History repeats itself in Transparent

By the time you read this (but not by the time I’m writing it), the third season of Transparent, Amazon’s award-winning TV series, will have been released. (It’s available here on Shomi).

I’ll start with an obligatory plug for anyone who hasn’t seen it: if you’re Jewish, you must watch Transparent. Full stop. Every actor is great; the music is great; there’s a hip female rabbi; it’s all great. A Jewish pop-culture critic’s wet dream.

Ostensibly, it’s about a well-off patriarch’s late-life transition to becoming female and the psychological consequences it has on his already psychologically fragile relatives. But under that plot lies a narrative about a family that understands each other – implicitly, emotionally, psychologically. They float freely together in swimming pools and accept each other without fail, but ultimately, they don’t communicate very well.

In keeping with that theme, the end of the show’s second season was both perfect and infuriating.

Consider, for those who saw it, or for those determined to read this piece despite all the forthcoming spoilers, how frustrating it is that the youngest sibling, Ali, never figured out what “Gershon” meant, that Grandma Rose never communicated how deeply she understood Maura’s transition, that Josh is worse off in almost every way than he was at the show’s start, and that Sarah, as always, hasn’t learned anything.

Early on, Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the father-turned-mother, Maura, asks a pivotal question that overshadows the rest of the series: “How did I raise three such selfish kids?”

Later, we realize that they learned it from their parents. Midway through the second season, Maura lashes out at her ex-wife, Shelly, for asking what TV show Maura wants to watch. “What do you want?” Maura yells. “Make a choice. Make yourself happy.”

Except for Shelly, this is what every Pfefferman does. Their family trademark is not worrying about consequences.


What the second season cleverly portrays is how very deep this runs in the Pfefferman clan. We get an earlier glimpse of this egocentrism, pride and stubbornness during the second season’s flashbacks to the story of their ancestors in 1930s Berlin, on the cusp of the rule of the Third Reich.

Maura had an uncle named Gershon, who dressed as a woman and insisted on being called Gittel. Rose and Gittel attended parties and progressive gatherings at the house of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a real-life gay Jewish doctor who wrote a groundbreaking book on transvestites and gender behaviour.

When Gittel and Rose are offered a way to come to America, Gittel scoffs because the name printed on her ticket reads “Gershon.” Later, when the Nazis come to round up the transvestites, her sister watches helplessly as Gittel is dragged away, screaming.

While Ali never really learns about the transgender tendencies that run deep in her family, she does learn about inherited trauma, the notion that traumatized people pass on DNA that predisposes their offspring to high levels of stress and mental imbalance. It’s a recurring theme in Judaism, and the show adapts that notion to fit not just these descendants of Holocaust survivors, but transgender victims too.

Inherited trauma is a controversial subject, far from a proven science. But Transparent makes a solid argument for history repeating itself in our DNA. While Gittel is a tragic character, it’s easy to interpret her actions as selfish – she was so determined to be a woman that she was willing to die for it, her memory haunting her mother and sister.

As Maura might say, “Make a choice. Make yourself happy.”