This article contains plot details of the third season of Transparent
In the first episode of Transparent’s third season, it appears that the show is beginning to deal with questions of intersectionality by examining race and class and other kinds of privilege more directly. Maura, who is volunteering at an LGBTQ center’s help line, receives a call from a young trans woman in foster care named Elizah who says she’s thinking about suicide. When Elizah disconnects the call, Maura decides she should track Elizah down to offer her more support, an impulse that throws into sharp relief Maura’s privilege and obliviousness (she asks some trans women of color at the mall if they’ve seen Elizah “on the streets” and tries to leave a restaurant without paying for a Gatorade after misplacing her purse). When Maura collapses and is taken to the closest county hospital amid her protests, saying she can only go to (the presumably far nicer) Cedars-Sinai hospital, her children show up to visit her and scrunch their noses at the crowded, harried environment and non-private rooms. Unfortunately, this early foray into intersectionality isn’t carried through the rest of the season, but the show remains excellent at what it does best: examining gender identity, and Jewish identity, from the perspective of an almost unbearably privileged and self-centered family unit.
One of the reasons this family drama is so remarkable and so well-loved by feminist viewers is that it doesn’t just include themes of gender and sexuality. It focuses on each family member’s growth and change through those lenses, addressing a number of issues that are relevant to the feminist, queer, and trans communities through the situations that various members of the Pfefferman family find themselves in. This season, Sarah explores her interest in BDSM in greater depth. Ali continues her academic research into gender and sexuality and delves into a deeper relationship with Leslie, the prominent feminist poet whose character is based on Eileen Myles. Shelly looks back on her life and her experience of being molested as a child, which drew her to pursue relationships with men who wanted to keep secrets. Maura pursues gender confirmation surgery and an appearance that more closely matches her ideal self, and she reflects on the trauma and shame that shaped her childhood.
But what about Josh? As the only man in the family, Josh’s personal struggles and journey often seem to bypass direct questions of gender and sexuality in a way the Pfefferman women’s character arcs never do. In the third season, Josh connects romantically with Shea, a trans woman who is one of Maura’s friends. He ultimately ruins their budding relationship by making insensitive comments about how nice it would feel to have sex with a woman and never have to worry about getting her pregnant and then by freaking out after Shea reveals her HIV-positive status. It seems at first like Josh might get to consider his sexual identity and his male privilege more deeply by finding himself attracted to a trans woman, but this aspect of their connection never comes into play—and Shea doesn’t appear again in the season after telling Josh that she’s no one’s adventure and ditching their impromptu road trip. On one hand, it’s satisfying to see a potential relationship between the two characters, one in which Shea is completely accepted as a woman by a cis, hetero man who was initially uncomfortable with Maura’s transition. But it also seems like a missed opportunity by not interrogating Josh’s feelings about gender further.
Many other situations are dealt with expertly, weaving in tensions that might arise between various characters due to their personal identities and political beliefs. Leslie, a leftist academic, gets into conflict with members of the Pfefferman’s temple community over her pro-Palestine beliefs at a Jewish gathering. Maura’s girlfriend Vicki, who has had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer, struggles to understand why it’s so important to Maura to surgically alter her body in order to feel beautiful and more like herself. Rabbi Raquel finally reaches the end of her patience with Sarah’s spiritual journey, breaking down and shouting at her that spirituality is not about “finding your bliss.” Shelly appears devastated but unable to express herself effectively when Maura announces that she’d like her children to begin calling her “Mom.” She asks, “Were you there when Sarah got her period?” in front of the whole family. “Did you show her how to put her tampon in?”
Each of these situations is painful to watch, but there’s space for viewers to sympathize with and understand all parties involved. The conflicts are presented with such nuance and empathy for all of the characters that they illuminate and enhance their stories rather than place blame. This sense of empathy and expert characterization is why Transparent continues to be—even in its third season, even as each of its main characters succumb to their own existential ennui and continue to be selfish and frequently contemptible—one of the essential shows of our time.