“In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.” -Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
The question of identity has taken on an importance that is unprecedented. How we choose to present and define ourselves, is, in a sense, all that is left to discuss. All political, cultural, religious, and ideological structures have been deconstructed and given a good dressing-down by the last three centuries of technological development. Somewhat surprisingly, these structures continue on, as a motley collection of disembodied exclamation points gesturing at nothing in particular, with no message much deeper than a desperate ‘I exist’: parties, genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and religions appear all the more vehement these days, perhaps as a way to compensate for their utter irrelevance in the face of a globalized economic order that makes all units, whether they be currencies or people, fungible, swappable, and disposable.
Most prominently in America, during the past forty years, the popular left has balkanized into a hodgepodge of solipsistic movements, each centered around some grouping of humans that is defined by the kind of oppression it suffered under the old order. This is identity politics, and, as the antithesis of the old order, it is disorderly, divisive, and self-defeating. It also happens to be a capitalist’s dream.
Henry Ford, while producing one of the first standardized products, the Model T, is said to have told customers, “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” In the world of identity politics, you can identify as anything you want, as long as it further alienates you from your fellows and doesn’t disturb the income distribution. The realms of art and public discourse have been engulfed by a cacophony of voices listening to themselves make noises about themselves. Transparent, Jill Soloway’s internet series, illustrates this brilliantly. Transparent and other shows like House of Cards are designed to be binge-watched in one sitting by a single viewer, ideally on a laptop while in bed. Quite an evolution from the gilded, communal movie palaces of a century ago.
Transparent’s protagonists are a family of media elites living in Los Angeles. They are Jewish, secular, and wealthy. They are postmodern and self-aware, almost to the point of paralysis. Each is on a personal quest to find out who they are, who they belong with, and how they want to live. Their intelligence, their money, and their honesty, the preconditions for their freedom, spell doom for their relationships with each other, with friends, with lovers. While violating the moral and sexual injunctions of tradition, and demonstrating a flippant self-centeredness that would have scandalized their forebears, they stolidly persist with the rituals of their Judaism- blessings at dinners, temple on holidays, apologizing on Yom Kippur- going through the motions with a bitter irony that borders on fatalism. They are well aware of how far they have fallen, as are we. But like many of the enlightened, their liberation from tradition leads them out of one Egypt and into another, a desert that is both profound and final: a slavery to their own changeable feelings and desires. The only promised land that can be hoped for is a momentary pleasure. And other people become just tools to reach that end.
The unwilling patriarch of the family, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is Mort Pfefferman, a mild-mannered and emotionally absent father who has cross-dressed his entire life and feels compelled in middle age to come out as Maura to his wife and adult children. His brusque wife Shelley, whose greatest ambition is to become president of the condo association and who babysits her grandchildren only because “it’s what all of my friends do,” seems devoted to playing up each of her children’s small tragedies as her own. Josh, a man-child and successful music producer, is surrounded by glamour and entranced by novelty, and yet is strangely drawn to traditionality and the totems of his Judaism, driven even to the point of getting a female rabbi pregnant. His indecisiveness and erratic emotions in adulthood may perhaps be traced to an early relationship with his babysitter, who still lives close by. The eldest daughter, Sarah, starts out the show with what appears to be a perfect life. She proceeds to turn it into a trainwreck, leaving her husband for her college lesbian lover, marrying that woman, and then backing out on her wedding night. The youngest daughter, Ali, has the most undefined sexuality and gender identity of the entire family, and is also the most detached. She is incessantly roving about, looking for new people to vampire off of, and is always talking about going to grad school, though she never quite manages it. Her closest friend Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein, is in love with her, and bears the tragic brunt of Ali’s stillborn personality. Ali is the logical conclusion of the family’s development: totally free, totally barren. She lives her life without commitment, an aging woman-girl in a garden of earthly delights, searching fruitlessly for something she can’t quite articulate.
Under these conditions, appearance takes on a centrality that would baffle people of other times. The characters are often depicted going through fanatical periods of binge-eating and binge-exercising. Bereft of the robust structures of family and work, these people are emotionally brittle. They define their self-worth wholly in terms of their physical attractiveness. Similarly, when children become undesirable or unlikely, or one just becomes alienated from one’s existing adult children, old age turns from a nuisance into a looming bane that may banish one to total isolation. So the characters are constantly on the hunt for their next sex partner, going to absurd measures to prolong their youth.
The most intriguing part of the show are flashbacks to 1930s Berlin, in which we see ancestors of the Pfefferman family, one of whom is a young trans woman (a counterpart to Maura), another a teen girl (a counterpart to Ali). This tantalizing glimpse into a decadent and permissive metropolis teetering on the edge of fascism suggests that the current state of the Pfeffermans is not sustainable. It adds to the narrative a sense of foreboding. It also suggests that this is not the first time we’ve been here, that there is a cycle to these things.
What I find beautiful about the show is the way it makes the characters’ problems seem real. The Pfeffermans are petty, but they are not vindictive. They set out with the best of intentions. We feel for these tragic people, who struggle mightily, and with a certain nobility, to fulfill two goals that they don’t realize are contradictory: to be free, and to belong. For all their cosmopolitan sensibility and wit, they are blind, like children wandering in a dark wood.