Last week, Transparent, Jill Soloway's beautiful show for Amazon, made its Canadian debut through the streaming service Shomi, and quickly became its most-watched series. The show has been praised as a sophisticated family drama and a "gender-studies utopian experiment," as The New York Times Magazine put it: great television, an event for transgender visibility in the mainstream and a bellwether for a more inclusive understanding of gender and sexuality more generally.
The show's protagonist is 68-year-old Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), who has recently come out as transgender to her three adult kids: Ali (Gaby Hoffman), who is in her 30s but still "finding herself" on Maura's dime; Josh (Jay Duplass), a successful, but self-involved music producer; and Sarah (Amy Landecker), the eldest, a stay-at-home mom who leaves her wealthy husband, Len, for her college girlfriend, Tammy, after running into her at the school their kids attend.
All three kids are likeable but highly selfish, confused about their own identities and Maura's; they often lack insight, and they sometimes do awful things. But what makes Transparent a great show, and not just a show with a great message, is empathy, even for those in the wrong. Being right is less important than being reflective and adaptable, as a certain New York Magazine writer – on whom more soon – might consider.
In one of the show's most riveting scenes, Len arrives at Maura's house during Shabbat dinner to pick up the kids. Until now, he's known Maura as "Mort," and he hasn't yet confronted Tammy; the conversation is terse, until Sarah remarks on his tone, which sends him into a tailspin. "Would you ladies be more comfortable if you all lived on an all-female planet?" he spits, in a "lady" voice. "Maybe you could sail off in a uterus-shaped spaceship!" He picks up a knife. "Maybe I could cut my dick off. Maybe that would make it easier for everyone. I could be a girl, too!"
The room erupts, until Maura stands up and pounds the table. "This is my family," she says. "Leonard, I am so sorry. … Honey, I should have taken you out to lunch and we should have talked." She speaks to him with compassion, but gets to the point: "I'm just a person, and you're just a person, and here we are. And baby, you need to get in this whirlpool, or you need to get out of it." Len might be a stand-in for the old guard – the straight, cisgender man, facing a new world in which his identity is no longer supreme – but he isn't made an example of. A look of remorse crosses his face, and he later makes a genuine apology. The message is pointed, but humane: It's okay to be confused, but not to be obdurate.
Another stand-in for the old guard against a new world might be Jonathan Chait, the New York Magazine writer and former New Republic editor who this week published a long essay about the resurgence of political correctness. An attitude once largely confined to academia, he writes, has now spilled out across social media, and he considers it oppressive: "Large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness."
The essay was not well received online. Chait diagnosed its biggest flaw himself, though he framed it defensively. "I am white and male. … If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there's not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible." His white maleness alone doesn't invalidate his arguments, but it does stunt his perspective.
Chait complains that, by the dictates of PC discourse, "if you are accused of bias, or 'called out,' reflection and apology are the only acceptable response," as though that's unreasonable. He doesn't consider that bias is usually invisible to those who hold it – hence the need for reflection – or that being white, male and cisgender might make the world seem rosier and more fair than it does to most everyone else. "There is no allowance in PC culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous," he continues, which is at best an awkward way to think about basic decency: Chait seems to think of inclusivity as a political position, rather than a matter of being considerate. If someone tells you they were hurt by your remark, the "correct" response isn't to dispute that it was hurtful, but to try to understand why.
It's not that Chait doesn't make some good points. The outrage cycle is, as he puts it, exhausting, and tends to make issues out of bizarre minutiae such as "manspreading" on public transit. It is difficult to converse over social media: People get angrier faster, which tends to scare dissenters silent, and it's hard, though not impossible, to present nuance on Twitter, which has a tendency to crush its users into disembodied yelps.
Online interactions can mute the human factor, whereas talking to people requires actual empathy: considering how they feel, what they've been through, what the world is like for them. Ironically, empathy is exactly what Chait's essay lacks; more reflection would really have helped. That said, if Chait reflects on the criticism it has earned, this whole saga will have been productive, and Chait will seem only human. Confused and flawed, the way we all are, but working to get better, which is what we should all aspire to.
Which gets back to Transparent, and what makes it so powerful. The series deals with an issue of interest to the "politically correct," but issues are about people. Maura's character has a soul, and her family, despite its faults, is an emotional ecosystem. The show doesn't excuse anyone, but it doesn't vilify anyone, either, and it's more resonant for declining to moralize: We can see ourselves in any one of its characters, none of whom is perfect (not even Maura, although she comes closest), but all of whom are trying.