In the age of Amazon, sex is no substitute for good storytelling

    While “Transparent” presents a compelling, relatable portrait of a transgender person in the twenty-first century, it misses a tremendous opportunity to educate a wider audience about gender and acceptance because of its frequent, gratuitous depictions of sex.

    As the rest of the world curses winter and dreams of summer at the Jersey Shore, I relish the time spent indoors catching up on some much-needed binge watching. My most recent binge fest involved Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning series “Transparent.”

    The program follows the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman coming into her own in a world that has known her for the greater part of her life as a man. Along for the ride are her beloved albeit self-centered children: Sarah, who leaves her husband for an old girlfriend; Josh, the passionate love addict; and mixed-up millennial Ali.

    While “Transparent” presents a compelling, relatable portrait of a transgender person in the twenty-first century, it misses a tremendous opportunity to educate a wider audience about gender and acceptance because of its frequent, gratuitous depictions of sex.

    We have a fundamental problem with talking about sexuality in this country. I get that. And in the past, it’s been easier for cinematic productions to portray transgender people as caricatures that serve the story as comic relief or objects of curiosity or lust.

    “Transparent” breaks away from that by offering viewers a unique coming-out story involving a middle-aged transgender woman.

    That being said, if Amazon truly wants to send a positive message about gender to audiences, it needs to rely less on sex scenes and bring the emphasis back to the characters and the story itself.

    The evolution of (subscription-based) sex

    Before there was Amazon or Netflix, or streaming services at all, there was another medium that offered Americans sex by subscription — cable television. HBO and Showtime in particular took credit for the most envelopes pushed, from the unapologetic sexcapades of four Manhattanites in “Sex and the City” (a Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning hit for HBO) to Showtime’s equally provocative “Queer As Folk,” which examined the lives and loves of five gay men in Pittsburgh.

    Both series attempted to humanize aspects of modern life traditionally filed under “too taboo for TV,” including women having abortions for non-life-threatening reasons and HIV-positive men enjoying active sex lives.

    Like “Transparent,” both shows featured countless instances of graphic sex. As both series racked up awards and ratings, the message became clear: If you want to have a successful program, you must sex it up.

    In this decade, Netflix and Amazon have taken the place of rival cable networks, but several power players who worked for HBO and Showtime are now the decision makers behind your favorite streaming shows.

    A former producer for HBO’s “Sex and the City” is now the executive producer of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” The creator of Showtime’s “Weeds,” Jenji Kohan, is also the creator of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” Before she pitched the idea that would become “Transparent” to Amazon, Jill Soloway wrote and produced episodes for HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “The United States of Tara.”

    It would seem that the concept of inserting graphic sex into every other scene has traveled from cable to streaming programs like “Transparent.” And that’s a letdown.

    The idea that people can’t go more than five minutes without satisfying their sexual desires is troubling, not to mention the fact it furthers an unrealistic standard for young people and most people who, you know, have jobs and responsibilities that would definitely conflict with our alleged insatiable physical appetites.

    Transforming the way forward

    “Transparent” could redeem itself by examining the obstacles that might prevent a transgender character from having the same satisfying sex life as a straight or gay character.

    We are treated to many, many scenes of Maura’s son Josh having trysts with various love interests, and we see a steamy scene between Maura’s daughter Sarah and her one-time girlfriend in the very first episode. Not once do we see our heroine Maura connecting with another person romantically or physically.

    In the real world, transgender individuals experience a disproportionately higher rate of physical violence than non-transgender men and women, so the decision to keep their past a secret from their partners makes sense.

    In the 10-episode first season, we see only two transgender individuals in sexual situations, neither of which results in actual sex. In the first instance, Josh decides to cure his feelings of confusion and shock by visiting a trans sex website. He opens a video chat with a transgender woman, but Josh, usually eager to share his sexual self with other women, is so turned off by her suggestive conversation that he shuts the computer off. The second instance involves a transgender man and Ali. Like Josh, Ali struggles to understand Maura’s newly revealed identity, so she throws herself into a relationship with a transgender man at her school. The couple tries to have sex in a public bathroom with a rubber penis, but the throes of passion are quickly deflated for Ali when the device falls to the bathroom floor. The show gets points for showcasing a scenario where a transgender man would experience an obstacle to sex, but it fails to show Ali and her date overcoming that obstacle. The running theme that sex is reserved for cisgender characters only is reinforced.

    The show does do a good job of living up to its title. While the grown Pfefferman children deceive themselves and the people around them regarding sexual identity and happiness, Maura triumphs in her acceptance of herself.

    A good start, but if “Transparent” really wants to be revolutionary and move pop culture toward a more inclusive spectrum of gender representation, it needs to show transgender men and women as people who are deserving of love and capable of intimacy.

    It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for Hollywood to cast aside its preconceived notions of how a transgender woman’s story should be portrayed. Actress and transgender rights advocate Laverne Cox summed up the issue beautifully in a 2013 interview with Gawker: “For so many trans folks, it’s really not us, it’s everyone else who loses their minds.”

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