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.

Postscript: Thunderball (1965)

The jetpack. It is what Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965) is most famous for. Bond straps on the rocket-powered device during the pre-credits sequence. Like many Bond stunts, this one is real. Conceptually, it is spectacular. Cinematically, it lacks vigor. It feels ill-conceived. It feels ill-framed. And it feels oddly powerless. It is telling that Thunderball is frequently reduced to this scene. The remainder of the movie does not offer a lot of memorable moments. Rewatching Thunderball, I came to realize that it is long, way too long. The plot is meandering and it does not have enough filler action scenes. Notwithstanding its big-budget grandeur (the Ken Adam sets rank among the most impressive in the series), the movie does not distinguish itself within the crowded action genre and the overall Bond franchise. Continue reading “Postscript: Thunderball (1965)” »

Blog 005: Thunderball (1965)

I can’t believe how much I used to like the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965). The extensive listing of extras (especially the then-ubiquitous “collectible” booklet) made it the first “classic” Bond film I acquired on DVD after Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), and it was also the first 007 soundtrack I purchased when they were remastered and rereleased in 2003. Watching it for this review, I found the movie incredibly boring and the music equally boring. At least I fared better in my viewing than my girlfriend, who struggled to make it to the end. Continue reading “Blog 005: Thunderball (1965)” »

Postscript: Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) is classic Bond. It is rightfully considered one of the best entries in the franchise. Its timelessness mainly derives from its status as the Bond prototype. Goldfinger is formula. It is fan scripture. As such, it runs like clockwork. Bond scholars and fans see it as the engine that fuels the year-long franchise. From the brilliant pre-credits to Shirley Bassey’s song to the explosive finale at Fort Knox, Goldfinger programs the Bond code to the most minute detail – perfectly illustrated in the close-up of the final bomb counter 0:07. This is franchise style at its best, programmed for the fan. Continue reading “Postscript: Goldfinger (1964)” »

Blog 004: Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) remains the Platonic ideal of the original James Bond films (from Dr. No [Terence Young, 1962) through Die Another Day [Lee Tamahori, 2002] before the series rebooted with Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006]). It might not be my favorite installment, but it refines the elements from the first two films to such an extent that it presented a template that many of its successors would follow.

Compared to that of From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963), Goldfinger’s plot is quite simple and was one that I understood easily as a kid. Bond (Sean Connery) must stop Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), whose ties to SPECTRE are suggested through his ring that bears the organization’s octopus logo, from radiating the gold supply at Fort Knox. Continue reading “Blog 004: Goldfinger (1964)” »

Blog 003: From Russia with Love (1963)

Ah, From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963). This is one that I remember learning as a kid that a lot of Bond aficionados adored, and while I could understand why some people might feel that way, the movie just never clicked with me. And it still doesn’t as much I thought it would upon rewatching it. Furthermore, my girlfriend – my viewing partner for this series of reviews – had a tough time getting into this one, so much so that she fell asleep at one point.

When I watched this movie years ago, I found the plot a bit confusing. Watching it now, it’s actually nowhere near as complicated as I remember, as James Bond (Sean Connery) has to apprehend a Soviet Lektor decoding machine but is actually being set up by SPECTRE (the evil organization introduced in Dr. No [Terence Young, 1962]). In fact, From Russia With Love’s plot establishes a formula that would be repeated in several future Bond films in which different intelligence agencies race to retrieve a Macguffin (such as the ATAC in For Your Eyes Only [John Glen, 1981] and the GPS encoder in Tomorrow Never Dies [Roger Spottiswoode, 1997]). Continue reading “Blog 003: From Russia with Love (1963)” »