A fine balance along the Mechitza: navigating privilege, pinkwashing, and Palestinian politics in Transparent’s fourth season

by Jordan Z. Adler

Since its initial broadcast on Amazon Prime in 2014, the television series Transparent has centered in a multifaceted debate related to the representation of queer and trans narratives on the small screen. Much of the rancor has revolved around the decision to cast a cisgender male actor, Jeffrey Tambor, as its protagonist, a transgender woman named Maura. Meanwhile, the narrative of the Emmy-winning comedy-drama series stems from the experiences of its show’s creator, Joey Soloway, whose paternal figure transitioned to a matriarch. To assuage frequent notices of disapproval from LGBTQ+ critics, Soloway employed on the series several transgender men and women as actors, directors, consultants, and creative practitioners. Echoing this conflict as well as Transparent’s commitment to exploring an authentic trans narrative, Tambor concluded his 2016 Emmy speech (for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series) by exclaiming that he “would not be unhappy were [he] the last cisgender male to play a transgender character on television.”

Despite its awards pedigree and vanguard stature as one of the first mainstream U.S. screen narratives about a trans character, Soloway’s series has not always been able to compete with the hefty burden of queer commentary that has consistently undermined the show for its white, upper middle-class perspective. In a mostly praiseworthy article about the series, cinema and media studies scholar Amy Villarejo noted that the show is restrictive in aspects of its representation, writing that the milieu where its main family, the Pfeffermans, reside “is an expansive, expensive, white Los Angeles… in the Pacific Palisades,” referring to a coastal neighborhood known for its wealthy occupants (12). [open works cited page in new tab]

Meanwhile, Transparent is informed more by Jewish customs, characterizations, and identities than queer or trans components. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum once deemed Soloway’s series “the most Jewish show [she had] ever seen on TV” (Rosenberg 77). Transparent also brought a flurry of critical writing about how its trans elements extend from the focus on non-cisgender characters. This includes the show’s odd blending of comedy and pathos: series writer Cate Haight described its tone as “funcomfortable,” which enabled the series to “break from both normative comedy and sitcom genre traditions” (Moss 78). Meanwhile, in her writing on the contemporary queer tragicomedy, English professor Lindsey Kurz expanded on how the show blurs generic lines. Although trauma and personal tragedy are consistent themes throughout Transparent, she writes that “the prevailing tone is comic in that the characters are learning, evolving, and building better lives for themselves outside of heteronormative structures” (92).

As a series that frequently engages with both trans and Jewish matters, Transparent occupies a complex space in the U.S. cultural landscape, especially when it comes to its depiction of progressive queer politics. Joshua Louis Moss writes that transgender identity “becomes safer when performed by screen Jews, the privileged avatars of historical televisual transgression” (76). That tricky relationship to Jewish and sexual politics became a major theme of the show’s fourth season, which arrived on the Amazon Prime streaming platform in September 2017, where the Pfefferman family travels to Israel. In the episodes, the dominant storylines revolve around the social justice-minded Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who grapples with her identity after befriending queer Palestinian women and beginning to feel caught between literal and physical borders, and Maura, who discovers that her father, long perceived to be dead, is alive and living in the Holy Land. Similar to the series’ complicated relationship to queer activist politics, the fourth season of Transparent approached the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that were more radical than anything on mainstream U.S. television, while also, in part, adhering to rigid cultural imaginations surrounding Israel that endorse pro-Zionist positions.

For a comedy about several “wandering Jew” figures trying to solidify their place in the world – spiritually, sexually, emotionally – Transparent uses its season-long sojourn to Israel to provide a sense of salvation, renewal, and even occasional happiness to its neurotic L.A.-based cast of characters. This essay will investigate the Amazon series’ Holy Land tourism in its fourth season, where the majority of the ten episodes are set in Israel and the occupied West Bank. It will critically examine the approaches of its makers to adhere to a current cultural boycott and bring a voice (and face) to queer Palestinian activists resisting the Occupation, while also conforming to aesthetics and themes that are friendly to the State of Israel.

In particular, I will analyze the practice of pinkwashing, a public relations tactic that uses images of LGBTQ-friendly components within Israeli society as a mask to shield the country from criticism about its human rights abuses. In its adoption of an Israeli boycott, originally declared by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in 2004, Transparent mostly avoided filming in the Middle East. Although its makers seamlessly use Southern California as a substitute, the messaging is mixed, as many scenes from the season also glorify Israel as a beacon of spiritual prosperity and a space that evokes belonging for both Jews and Americans.

I also explore the representation of queer activism toward the Israeli Occupation, and how the series uses gay, lesbian, and transgender characters to demonstrate a type of regional resistance that rarely receives exposure in U.S. mass media. Furthermore, the second half will focus mainly on Ali’s storyline. Her conflicted feelings toward the sociopolitical climate in the Middle East reflects the feelings of instability within her body, showing how deftly Transparent intertwines matters related to politics, spirituality and sexual orientation.

Los Angeles plays Israel

The title of the fourth season’s third episode is “Pinkwashing Machine,” although unlike the names of several previous half-hours of Transparent, nobody utters the titular words. The reference could be lost on those unfamiliar with the concept. The term “pinkwashing” was popularized by Sarah Schulman, who outlined her burgeoning solidarity with Palestinian causes and PACBI in her book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, as well as a New York Times editorial. In the journalistic outlet, she defined pinkwashing as

“a deliberate strategy [by Israel and its supporters] to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life” (New York Times).

In spite of that column’s widespread circulation, Schulman considered her political crusade to bring attention to Israel’s occupation largely unsuccessful, citing the numerous occasions of criticism and censorship toward those who oppose U.S. policy on Israel (89). One recent instance of this opprobrium involved CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who the cable news channel fired in November 2018 after comments he made during a speech at the United Nations were characterized as “anti-Israel.”

Pinkwashing is closely associated with the concept of “hasbara,” the Hebrew word for “explaining,” which refers to information disseminated by Israel, mainly for Western audiences, to create an appealing picture of the Holy Land. In these efforts to “re-brand” Israel as a liberal democracy that is sympathetic to LGBTQ rights, queerness

“is used as an ideological tool… that serves to portray Israel as modern, progressive, and pro-gay (in other words, Western) in the face of an Arab Muslim enemy said to be religious, barbaric, regressive, integrally homophobic” (Moussa 13-14).

Intellectuals like Judith Butler, moreover, have criticized claims put forward by hasbara PR efforts that Israel is a safer space for queer Palestinians than Palestine (Moussa 15).

Schulman’s stature within the American LGBTQ arts and culture scene – she is a playwright, screenwriter, and co-founder of New York’s MIX Festival, which screens experimental queer works – provided her a platform to help influence the production of Transparent’s fourth season. As Soloway revealed in their recent memoir, She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, a letter signed by Schulman and other artists sympathetic to Palestinian human rights convinced the show’s producers not to film in Israel. Soloway explained that the activists

“made me see how the otherization inherent in the moral arguments for the occupation matches how patriarchy and white supremacy operate. Traveling to Israel and spending money there would have been seen by our queer siblings in the interconnected liberation movements as crossing the boycott, and we just couldn’t do that” (196).

As Schulman wrote in October 2018, the effort to convince Transparent’s production team to film outside of Israel took three months, and the conversations included activists from the left-wing anti-Zionist group Jewish Voices for Peace as well as Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (Mondoweiss). Several of the series’ producers went to Israel to scout locations before writing the fourth season, according to production designer Cat Smith, but the crews ended up filming in Southern California (Liebman). The one concession Schulman has with the production is that Soloway and their crew filmed B-roll and cutaways in Israel and the occupied West Bank, contrary to her suggestion to use available archival footage of the Holy Land (Mondoweiss).

Another integral voice that ensured the season did not benefit the Israeli economy was Shay Roman, an associate producer of Transparent and a member of IfNotNow, an American Jewish anti-Occupation organization. IfNotNow’s advocacy aims can be linked with the dilemmas inherent to Ali’s journey in the fourth season. The “Pinkwashing Machine” episode features strongly voiced opinions about the cultural boycott. Ali’s love interest, a black queer activist named Lyfe (Folake Olowofoyeku), convinces the youngest Pfefferman sibling to travel with her to Ramallah, citing the boycott as the reason she does not want to spend money in Israel.

At dusk, the activists answer several of Ali’s questions about life in the West Bank, including the indignities of travelling through a security checkpoint. A compassionate, if somewhat naïve Ali gets an education about the Israeli Occupation.

On a farm in Ramallah later in the episode, where Ali feasts on the local cuisine with a multiracial group of Palestinian and Israeli activists in their twenties and thirties, the American inquires if any of them ever break the boycott to consume delicious Israeli treats. (The reply: “Only when we’re drunk.”) In that conversation, a minor character expresses that there are reasons to break the boycott, explaining that there is a need to purchase tomatoes (such as the ones present at their meal) in Israel because “you can’t get Palestinian tomatoes,” a reference to Israel’s stronghold over prosperous regional farmland. Meanwhile, the articulation of how numerous characters within these episodes who identify as queer are also anti-Occupation activists speaks toward the intersectional relationship between these shared struggles.

Although the balmy climate of Southern California stands in for Israel during Transparent’s production, this posing and substitution has an unintended side effect: the U.S. characters in Transparent continually refer to the State of Israel through its commonalities with the United States. The geographical similarities between that country and Southern California, with their warm weather and mountainous topography, create an instability during establishing shots – especially when the series intercuts between plots in the Middle East and Los Angeles. Those parallels between the urban spaces infer that the city upon the shore of the Mediterranean (Tel Aviv) echoes the bustling beachside space of the city gazing out to the Pacific Ocean (Los Angeles).

A view of the Mediterranean Sea from Moshe’s seaside home. This scene was actually filmed near the Pacific Ocean. The Pfefferman family arrives on an Israeli settlement, but the buildings and the mountains recall Southern California.

As Israeli author Nir Cohen explains, there is an aspiration for Tel Aviv “to represent progress, modernity, and secularism, as well as an affinity with the West” (28). In Cohen’s book on gay representation in Israeli cinema, he elaborates on Tel Aviv’s symbol as a space where otherness and queer culture can flourish – qualities that closely intersect with Los Angeles’ reputation as a haven for LGBTQ narratives, such as Transparent and the critically-acclaimed 2015 film Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker (29-30). One of the most popular contemporary Israeli films, Eytan Fox’s gay-friendly, Tel Aviv-set The Bubble (2006), has a title that refers to the coastal city’s insularity from the effects of war and a more stringent religious Judaism. Tel Aviv works as a central meeting ground for the Pfeffermans in the fourth season, as, akin to that city, the show’s subjects are not religiously observant. That secularity is communicated with one of Maura’s first lines in Tel Aviv during “Pinkwashing Machine,” where she exclaims that there are “not as many yarmulkes as you may think,” referring to the skullcaps worn by religious Jews.