narrative. Meanwhile, we see Vicki (who Maura met at that feminist camp) bristle at the idea of Maura’s undergoing gender confirmation surgery (which would also potentially include facial cosmetic surgeries) — perhaps because she’s come to know Maura as she sees her, but perhaps because she holds onto a second wave feminist approach to natural beauty. Shelley, meanwhile, becomes excited at the prospect of using her social media presence to tell her side of Maura’s story — even if it’s not necessarily her story to tell.

These characters were socialized in a different time, and the show uses their decades-spanning experiences to burrow into social issues rather than demonizing any character for her backward social tendencies. Transparent traces the fluctuation of ideologies the same way it traces the journeys of engrained historical pains passed down through the gene pool — the show features discussions of feminism in its multiple iterations, with the aforementioned hippie relic getaway in Season 2, and in Season 3, at the university where Gaby Hoffman’s Ali is now teaching intersectionality.

Notably, Caitlyn Jenner appears early in the new season, in a hallucination Ali experiences when she’s given nitrous gas at the dentist. Jenner’s momentary appearance on the show carries symbolic weight, particularly because it immediately follows an awkward moment where Ali condescends to her black dentist about Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is. Jenner — who, like Maura, transitioned late in life, has disappointed the liberal public with her sometimes ignorant attitudes towards class, sexuality, and even gender and race, largely by virtue of her occasional supportive comment on Donald Trump. Jenner is a complex figure in that her politics are rooted in old fashioned, conservative mores that favor white men — but she had lived for so long presenting as a man that it’s not hard to see why such values would’ve become ingrained. In other words, coming out as trans doesn’t instantly make Jenner a hero in all areas — she is still a flawed being, her personality (and ideological bent) still contingent on factors like age and class.

As noted in Flavorwire TV editor Lara Zarum’s review of Transparent‘s third season, the third episode opens with a story about a new character entirely: The family tortoise, who got stuck in the household ventilation system three decades prior and has been observing the Pfefferman family through a grate in the wall ever since. A tortoise is, of course, a symbol of age; tortoises can experience over two centuries of the world’s changes. The idea that the Pfeffermans are being watched over by a creature whose life transcends that of the human lifespan — but who itself is literally stuck — speaks to the show’s fascination with the indelible as well as the transcendent. The tortoise is a strange, old, alien thing crawling perpetually through the family home. If that home represents some notion of a familial body, then the tortoise takes the form of history itself. And it’s hard to escape history.

It’s maybe just as hard for history to escape us: Back in the roundtable, I asked Soloway about her decision in the second season to focus on history  — a theme that continues in the third season, with flashbacks to Maura’s childhood — through flashbacks to Weimar-era Berlin. She explained the plot as a reaction to, and explanation for, Jewish neurosis:

We started talking about epigenetic memory, which I very simply phrase as ‘why Jews get so anxious at airports going through checkpoints.’ Even if you didn’t have parents that firsthand experienced the Holocaust, there’s some genetic memory that — ‘we’re in trouble, we’re getting caught, we’re being chased.’ You don’t have to be Jewish to have that constant feeling of being in trouble, and fear of checkpoints, and fear of lining up, and being an immigrant and being kept out. What’s happening right now is so connected to what was happening in WWII in Berlin.

The series’ focus on Jewishness runs parallel to its meditations on age. Transparent’s central family takes tradition very seriously — but its members are liberated from any religious notion of sexual oppression. This evokes something ancient that has been allowed to maintain a core, while certain connotations morph across the centuries. It’s evolution through repetition; repetition through the embracing of the old, and the desire to include the old in the new, rather than leave it behind.

Transparent’s credit sequence is a phantasmagoria of scenes from the 1968 documentary The Queen, interspersed with footage from bar mitzvahs and weddings — rituals repeated throughout history. The opening’s ghostly quality is melancholy, insinuating and even sweet — an aestheticized depiction of the quiet indelibility of history, even in the most contemporary souls.

Transparent Season 3 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.