"Transparent" Producers Say They “Welcome the Debate” on Casting Jeffrey Tambor

Jeffrey Tambor, playing Maura, puts on makeup in a mirror

Amid the generally sparkling reviews for the new Amazon series Transparent, there has been one consistent criticism: many transgender people and their allies are upset about the casting of cis male actor Jeffrey Tambor in the role of Maura, a trans woman who is just beginning her transition at the start of the show.  

When I reviewed the Transparent for Bitch after its debut two weeks ago, many people spoke up with this critique. “Having a cis male actor playing a trans woman perpetuates the idea that trans women are just men in drag,” explained one reader. “It also reinforces the idea that femininity is an artificial mask of sorts, about appearance—and it advances transmisogyny.”

I agree that more positive trans representation is sorely needed in entertainment and that, all too often, roles that should go to trans actresses and actors go instead to their cis counterparts. But I don't agree that every trans character is best portrayed by an actor or actress who has physically transitioned.

That statement may sound confusing, or even counterintuitive, but I'll try to explain it. In Transparent, we meet Maura at the very outset of her transition. She is at retirement age and has lived her whole life as a male-assigned person. Likewise, the show surrounds her with family members who have only ever seen her in that persona.  While the show affirms her female gender, much of its drama stems from the emotional and psychological shifting that trans people and those around them experience when the trans person comes out and begins socially transitioning. To my mind, this idea can be dramatically executed very well by a cis male actor. 

I'm aware from the comments made on my review that this isn't a universally held view. For me, it comes from my own experience of transitioning in my late 30s. Like Maura, I'd lived decades as a male-assigned person and my body had developed in a way typical to someone who'd been exposed to testosterone. The first year or two of my transition, I experienced acute dysphoria: I knew myself to be female, but, prior to my hormone treatments kicking in, prior to laser treatments that eliminated my facial hair growth, and prior to my hair growing the length I wanted, the person that people saw me as (and even the way I saw myself) was not the person I experienced myself to be inside. A cis male actor like Tambor, because of his physical development, can convey this discrepancy.

I've written critically in the past about the casting of cis male actors for trans woman roles, such as the casting of Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer's Club or Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. In those cases. I find the choice of actor to be sensational—they treat trans women as exotic creatures to be imitated, rather than humans who can portray themselves. Dallas Buyer's Club director Jean-Marc Vallee wondered aloud during an interview whether trans actresses exist, inadvertently displaying the depth of his ignorance about the trans experience, and, to my mind, his lack of qualifications to be depicting us in his stories. In contrast, Transparent creator Jill Soloway has been a model of conscientiousness, populating her set with trans actresses and actors, trans crew members, and consultants. Trans woman Zackary Drucker and trans man Rhys Ernst, both producers on Transparent, say they understand criticisms the casting of Tambor have sparked.

"We welcome debate," Drucker told me last week. "It's a complicated and thorny issue."

jill soloway and jeffrey tambor talk on the set of Transparent

Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor, as Maura, talk on the set of Transparent. Photo by Gregory Zabilski via Amazon.  

Both Drucker and Ernst realize that their show and all shows involving trans characters enter a world that's been historically hostile to trans identities. 

"There's a hunger for representations of people in our affirmed genders," says Ernst. "I understand that. We're very much behind that impulse."

"We're starting from zero," adds Drucker. "We're coming from a place where representations have been aggressively problematic."

Ernst says he agrees that productions have a responsibility to cast trans actresses and actors in trans roles "98 percent of the time," but feels exceptions ought to be made in cases involving child roles and pre-transition situations like that of Maura’s. Given that the show begins with Maura still presenting as a man, he thought it would be offensive to hire a trans woman and “put her in male drag."

It's not clear whether Maura will medically transition, say the producers. Further along in the show, she may settle into a genderqueer identity, which could mean introducing a large audience to a part of the trans umbrella they might not previously have encountered.

Meanwhile, Drucker and Ernst both talk about the importance placed on making Transparent a "globally" transgender show, meaning that trans views, input, and experiences inform every aspect of its creation. Ernst uses the term "trans-firmative" to describe the production: in its first season, Transparent provided 15 speaking roles for trans actors and employed 10 trans crew members. Hiring as many trans people as possible behind the camera and "placing trans people in a place of authorship” has been a major priority for the show, says Drucker.

"I think there are times when hiring a cis actor can be done correctly, but it has to be a big picture choice, and has to be for the right reason," Ernst says. "One thing I've noticed since working on this production is a growing sense of pride. I hold my head higher from being a part of this community, and being professionally affirmed as I have."

Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate. 

Related Reading: Check Out These 41 Transgender-Friendly Books for Young Kids.

by Leela Ginelle
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Leela Ginelle is a trans woman journalist and playwright living in Portland, OR. Her work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch and The Advocate. Follow her at @leelaginelle.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I think this is an insightful follow-up, thank you.

Maybe younger readers are unaware that Jeffrey Tambor is a revered actor from a highly beloved series, probably one of the most beloved in television history. Certainly a role on a subscription-only streaming service isn't going to be a boon to him the way Arrested Development was, but he is a fine actor and well-loved and I thank him for loaning his talent to a show that may otherwise receive less attention. I also think you've touched on some great points about how trans women are perceived vs how they perceive themselves. This show may not be all things to all people, but for trans folk, it's a start.

In a Perfect World

Personally, I'd love to see more trans characters that actually look like me -- or that look like other trans people I know. I'd like to see more transgender women who are farther advanced and successful in their transition; who aren't white and middle-class; who haven't transitioned post-middle age; whose stories aren't bleak and depressing; who aren't sick or on drugs or doing sex work or being murdered or being the butt of some joke. Maybe even desirable and bankable! I'm not saying there aren't trans people out there who don't look like Jeffrey Tambor, Tom Wilkinson and Jared Leto, but, Hollywood seems to think that the only transgender stories worth telling are of those who are visibly trans, just starting in their transition and ultimately pathetic and lonely...and that's a problem. The fact that Hollywood is more interested in using us as a sensational plot-device than actually integrating us into the industry is a problem.

Absolutely! This is the same

Absolutely! This is the same thing we see with everyone who isn't a straight, white male: their story has to be about how they are female, non-white, gay, trans, what have you. It would be great to have a show/movie where a characters happens to be trans and it is no big deal.

Leela, thank you for the

Leela, thank you for the follow up! It's illuminating to hear more about the series in comparison to films that have cast cis men as trans women as well. After hearing about Transparent I was also reminded of the interview where the Dallas Buyer's Club director ignorantly asked aloud if any transgender actresses exist (ugh).

The casting of Jeffrey Tambor specifically though doesn't sit well with me, and maybe because I only know him from his role in Arrested Development. A lot of the transmisogyny I picked up on while watching that show came from the portrayal of his character, George Bluth, who had an affinity for feminine activities and clothing. I remember George's transgressive embodiment of femininity was always the butt of a joke, whether Michael walked in the attic to see him wearing an apron and a long-haired wig or noticed that he was wearing perfume. It makes me feel apprehensive about Tambor's casting specifically because in his acting history he has played roles that basically mock transfemininity.

That being said, I appreciate that the series is created by trans people, and that trans women do have a say in how they're represented in it. That's not really something that can be said for most media depicting trans women these days.

Great article!

This is a very interesting article and I'm glad there's a debate on this topic. I would love to see trans actors and actresses get more roles in TV and film, and I'm happy that this show has employed so many. Personally, I thought that Jeffrey Tambor was a revelation in the role. It makes sense to hire a cis male actor in this case because Maura starts to transition at 70 years old. Also, I read somewhere that Jill Soloway had Tambor in mind specifically for the role because he reminds her of his dad who is trans. Anyways, I really can't say enough good things about this show and I hope lots of people watch it and start having conversations like this one.

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