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.

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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.

Postscript: Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No, penned by Maibaum/Mankowitz and directed by Terrence Young, laid the foundation for the James Bond franchise. Yet, in retrospect, the movie does not feel part of the franchise. As the Ur-Bond, it lacks the familiar formula of the subsequent entries. There is an opening title sequence, but it does not carry the punch of Monty Norman’s iconic score. Ken Adams’ production design is impressive yet the low $1 million budget shows through the seams. And the script owes much more to a traditional spy thriller than the action-driven spectacle the series would craft into a global brand.

Dr. No almost feels like a series prologue, an introductory chapter. It is easy to glance over, but crucial to know for what comes next. While it merely teases many of the future conventions of Bond, it also created long-lasting snapshots of the series’ famous iconography. One of them is the image of Ursula Andress emerging out of the water, dressed to kill. The producers would later pay homage to this timeless scene in Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002) and Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). Continue reading “Postscript: Dr. No (1962)” »

Blog 002: Dr. No (1962)

Note: Given that this is the first of my reviews, each blog post will cover the following: plot synopsis (spoiler-free) as well as my impressions of the pre-title sequence, music, characters, gadgets, stunts and special effects.

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I was eleven when I saw Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), the first of the long-running James Bond franchise from Eon Productions.

To eleven-year-old me, Dr. No felt ancient. The music was pretty corny (the score is arguably the worst of the Bond franchise, even if the iconic “James Bond Theme” plays at every conceivable moment); the performances mostly over-the-top (so much dubbing!); and the pacing pretty slow. However, I still enjoyed the experience. And I did again upon my recent rewatch. Continue reading “Blog 002: Dr. No (1962)” »

Film Analysis: “The Midnight After”

The story of the film was adopted from an internet novel, “Lost on a Red Mini Bus to Tai Po”, circulated in 2012 in one of the hottest internet platform in Hong Kong names, “Golden Discussion Forum”.  The film “Midnight after” was released in 2014 and was nominated for several Hong Kong Academy Awards and was selected in the Panorama section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.  Although the story was based on the novel, the film Director, Fruit Chan, had treated the film in his own way by adding new symbolisms and metaphors.  The story started by depicting a minibus departed from Mongkok, a downtown area in Hong Kong.  The minibus’ destination was Taipo, a suburb area.  The minibus communed from Kowloon, city area, to the New Territories, suburb, via the Lion Rock Tunnel.  After passing the Lion Rock Tunnel, all the people in the minibus lost contact with other people in Hong Kong and later discovered that Hong Kong has entered a doomsday scenario where all the population was gone except the people inside that particular minibus.  In the film, it seemed only the 17 people inside the mini-bus (including the driver, grass root worker, university students, young working class, ordinary couple, fortune-teller, middle age man, computer genius & otaku representing exaggerated versions of Hong Kong’s varied Chinese populace belonging to a variety of occupation and social classes) were alive while the whole Hong Kong population vanished.  Continue reading “Film Analysis: “The Midnight After”” »

TV Review: “Masters of Sex” Season 1

In this Showtime series loosely based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Michael Sheen stars as Dr. Masters, who in the season premiere fires his current secretary (Margo Martindale) to search for one who won’t be offended or put off by the nature of the research he’s about to undertake.  He ultimately winds up hiring Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), an ambitious, twice-divorced mother of two and former lounge singer.  Though he almost fires her in an early episode over a misunderstanding, she ultimately proves indispensable to his research, is promoted to Research Assistant (even though we eventually learn that the hospital doesn’t consider her qualified for such a position and that Masters has to largely pay her salary with his own money), and, in the season finale, is even listed as co-researcher on the study that results. Continue reading “TV Review: “Masters of Sex” Season 1” »

Film Review: “More Is, More Ain’t” – Emotion vs. Intellect in 12 YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave is clearly a must-see film for every American, especially young people and slavery romanticizers of all ages, to inform/enlighten the ignorant and factually resistant to the unspeakable horror, suffering, and injustice inflicted on African Americans, and of the prolonged damage—materially and psychologically—this national Original Sin has bequeathed to Blacks and non-Blacks alike. Continue reading “Film Review: “More Is, More Ain’t” – Emotion vs. Intellect in 12 YEARS A SLAVE” »