By Geoffrey Pollick
Photo credit: Amazon Studios
In the second season of her award-winning television series Transparent, Jill Soloway sets ritual to work as a principal storytelling device and a vehicle for social critique.
During its first season, Transparent provided an exposition of interpersonal dynamics among the character Maura Pfefferman’s (played by Jeffrey Tambor) family members, following her decision to come out as a transgender person. In season two, Soloway addresses each of her characters more individually. In this round of ten episodes, the show portrays each of the Pfeffermans as indulging in ostentatious narcissism, each somewhat blindly seeking their own interests. This greater emphasis on individual experience allows Soloway and the members of Transparent’s cast to explore dynamics of inner transformation as each character pursues distinct lines of development through the season.
The series’ effectiveness in conveying such representations stems in part from its verisimilitude. Soloway has repeatedly emphasized the autobiographical inspiration for her scripts, relating the experience of her own parent coming out as a transgender person during later adulthood. Addressing the relationship between this experience and her work as a writer, Soloway mused during a June 2015 interview that, “the creative process is a way of seeing your own life, whether or not you’re naming your own life.” Through her practices as an artist, Soloway manifests aspects of her own experiences of personal transformation, many of which find parallels in her scripts for Transparent. As she remarked concerning the link between experience and screenwriting, her process of artistic creation involves “movement of the inner life into the outer world.”
Such inward and outward journeys, framed in relationship to ritual performances, also structure the experiences of Soloway’s characters. They not only drive the plot through tension and release; they also prompt reflection on the assembly of meaning and identity in a context of agency set free by affluence in the upscale environs of Pacific Palisades, California, in which Transparent sets its plot.
Representations of traditional Jewish ritual practices punctuate the second season by providing points of reference that connect the storyline to realities outside Soloway’s scripts. In some ways mirroring the author’s use of writing as a practice through which to externalize personal experience, ritual practices in Transparent help to illustrate its characters’ navigation between inner experience and outward behavior. This use of ritual to create that movement between the inside and outside (authorially, emotionally, and textually) is so central to this season that it shapes its entire first episode from the opening scene onward. In the first episode, Soloway’s idiosyncratic characters confront the formulaic expectations built into a wedding ceremony. Such moments prompt particular performances and, by doing so, open windows into the specificity of each character’s emotional development. But more than this, they help to contextualize the characters’ social positions.
During recent decades, scholars have revised their understandings of ritual to move beyond older theories that imagined it as action strictly differentiated from thought, i.e. ritual as distinct from belief. By incorporating performance theory, ritual has been re-imagined more holistically as a form of practice that involves complex interactions between behavior and ideas. From this revised vantage, ritual practice, according to scholar Catherine Bell, serves as a category that “reveals a number of distinct dynamics, both personal and communal, by which people knit together an empowering view of their lives, traditions, communities, and futures.”* Through the transformative interplay between outer expectation and inner response that can unfold in ritual practice, season two of Transparent presents compelling stories of individual and collective life that speak to central questions of identity and social belonging in the twenty-first-century United States.
The character of Maura’s daughter, Sarah Pfefferman, portrayed by Amy Landecker, undergoes particularly telling transformations through her encounters with ritual performance.
The first episode, titled “Kina Hora,” depicts the wedding ceremony for Sarah’s marriage to Tammy Cashman (Melora Hardon). Establishing dramatic tension through a single four-minute take, the episode opens with the Pfefferman family posed for a wedding portrait, all dressed in white on the manicured lawn of a Palm Springs resort. In front of the camera, children complain (“I’m hot”), adults primp (“Did you want my chin up or want my chin down?”), and brides give direction (“Everyone focus!”) until the scrum breaks after the photographer refers to Maura in the male gender (“I think chin up for you, sir.” “Did he call me sir? We’re done.”). Through this group-photo mini-ritual, Soloway presents Sarah’s family as a cacophony of self-interest, a collection of personalities drawn together by family ties, but marked by stark individuality.
The photography session gives way to the wedding ceremony itself. While walking down the aisle, Sarah transitions from the outward context of family performance to an unsettled space of inner conflict. She steps off with a broad smile, crowned by a circlet of flowers, bouquet in hand. After several paces, she shifts her gaze from side to side, taking in the ideal wedding image that surrounds her. By contrast, filmed in slow motion and extreme close-up, Sarah’s facial expression reveals a darkening mood. Anxious and dubious, she approaches the chuppah. Intercut images of Tammy’s wide grin and an irenic rabbi clash with Sarah’s screwed-up face, her expression rocketing between perplexity and rage. The soothing melody of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus,” strummed on acoustic guitar, gives way to disorienting acoustic snippets of the rabbi and Tammy reciting liturgy and vows. The nuptial performance complete, the rabbi shouts, “who thinks we should break some glass?” With bared teeth and stomping feet, the ceremony is complete.
Soloway’s use of visual and aural devices during the ceremony carries the audience into Sarah’s interiority, underscoring her hesitation and confusion in the midst of ritual practice. But the writer carries her audience even further into Sarah’s conflicted ritual experience during the episode’s next scene.
Set at the wedding banquet, the scene reaches its dramatic climax after toasts and cake-cutting, when Sarah disappears into a bathroom down a hallway. Here, the mise en scène exaggerates Sarah’s interiority. Mirrored panels cover the bathroom stalls and give a sense of expansiveness, depth, and limitless reflection beneath high-contrast light and shadow. In this space, Sarah has settled into inner conflict and frozen into a posture of dejection.
At first isolating, the expanse of Sarah’s inward retreat soon populates with her siblings Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and Josh (Jay Duplass) after they leave the party in search of their sister. “Why did you let me marry her?” Sarah gasps at Ali. “I didn’t want to, why did you let me?”
The trio of siblings are joined by Josh’s fiancé Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who also happens to be the rabbi, and Sarah’s breakdown progresses: “I don’t want to be married. I don’t want to be married. Oh my God, I’m fucking stuck with her for the rest of my fucking life! I’m legally bound to that fucking woman. It’s done.” Rabbi Raquel interjects to indicate that she hasn’t yet mailed the required legal documents, and that, while the marriage is complete according to the requirements of Judaism, it is not yet binding legally.
Confused, Ali queries Raquel. “Okay, so what is a wedding, then?” “It’s a ritual,” the rabbi replies, “it’s a pageant. It’s like a very expensive play.” “That’s genius,” says Ali. “It’s a play, and we’re just in costume, and you’re not married,” addressing her sister. Exclaiming relief, Sarah repeats the sentiment. “I’m not married; I’m not married!”
Between the mirrored bathroom stalls, Sarah undertakes a counter-performance through which she negates the ritual practice of the wedding ceremony. Seated on a toilet, not standing beneath a chuppah, she receives acknowledgement of her unmarried status. Even more, this time, rather than exchanging vows with a potential spouse, Sarah questions the bonds of loyalty shared between siblings (“Why did you let me marry her?”).
Through these wedding-day interactions, the audience witnesses especially powerful examples of the experiences that intersect Soloway and her characters’ lives. In the larger narrative context of the series, Transparent depicts the complex and continuing effects of coming out that unfold between transgender parents and their children. As Soloway, her sibling, and her parents each reacted distinctively to the acknowledgement of transgender identity in their family, so do the Pfeffermans each display distinct responses. Through its treatment of one family’s interpersonal dynamics, Transparent explores the ways in which family members develop trust with one another and place limitations on that trust. In this line, Soloway has explained that, after writing much of the show, she realized that
[I]t was about a family that had all secrets and no boundaries, that as they were growing up the secret [of Maura’s gender] stood in for the boundary. What was not known became the boundary. So they were kind of reaching for each other, and they had to reach even harder for each other because of this big unseen elephant…Now that this secret is gone, how do we find our boundaries? How do we know who we are? How do we start to find ourselves without this secret that used to be the boundary?
Following this characterization of the plot, Sarah’s wedding provides a moment of boundary exploration for the Pfeffermans. In the intimacy of lavatorial space, these siblings gather apart from their parents, striving to see their way through crisis, stumbling against mistrust and misplaced loyalty along the way. During this moment, ritual functions as a vehicle for conveying such exploration to the show’s audience by referencing familiar expectations for performance.
In these wedding scenes, Soloway and her actors use ritual performance (the wedding) and its negation (the bathroom) to call into question the emotional demands of marriage, the social roles of wife, parent, and sibling, and constructions of gender and identity more broadly. Sarah’s tortured transit down the wedding aisle and her relief at relinquishing her vows both contest ideal fantasies of bridal bliss and acknowledge anxieties that often accompany wedding and marriage. These experiences signify not only the specificity of Sarah’s or Soloway’s circumstances, but they point to wider skepticism about how the institutions and traditions of marriage place demands on individuals. In Sarah’s searching for boundary and identity in and out of marriage, Soloway offers a parable of contemporary struggles to balance individual authenticity with social expectation. Her use of ritual in Transparent illustrates some of the ways in which, to return to Catherine Bell’s phrase, “people knit together an empowering view of their lives, traditions, communities, and futures” in this second decade of the twenty-first century.
*Catherine Bell, “Performance,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Geoffrey Pollick teaches and researches the history of religion in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, emphasizing Christianity’s entanglements with political radicalism; the role and dimensions of religious liberalism; critical theory of religion; and the cultural history and historiography of the category “religion.” He is currently preparing a book manuscript entitled Between Chautauqua and Washington Square: Liberal Religion and the Lyrical Left, which uncovers a story of development in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Christian thought that moved from perfectionist evangelicalism to extra-ecclesial psychology—shaped in particular through a critique of gender—and that influenced the rhetoric of New York City’s prewar Left.