Genre-bending the Jewish Mother in Transparent

Jill Soloway’s Amazon-streaming series Transparent (2014-) has been roundly praised for its bold portrayal of sexuality in all its polymorphous complexity, beginning with its titular trans-parent Mort/Maura (a.k.a “Moppa,” brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor). The series can now add to its accolades a bravura Season 3 finale that expands not only this singular dramedy’s progressive parameters but those of Jewish media representation altogether.

An important corollary to the series gender-bending premise, elaborated in a Season 2 flashback strand, is Maura’s side of the family’s Holocaust survival background and intimate connection to Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering sexual experimentation in Weimar-era Berlin. Less attention has been paid, in the series and discourse surrounding it, to the straightest, and most Jewish, member of the Pfefferman family, Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (brilliantly played by the non-Jewish Judith Light). Season 3 redresses that elision with a bang.

Few characters in postmodern American culture have been treated with more unmitigated scorn than the Jewish Mother. A product of rampant Jewish assimilation in the post-World War II period and popularized by Jewish male writers, notably Herman Wouk, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen, the Jewish Mother became the prime repository of proverbial Jewish angst and guilt melded with postwar American acquisitiveness. Her character was invariably scapegoated as gratingly loud and obnoxiously clingy, as excessively coddling her sons, and as squelching all her children’s creative aspirations in a relentless push for material success and social status. This coarse construction, however, was a gross transmogrification of the previous generation’s more sympathetic maternal archetype, the Yiddishe Momme: a recent European immigrant whose overbearing concern for her American-born progeny was leavened with Old World warmth and nurturance. The difference between the two types, and paradigm shift from one to the other, is emblematically displayed in the chief matriarchs of two unrelated but like-titled sitcoms, The Goldbergs: the earlier, 1949-56 show (based on a prewar radio series) features a classic Yiddishe Momme, Molly Goldberg (played by the show’s creator, Gertude Berg); the ongoing show (2013-) features a stereotypical Jewish Mother, Beverly Goldberg (played by the non-Jewish Wendi McLendon-Covey).

Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman, up to the third-season finale, is only a few degrees shy of the standard Jewish Mother caricature: nasal voice, noodgy manner, material concerns, immature adult children (for which hyper-self-obsessed Maura clearly shares the blame). The grist for the miraculous shift in Shelly’s persona achieved in the finale is subtly suggested in an earlier flashback episode, which shows how the performative chops she possessed as a young girl were stunted by her sexual molestation by a school teacher.

In the season finale, after a break-up with her post-Maura partner Buzz (Richard Masur), Shelly takes Maura and the children on a Passover-period ocean cruise. She had hoped the vacation and confined setting might help bring the emotionally and physically fragmented Pfeffermans together, but the Vegas Strip-like ambience of the cruise ship only fissures the family further. Shelly’s uniquely alienated status is emphasized in her being given a room a deck above the others’ cabins, though the separation is cushioned by the luxuriousness of her suite and a personal valet (Tom Lenk)—“the the gay who comes with the room.” With Trevor’s encouragement, and piano accompaniment, Shelly plans a performance in the cruise ship’s night club of the one-woman show, titled “To Shell and Back,” initially inspired and co-produced by Buzz but now revised to reflect something more personal, and profound.

The build-up to the performance is crucial. At a makeshift Pfefferman Seder, a last-ditch effort at family reconciliation that only underscores their dysfunction, Shelly expresses her own special sense of dislocation—one that resonates, as odd woman out, with the series’ history and  the Jewish Mother writ large. “I’m not at home in this family,” she begins her harangue, and ends with a request that they at least try to attend her show that evening: “If you want to hear my story, I want my story to be heard by you.”

And it’s a doozy. A far cry from the soppy, slapdash version of “To Shell and Back” she performed in earlier episodes, this version is poignant, perceptive, and fully realized, giving us an entirely new (and radically improved) impression of Shelly. She begins with a spoken prologue that references her childhood molestation—“Something happened to me that made me forget who I really was; I stopped growing in every sense of the word”—and links her traumatic experience to Maura’s transgender identity—“I have always been drawn to men who wanted to live in the darkness of a secret.”

Then comes the song. Its refrain combines hand gestures with an ambivalent but ultimately triumphant message: “I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one giving . . . a high five!” The upshot, similar to Maura, who was forced to forego sex reassignment surgery because of a heart condition and who exchanged tight-fitting feminine shapewear on the cruise for hang-loose unisex attire, is that Shelly has finally come out of her—and the Jewish Mother’s—shell. Moreover, in the realization that Maura is not the only member of the Pfefferman family to undergo trans-parenting, her coming out enables ours as well, through a keener appreciation of the damage wrought by demeaning stereotypes—to victim and perpetrator alike.

—————————————————————————————————

Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA and Cal-State LA and has written or edited eight books, most recently From Shtetl to Stardom: Jews and Hollywood.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Trolls: 2016’s Ghostbusters and the Online Response

1

Ghostbusters (2016, Sony)

My ties to the newest installment in the Ghostbusters franchise run deeper than an affinity for the paranormal or the fact that Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song is on my running playlist. In fact, I worked as both an on-set production assistant on and an actor in the 2016 reboot. Before that experience, I grew up admiring the original films. But when it comes to fan-favorite franchises, everyone has a personal narrative of experience.

Living in an age of social media, filmmakers know that Internet comments sections can be dangerous. However, the release of promotional material for 2016’s Ghostbusters has prompted an unforeseen outburst of opposition. In addition to the first trailer breaking records for most-disliked trailer on YouTube, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become breeding grounds for hateful remarks under the protection of online anonymity. Continue reading “I Ain’t Afraid of No Trolls: 2016’s Ghostbusters and the Online Response” »

Postscript: From Russia with Love (1963)

From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963) is a more suspenseful and aggressive movie than Dr. No. Its plot is more complex and convoluted. It plays with the convention, rather than cementing it. And, yet, it ranks as one of the best entries in the overall series. It is a cool and suave spy thriller, self-deprecating at times, reassured in every scene. While it does not yet have the grandeur of some of the future movies, especially in terms of location shots, its scale is ambitious and appropriate. Connery, I dare say, has never been better. His performance expertly captures Ian Fleming’s spirit of Bond, while filling every frame with a dash of ironic confidence that grounds the film. This balance of human depth and pulp storytelling carries through the entire movie. It is a roller coaster ride at a small-town fair, incredibly fun, yet edgy and intimidating. Continue reading “Postscript: From Russia with Love (1963)” »

What’s Really Missing in “Gone Girl”

Judith Butler may have famously said that gender is performed, but what Gone Girl tackles so emphatically is that, these days, almost everything is performed, but most especially and most oppressively, femininity. It is not merely that modern day women are expected to look good, but that they are expected to be cupcake-baking, soccer-game-cheering mothers while also being suit-wearing, boardroom-leading businesswomen. Women are expected to do everything and look good doing it—and, worst of all, they are supposed to make it look easy. Continue reading “What’s Really Missing in “Gone Girl”” »

On “Gone Girl”’s Margins and the Dissonance of Economic Crisis

Note: This article is written based on one viewing of the film Gone Girl (2014), and it contains spoilers of both the book and the film. Commenters are welcome to contribute to this conversation with their own observations or, if the case may be, correct observations that I have remembered incorrectly.

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s new film, Gone Girl, has already produced fervent discourse about its gender politics. Its depiction of men and women doing terrible things to each other has garnered critiques of misogyny (a friend scathingly called it a poster child for Men’s Rights Activist paranoia) and misanthropy. It’s arguably one of Fincher’s bleakest—and oddly, funniest—movies, one that revels in the nastiness of relationships gone awry. Continue reading “On “Gone Girl”’s Margins and the Dissonance of Economic Crisis” »

Rabbis Get the Short End of the Shtick in “This Is Where I Leave You”

“This is 2014!” sister Wendy Altman (Tina Fey) admonishes brother Judd (Jason Bateman), when Judd thoughtlessly starts to light up in the car in the dramedy This Is Where I Leave You. A similar chronological admonition could be directed at Shawn Levy’s adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s novel, whose conspicuously post-Jewish consciousness is betrayed by a rabbinic blind spot. Continue reading “Rabbis Get the Short End of the Shtick in “This Is Where I Leave You”” »