"Transparent" tells the truth about being a mom: Motherhood is just as performative as gender

Jill Soloway's groundbreaking series explores how motherhood is a role played for audiences, big and small

Published December 20, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

  (Amazon Studios)
(Amazon Studios)

Note: Many, many spoilers ahead for major and minor plot points of Season 2 of "Transparent." 

This latest season of Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” is another deep dive into gender, sex, family, friendship, spirituality, feminism and parenthood, among other things — which is incredible to think about, in and of itself. Of all the especially difficult scenes to watch, there seems to be a general consensus that Josh’s turning away from Colton ranks pretty high on the list, along with the ultrasound scene he shares with Rabbi Raquel. There’s the terror in the ‘30s Berlin scene when Gittel is arrested by Nazis, Tammy’s drunken pool party meltdown and basically every scene with Leslie and her red-headed girlfriend (who, for the record, did not look a day over 16, although they claimed she was 21). Fans and critics will all have that one scene every season that sticks to their guts, and this time around mine is—at least now—Shelly weeping and gnashing her teeth at the Yom Kippur breaking-the-fast feast. The sounds of Judith Light's moaning after Josh’s devastating announcement still rings clearly in my ears, and the anger I felt toward the character in that moment speaks to the strengths of Light's performance and the series itself. But Shelly’s selfish breakdown was more than just infuriating; it was one of the show’s strongest depictions of the art of motherhood, in all its performative and socially constructed glory.

This scene from episode seven is big—the culmination of so much else that’s happened—but “Transparent” is also filled with all sorts of important, small moments where we get to see mothers actively performing a role that many still believe women are born knowing how to fill — a misconception Soloway's characters push against.

Last season, we were introduced to Maura and Shelly's daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) as she filled her kids’ bento boxes up for their school lunches. It’s a small moment that was clearly intentional, as it’s one of the first things Sarah brings up in this season when she’s trying to explain to a life coach how controlling she used to be. “I used to have the perfect house, the perfect marriage and these little kids’ aluminum bento boxes,” she says. For Sarah, part of her performance as a mother meant all of these things. And she believes that because she’s rid herself of some of that behavior—of this one type of performance—she’s better for it.

But performing motherhood is more complicated than that. The reality is that she just put her children through quite a trauma after her affair with and then botched wedding to Tammy. Immediately after setting up a custody arrangement with her ex-husband Lem, Sarah shows up unannounced during his time with the kids because she’s not sure what to do with herself. She feels isolated by the moms at their school, and she’s convinced that everyone, including that life coach, is judging her. These feelings do not necessarily reflect reality, but instead speak more to an inner and self-centered fear that her performance as a mother—not her parenting skills themselves—are under constant critique and attack. She’s been dressing up for the last few years as a good mom, though deep down she was dealing with certain misery (or just plain old-fashioned boredom—we’re not entirely sure), in the same way that Maura was dressing up as a man her whole life. Now that Sarah can’t put on that outfit anymore, she’s not sure what to wear.

And although it seems like Sarah's struggle throughout this season, particularly the trouble she has finding a sexual partner who can fulfill her fantasies (hilariously inspired by her old high school disciplinarian), is separate from her life as a mother, the connection between these various worlds is made during episode nine (the incredible “Man on the Land”), when she goes to the Idylwild Wimmin's Music Festival. She’s captivated by women performing various BDSM acts, but can't bring herself to participate until she runs into another mother at the event. The woman tells her, in so many words, that the performance she’s been putting on—the sad, post-Tammy, post-post-Lem Sarah who can’t find her place in the world—needs to stop. “Nobody cares,” she declares, speaking for all of the other moms Sarah has convinced herself are out to get her. Upon hearing these words and being chastised in a way for her own arrogance, she promptly finds the BDSM crew and gets spanked. The release the other mother gave her from the performative aspects of motherhood that she’d taken on—her own cross to bear, in a way—simultaneously freed Sarah to pursue the sexual release she was seeking as well. And finding that balance changes the way she interacts with Lem in a later scene. We don’t see her with the children, but the message is there all the same—she’s worked out things in herself enough so that she’ll likely function as a better parent going forward.

Sarah’s journey deals with the very difficult process of letting go. Another mother has to do the same this season, though it’s a different scenario. In an episode eight flashback to Berlin, the scene of Maura's grandmother Yetta (Michaela Watkins) melting chocolate, then baking family jewelry into the chocolate, is juxtaposed against scenes of another performance—the Adam & Eve production by the trans family her daughter seems to have chosen over her. This baking process—shot beautifully, as so many of the Berlin scenes are—shows us another side to the same woman we saw earlier being somewhat vicious to her children. In including the ring Gittel gave Rose, she is working to preserve a certain legacy which she will carry to America. Like Virginia Woolf before her, Jill Soloway has taken the common image of a woman in the kitchen, an act with mostly feminine associations, and made it so much more than a performance of gender. History and understanding are tied up in this small moment—but it also makes you wonder if the anger she’d directed at her children before was the “real” Yetta.

In previous scenes she performs a certain style of angry mom, exploding when she hears Gittel say that she’s not coming to America. Yetta storms into the office of the man she believes has ruined her child—the man she tells herself is responsible for Gittel transitioning—and after accusing him of starting a “sex circus” or a “sex religion” (she’s not sure which), she hands over Gittel’s visa. She lets go literally and figuratively, and in this moment Yetta seems to be performing the least. No longer interested in playing the disapproving mother, or resisting the inevitable, she leaves her child in the care of someone Gittel trusts. Of course, in typical “Transparent,” fashion, it’s not all wrapped up so neatly. Before she leaves Gittel, presumably forever, she says, “If you’re gonna be a girl, cover your tits.” It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest Yetta will probably come to acceptance, and there’s something beautiful about the moment.

For the Pfefferman matriarch Shelly, acceptance of her children is not the issue. In Shelly’s performance of motherhood, she is something like a God—a being who can construct the past as she sees fit and affect the future, for better or worse. We saw hints of this in season one, but even more so in season two’s “Bulnerable,” when she chastises Josh for the questions he had about his child and his parents’ decision to keep the baby a secret.

“You think I was so terrible? I didn’t beat you,” she declares. It’s important to Shelly that her kids understand how much she sacrificed for them, and how every decision she made was for their own good—but this is all a part of her own “good mom” performance. Sarah had her bento boxes, Yetta had her disapproving stares and quips, and Shelly’s got the long-suffering mom thing down to a T. Later, she delivers another perfect one-liner when Sarah (interrupted while in the midst of a sexual tryst) asks why she bothers volunteering to babysit, when in actuality, she hates watching the kids: “Because all my friends do it for their grandkids.” Like the other mothers on the show, Shelly knows there are things a good mom (or grandmom) is supposed to do. And in episode seven, “The Book of Life,” we see that for Shelly, performing grief is on that list as well.

Josh tells the family and their guests at the break-the-fast feast that Raquel suffered a miscarriage, and somehow the entire scene becomes about Shelly, who takes full responsibility for the tragedy. It’s all her fault. She’d bragged about Raquel’s pregnancy at Sarah’s wedding and forget to say kina hora.

“I brought out the evil eye and I killed the baby!” she moans. Like many of the great scenes this season, there’s a lot that’s wrapped up in this moment, but it’s especially infuriating because we know Shelly’s grief is partly—and perhaps mostly— performative. All it takes is a few words from her new boyfriend to calm her down and absolve her, and she’s back to her normal self. Her moans and cries aren’t rooted in grief, but in the peculiar aspect of motherhood which requires moms to take the responsibility and the blame for all things related to their children—every win and every loss. The Pfefferman children are used to this with Shelly, but in the case of Raquel’s miscarriage, it just feels so wrong—because it is.

But right and wrong are, of course, complicated notions, especially under Soloway’s lens. After Shelly calms down, she confesses, “I’m always afraid I’m gonna die, I’m always afraid I’m gonna make someone else die.” Just like any good performance, there’s something real underneath all that noise she’s making: It's fear. And in this she’s certainly not alone. Fear informs the actions of many of the “Transparent” characters, and it plays a huge role in the decisions made by those mothers we see performing their roles.

In a tender moment from episode eight, yoga instructor Shea tells Maura, “You’re such a good ‘mom’.” You can actually hear the quotes around the word “mom.” She is, on the one hand, acknowledging that Maura is only just now a “mom” (though she’s been called “Moppa” since season one), and also that Maura is not her mom. But her phrasing also points to the fact that women who were born women are also “moms” in quotes, insomuch as “mom” is performative. To invoke Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born a mother, anymore than one is born a woman.

“Transparent” is a show that asks us to re-consider all of these categories and the emotional highs and lows that come with them. What’s so brilliant about the series is that it does all of this and still feels more like a comedy than a drama, much of the time. Hilarious moments abound in all of the aforementioned scenes, like Gittel mouthing the words “Mom’s here” to her sister, when Yetta shows up at the end of the production; Shelly staring at Buzz and saying, “You drive at night?!” after her meltdown; Sarah paying for her BDSM sessions with the convenience of a Square credit card reader. Soloway is not ham-fistedly working the comedy into these big social issues, but rather, highlighting the inherent humor in them all. Make no mistake—Soloway is out to topple the patriarchy. But she’s doing it as a storyteller, which means the performative is no less significant than what we call “real”—it informs the real, and vice versa. Or, as poet Eileen Myles noted, in a conversation about her partner’s amazing series, “Part of it is just the fiction of being alive. Every step, you’re making up who you are.”

That motherhood is as performative as gender doesn’t make either concept less interesting, or less real. What it does, is make it all great fodder for TV, especially if this very masculine golden age is going to be toppled by the feminist gaze.

By Shannon M. Houston

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor and a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter @shannonmhouston

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Amazon Family Jill Soloway Motherhood Parenting Relationships Transparent Tv