Tag : Melissa Tapper Goldman

January 20, 2015 by

No Blessings, No Curses—Jill Soloway’s “Transparent”

If you missed Jill Soloway’s dramedy series “Transparent,” that’s because it was never on TV. It’s part of the wave of Internet programming outside primetime’s mandate to connect with the widest audience and skirt controversy. Instead, this series on Amazon Prime is free to explore perspectives rarely seen in broadcast TV.

“Transparent” follows the Pfeffermans — three adult kids and their parents — through a host of personal transitions: divorce, abortion, death, and the gender transition of parent Maura (née Mort, played by Jeffrey Tambor). Maura’s revelation, that she is a transgender woman, organizes the 10-episode arc. Commentary about the acclaimed show has largely explored the important and complex identity politics of representing trans people. But gender identity is not the only primetime-unfriendly theme here. Religion is baked into the world of the show, as is sexuality.

It wasn’t the heimish and pitch-perfect dialogue, the exploration of Maura’s identity, or the family dynamics that haunted me for days after watching this series straight through. It was the show’s cosmology, where justice is not tied up with expressions of gender and sexuality.

We encounter eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker), bored, in her bright and sprawling Los Angeles mini-mansion. She finds herself suddenly in lust and love with a former girlfriend — while married to the father of her small children. And she’s honest about it, splitting up from her spouse rather than proceeding in secret. This is where, in broadcast TV, she would be punished. An invisible hand would push her back to her husband or force her to pay an ultimate price for prioritizing sex and intimacy. Instead, we see ramifications (so many ramifications!), but not punishment. We see fallout, but not retribution, a subtle, profound distinction. In “Transparent” land, there is no Fate nudging people to where we expect them; there’s just the mess that comes from life’s tough choices.

The same absence of cosmic intervention plays out in Maura’s transition. She’s warned by another trans woman that the price she’ll pay for her transition is her family, a thought as heartbreaking as it is inconceivable at the start of the series, as we watch the Pfeffermans lovingly eat Chinese food, lovingly banter and sprawl in their childhood home.

While Maura endures terrifying ruptures in her life and familial relations in order to heal that deep rupture of a misconstrued gender, we see dominos falling, systems and results — not karma. She’s not punished for choosing to embody her gender, but she does suffer. There is harsh fallout from making these choices in a transphobic world. Maura is not the perfect victim, and the character retains the depth and complication of a person scarred by a lifetime of staggering lies. Maura is both hero and villain of her own story.

“Transparent” also explores religion, a divisive and thus taboo topic on TV. The show weaves in questions about Jewish practice and identity rarely explored in pop culture. In a flashback, we meet thirteen-year-old Ali boycotting her Bat Mitzvah. She rails against her green taffeta dress until the conversation turns to God. “Honest,” Ali asks Maura, “Do you actually believe in God?” The retort, classically: “That has nothing to do with your Bat Mitzvah.”

But the conversation doesn’t end there. Maura’s expressions of doubt and struggle don’t conflict with her Jewishness, exactly: unlike in the Christianity of American TV, faith isn’t the kernel of her religious identity. And unlike on primetime, in the world of “Transparent,” you can question the existence of God without a resolution. Complexities just sit there — ambiguous, thorny, and unresolved — like in real life.

On her would-be Bat Mitzvah day, Ali is home alone when a caterer arrives, uninformed of the cancelation. Out from her teenage monotone, Ali launches into a rousing show for the stranger, chanting Torah with interpretive dance and grand gesticulations. Her portion, Lech Lecha, suggests there’s a price to pay for not going forth, for delaying or clinging too closely to one’s old home for too long, but it recognizes that there’s also a price to pay for leaving.

The Jewishness of “Transparent,” swirled in with the queerness, contains traditionalism and atheism, boundary-crossing mixed with obligation, and the many layers that make up identity.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 11, 2014 by

On Sex and Silence

I sometimes find talking about sex uncomfortable. There’s so much at stake — power, identity, transcendence, and raw humanity. I wasn’t raised gabbing like Barbara Streisand’s Roz Focker, the sex therapist with an uncontainable comfort with sex. So how did I wind up talking about sex professionally? When I came to feel like the only thing more uncomfortable than talking about sex was not talking about it.

(Flickr: Ariel Waldman, photo illustration)

(Flickr: Ariel Waldman, photo illustration)

In my 20s, I started to see our not-talking-about-sex problem: the mismatch between Americans’ comfort consuming women’s sexuality and our silencing of women’s communication about sex. Sexy billboards freeze-frame a moment without words, but we’re free to look a model up and down, knowing her without knowing her. Real teenagers make grown-up decisions about sex every day, but as eager as we are to second-guess their sexual behavior or clothing, we don’t want to hear why they make the choices they do. And if they speak up about their lived experience, why are we prepared to shame them for acknowledging what everyone already knows that teenagers do? Shame makes it extremely hard to learn the healthy communication that’s needed for respectful, enjoyable sexual encounters, whether at age 16 or 60.

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April 3, 2014 by

On Sex and Silence

I sometimes find talking about sex uncomfortable. There’s so much at stake — power, identity, transcendence, and raw humanity. I wasn’t raised gabbing like Barbara Streisand’s Roz Focker, the sex therapist with an uncontainable comfort with sex. So how did I wind up talking about sex professionally? When I came to feel like the only thing more uncomfortable than talking about sex was not talking about it.

In my 20s, I started to see our not-talking-about-sex problem: the mismatch between Americans’ comfort consuming women’s sexuality and our silencing of women’s communication about sex. Sexy billboards freeze-frame a moment without words, but we’re free to look a model up and down, knowing her without knowing her. Real teenagers make grown-up decisions about sex every day, but as eager as we are to second-guess their sexual behavior or clothing, we don’t want to hear why they make the choices they do. And if they speak up about their lived experience, why are we prepared to shame them for acknowledging what everyone already knows that teenagers do? Shame makes it extremely hard to learn the healthy communication that’s needed for respectful, enjoyable sexual encounters, whether at age 16 or 60.

Once I started noticing the silence, I couldn’t leave it alone. I knew I shouldn’t leave it alone. I began “Subjectified: Nine Women Talk About Sex,” a video project that lets women speak for themselves, an oral history of interviews with diverse young women around the U.S. When I started showing “Subjectified” at colleges across the country, I saw that people of all genders wanted urgently to share their own stories. I heard from men who had always wanted to understand their 

sexual partners but had never been able to elicit the kind of honesty that I’d gotten in my one-time conversations about orgasm, painful sex, violence, love, first times, sex drive, body image, and identity. Because when you really talk about sex, you don’t just talk about sex. I started a blog called “Do Tell,” where people share their own personal sexual histories anonymously. Most of the 500 stories come from women, many from young people, and many from survivors of sexual violence or abuse — people who have not had the chance or the safety to be open or honest in person.

It’s especially hard to be a supportive friend when you’ve never talked about those body parts before, or those physical acts, or even the fact that both consensual sex and sexual violence are part of people’s personal histories. We cultivate stigma when we avoid the topic of sex.

Without words, we’re feral children, limited in what we can understand, communicate, or resist. Not being able to talk about women’s experiences reinforces the idea that our first-person perspectives don’t matter, that sexuality flows through us and without us, for someone else’s sake, defining our worth and our identities without our control. (For example, Lilith’s Winter 2003/2004 article on oral sex at bar and bat mitzvah parties). Silence brings with it shame, and the cost of shame is enormous and often invisible.

One entity that is often willing to engage with American youth about sex is religion, frequently in the form of speaking out against premarital sex or expressions of women’s or queer sexuality. In my own Jewish education, I don’t recall any advice about sex. What little influence came from a tacit condoning of the (straight) hookup scene in youth groups, considered — half in jest — as a contribution to Jewish matchmaking. If the social glue of sexuality forged romantic bonds among young Jews, it was the least the chaperones could to do look the other way. But ”no comment” on sexuality is not actually a lack of comment. Persistent reinforcement that a topic is off-limits, that’s plenty of message. I’ve spoken to progressive Jewish educators who feel that sexuality is beyond the scope of a religious education, that it’s something they assume kids are getting at home or at day school. Sexuality, an intrinsic component of development, is not often broached in Jewish education.

“No message” about sex doesn’t arrive in a vacuum. My peers outside the Jewish community were hearing plenty of sin talk and filtering it back to me. I was alarmed when a non-Jewish boyfriend in high school admitted that he prayed for forgiveness for our physical intimacy, implicating me in what he perceived as bad behavior. I resented this projection and preferred my abundance of Jewish guilt to be directed at things that I saw as having real moral import (i.e. not my choices about sexual behavior). Beyond religion, we are all subject to attitudes reflected in pop culture. The persistent negation of young people’s agency and ability to consent — to say yes or no — this thicket of confusing messages fills in the space.

In general, Jewish youth groups and synagogues are not jumping at the opportunity to fill this void in students’ moral education. There are individual communities taking the opportunity to teach young people about sexuality across the observance spectrum, though this is not a standard practice even in a progressive setting. Sexuality educator and researcher Mimi Arbeit started a rare sex-ed program for her young adult peers at Moishe Kavod House in the Boston area, beginning with the sex-positive Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum developed by Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregations. If this seems groundbreaking, we have perhaps regressed since Reform congregations began offering sex-ed courses to confirmation students in 1965.

While secular sex education focuses obsessively on the negative consequences of sex, we aren’t comfortable enough with young people’s sexuality to send direct messages about what they should want from their sexual expression, even if that’s in the future or on their own. But who can deny that this is an important component of a person’s burgeoning sense of self, of ethics in interpersonal relationships, of growth? Jewish organizations tasked with spiritual education may think they are staying neutral, neither condemning nor affirming a student’s sexuality, but the student still lives in a society that enforces rigid gender roles and heteronormative attitudes through shaming and bullying. These omissions marginalize queer youth, even in liberal Jewish settings. And there is no neutral silence; our texts, which we teach our young people to cherish, are often used to justify cruelties and erasures.

Sexuality is at the cusp of what progressive Judaism hasn’t figured out about its relationship to rules. We stay silent to bide time, not having developed a coherent message. But our young people don’t hear “put that into a modern context” or “read the tradition more deeply,” because we’re not making those suggestions out loud. They hear silence, and it becomes their heritage, too.

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