Since its debut in 2014, “Transparent” has brought marginalized stories to the center ― most notably, stories of queerness, transness and gender fluidity.
In a talk last week at The Paley Center, creator Jill Soloway, who identifies as gender nonbinary, reiterated her show’s standing goal of “centering otherness” and allowing “queer people, trans people, women and people of color” to be protagonists in their own narratives. Through Maura, Davina, Shea, Ali and Sarah, viewers get to know human beings who are trans, queer and questioning; who are strong, courageous and loving, but can be selfish, destructive and imperfect, too.
Yet with the character of Josh, played by Jay Duplass, “Transparent” also chips away at the monolithic idea of what straight, cisgender male sexuality is. And while Hollywood surely isn’t lacking in stories revolving around white men, nuanced representations of their uncertainty, vulnerability and trauma when it comes to sex are far more rare.
Duplass describes his character, the middle Pfefferman child, as a “playboy who cries his ass off.” Internet vernacular might dub him a fuckboy, or his more sensitive sidekick, the softboy. Yet Josh’s tangled knot of emotional needs and sexual desires indicate there’s more brewing within him than shallow portrayals of a flailing womanizer suggest. With Josh, “Transparent” refuses to frame heterosexuality as the standard, simple and straightforward foil to queerness’ other. Instead, the show provides each of its characters with a fluid and ever-evolving network of desires and fears.
“I think men are taught that they’re supposed to have sex with as many people as they can,” Duplass told HuffPost over the phone. “He’s learning from society what a man should be and sort of flip-flopping around the typical narratives we’re supposed to buy into.”
Warning: Spoilers below for viewers still watching “Transparent” Season 3!
As Josh, Duplass hopes to show that although cis, white men hold immense privilege and power, their identities are not by default established or “normal.” “I want to help every single human being be more fully themselves,” Duplass said. “If boys are allowed to cry we’d probably have a lot less war in this world. Let your boys cry, please.”
And this sentiment of de-centering the straight, cis experience extends beyond what viewers see on TV. “Transparent” is as trans-inclusive backstage as onscreen, with over 50 trans cast and crew members and additional trans extras. In a rare turn, white men like Duplass were a minority on the show’s set.
“I didn’t realize for a while that I was in the minority as a straight, white, cis male on set,” he said. “But I never felt otherized because, although Jill is creating an environment where trans people are put at the center, they’re not doing it to the detriment of anyone else. Because of the scene that Jill sets, we all just feel like we’re humans there to unfold ourselves and see what comes about.”
Josh grew up differently than many men in America, in part because, as a kid, he was surrounded by spirited and curious women. “At the root, Josh was raised in a house full of strong women,” Duplass said. “The one person in his house he thought was a man turned out to also be a woman. It all sort of begins with this question of — what does a man do, how does a man behave? And him not having a proper role model for it.”
Josh’s first sexual experience, and seemingly his most formative one, was an affair with his babysitter, Rita, which began when Josh was 14 and Rita was 20 and persisted for years in secret. At first, Duplass hypothesized, teenage Josh was thrilled to be hooking up with a hot older woman. “In his mind, it made him the coolest kid in school,” Duplass said.
Only later did he come to question the power dynamics behind the relationship and whether it is even possible for a 14-year-old boy to give consent. Legally, it’s not. “This season Josh comes to realize he was pretty much owned by Rita on some level,” Duplass said. “It started out as the thing that made him cool and, 20 years later, it’s the thing that’s imprisoning him, even though she’s deceased.” (Rita jumped to her death in a shopping mall at the end of Season 3.)
In response to his adolescent relationship’s crooked power dynamics, Duplass surmises, adult Josh seeks out sexual exchanges that he can control ― he pursues music groupies who unflinchingly adore him and young women who look up to him. “What it really comes down to for Josh is that there has always been a clear power structure in his relationships, whether he is on bottom or he is on top,” Duplass said. “The Rabbi is the first time he has an age-appropriate partner and a relationship that did not have a power dynamic immediately built in.”
In the first episode of Season 4, Josh attends a sex and love addiction meeting with his sisters Sarah and Ali. An unnamed man in the circle, wearing a baseball cap and dog tag necklace, shares his story.
“I’ve been thinking about my past, all the people I’ve been with and all the sex I had when I was young,” he said. “And it was mainly because people wanted to have sex with me. I wasn’t even really wanting it, but I felt like obliged to do so. And it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to say no. I felt like if my body is responding, it means yes. The thing that just occurred to me, which is going to sound weird, but it feels like a revelation: that maybe an erection is not consent.”
The revelation is radical, especially to Josh. “That’s brilliant,” he immediately responds.
Just as “Transparent” chips away at hackneyed understandings of queer sexuality, so too it overturns tired notions of masculinity. Regardless of how characters identify their gender and sexuality, their wants and needs are depicted as complicated, amorphous, unfinished and in flux. There is no “normal,” and there is no “different.” We’re all, basically, beautiful messes.
Josh’s main narrative arc in Season 4 probes his relationship with Rita, specifically the question of whether or not Josh was molested. Her memory haunts his subconscious and her image follows him throughout his daily life. “So now, you’re a victim,” her ghost taunts as Josh prepares to enter the addiction meeting. It’s all happening, of course, in Josh’s mind.
“The word molested, it doesn’t sit right with him. I don’t think he felt coerced at any point to have sex,” Duplass explained. “To him, the word molested is a box to be checked. It’s part of our binary culture, the way we name things.”
In his adult life, Josh struggles to maintain a healthy, vulnerable, romantic relationship, though, as Duplass sees it, he fiercely yearns for one. Josh’s experience as a straight, cis man is in no way comparable to the discrimination and oppression characters like Maura face on a daily basis. However, the forces that endanger and minimize Maura’s experience might benefit Josh superficially, but not emotionally.
“I think every element of our culture deserves the ‘Transparent’ treatment, which I see more broadly as destroying the binary ― a reductive, medical checkbox rendering of humanity,” Duplass said. “Essentially binary means either/or, black or white. It pits people against each other. I think we can all be more unified and celebrated in our own ways if we just let go of the boxes that need to be checked and celebrate the complexity of the human spectrum.”
“Transparent” is available for streaming on Amazon starting Sept. 22.