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Eating Identity: Gender, Religion, and Food in Transparent


Throughout Transparent, food plays a subtle but crucial role in showrunner Jill
Soloways approach to two of her series major topics: gender and Judaism. Time and time again,
Sarah, Ali, Josh, and Maura Pfefferman overeat, eat bizarre meals, or otherwise deviate from
their normal dietary patterns in reaction to disruptions in their lives. Soloways use of food is
particularly noteworthy given its significance to both gendered and Jewish identity. As I will
show, food contributes to the definition and reification of cultural conceptions of both femininity
and Jewishness. These two aspects of identity become all the more significant when understood
in conjunction with the history of Judaisms relationship with gender fluidity. As the Pfeffermans
eat their way through three seasons of TV, their dietary habits and preconceptions about others
food and drink choices capture their realizations and embraces of the inadequacies of binary
conceptions of identity. The one Pfefferman in the main cast whose arc is not represented in this
way, Shelly, generally does not receive attention to her motivations and desires comparable to
that paid to her children or ex-spouse. I will argue that the Pfeffermans interactions with food
illustrate the characters transitions away from binaries and towards a queering of normative
identities, thereby epitomizing Soloways interrogation of sexual and religious norms.
The role of food in this interrogation becomes particularly important when considered in
the context of foods part in societal constructs of gender. Susan Bordo describes the symbolic
potency of female hunger as a cultural metaphor for unleashed female power and desire
throughout a range of discourses (116). Soloway harnesses this potency in showing her female
characters gorging themselves, releasing the power they usually cannot. Joan Jacobs Brumberg
notes the particular restrictions around eating faced by middle-class women in Victorian-era
England, for whom societys standards did not accord with the bodily functions associated with

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digestion (178). Although the financially fortunate Pfefferman women are far removed
logistically from 19th century Britain, they deal with perhaps similar expectations, once again
imposed on women of a certain economic class.
Similar to the situation with gender, food also has a defining role in cultural conceptions
of Jewishness. This role dates back to antiquity, as Veronika Grimm notes, since the dietary laws
in the Old Testament intrinsically separated observant Jews from others (15). According to Ori Z.
Soltes, food links the practical reality of being Jewish with the mandates of Scripture: Not only
ethereal candlelight, but sweet-tasting wine and sweet-smelling spices, bitter and sweet herbs and
the flat matzo of Passover; all contribute to the sensual engagement that makes the abstraction of
the covenant and its history somehow more concrete and more current (40). For Jonathan D.
Brumberg Kraus, Any self-consciously Jewish meal, however broadly one defines Jewish, is,
in a sense, a feast of history, (298). Krauss words echo the historical scope of the second and
third seasons, as Soloway acknowledges that the Pfeffermans Jewishness has implications far
beyond themselves. But even solely in the contemporary moment, the significance of food for
the Pfeffermans parallels its significance for Jews everywhere.
As a result of foods importance for identities of both Jewishness and gender, food
emblematizes the culturally constructed nature of each. Although Elizabeth Groszs thoughts on
the constructed-ness of norms refer specifically to gendered identity, they also apply to binary
definitions of Judaism: Bodies are fictionalized, that is, positioned by various cultural narratives
and discourses, which are themselves embodiments of culturally established canons, norms, and
representational forms, so that they can be seen as living narratives, narratives not always or
even usually transparent to themselves (118). The fictitiousness of normative conceptions of
identity encourages one to bend, or queer, societal standards to accommodate varying ways of

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conceiving of religion or sexuality. The Pfeffermans dietary habits and preconceptions about
others choices of food and drink reflect cultural perpetuation of the narratives of gendered and
Jewish identity, as well as instincts to resist the narrativizing.
Judaism and gender can be understood as particularly entangled when one considers the
history of gender fluidity in relation to Jewish identity. During the Middle Ages, Jewish men
were thought of as partially female beings whose femininity included regular menstruation
(Freedman). In the early 20th century, German physician Heinrich Singer writes that in general it
is clear in examining the body of the Jew, that the Jew most approaches the body type of the
female (qtd. in Gilman 42). Shortly thereafter, in Ulysees, James Joyce describes Jewish
protagonist Leopold Bloom as a finished example of the new womanly man (465).
But the historical relationship between Judaism and a queering of the gender binary
perhaps peaks in the case of the Jewish Dr. Magnus Hirschfield, whom Soloway depicts in
Season Twos flashbacks to the 1930s. As Robert Beachy chronicles in Gay Berlin, Hirschfield
coined the first term for someone who wore clothing designed for the opposite sex in his 1910
handbook The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress (170). His perspective on what he
called transvestitism was particularly revolutionary given that he distinguished it from sexual
orientation, as most men he observed dressing as women were themselves sexually attracted to
women (170). Finally, the first gender confirmation surgery happened at Hirschfields institute,
solidifying his place in the history of societal recognition of genderqueerness (176). Between the
writing of Joyce, historical stereotypes of Jewish femininity, and Hirschfields groundbreaking
work, Judaism and gender fluidity are perfectly suited for their cohabitation within Soloways
show.

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Soloway captures the relationship between Judaism and queerness through Sarah, whose
behavior with food illustrates her attempt and failure to fit both her sexuality and her spiritual
identity within normative structures. Sarahs conflicted relationship with food appears in the
aftermath of her failed marriage to her ex-fiancee Tammy, when Tammy throws the leftover
wedding cake from their ceremony in the pool as she crashes Joshs party. The cake floats atop
the pool, embodying Sarahs botched effort to make her queer relationship with Tammy fit
within the heteronormative confines of monogamous marriage. She also botches her attempt at
confining her sexuality to the strictures of her relationship with her ex-husband Len, and she eats
a microwave dinner naked and alone after her failed confrontation of him and his new girlfriend
at a gala. But her relationship with Len is not entirely negative, as she makes zucchini blossoms
for him and their children as part of their queering of a nuclear family, in which they live
together but sleep with other people. What have you done with my ex-wife? Len asks
approvingly as he eats her cooking, enjoying the fruits of their queer cohabitation. Food again
comes into play when Sarah struggles to come up with her own brand of Judaism, as she serves
pupusas at the synagogue event she creates with Rabbi Raquel, which they initially call Tacos
Con Torah. Sarah queers the boundaries of heteronormativity and religion, shaping both as she
sees fit at a given time.
Similarly, Josh consistently fails to make his sexual and religious identity accord with
cultural binaries, and his relationship with food parallels this failure. Although his son Colton
comes from a heterosexual partnering with the Pfefferman housekeeper Rita, the statutory rape
which leads to his birth makes the relationship between Josh, Colton, and Rita far from
normative. Shortly after Josh and Colton meet for the first time, food captures the oddity of their
relationship when the rural Kansan Colton suggests that his love of sushi may indicate genes

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inherited from the urban, upper middle class Josh. Josh moves from sophomoric womanizing
towards an embrace of both monogamy and Judaism through his relationship with Raquel, but an
uncomfortable pizza dinner with her, Colton, and Rita hints at how difficult normativity will be
for him to achieve. The following clip shows the intersections of Joshs struggles with structures
of both Judaism and monogamy following the announcement at a Yom Kippur break fast of the
end of his relationship with Raquel after her miscarriage: (play clip)
This scene captures both the fracturing of his Jewish identity and his struggles with
heteromasculinity. He attempts to exist within the strictures of heteronormativity through a
monogamous relationship with Raquel, one which falls apart and suggests that standard cultural
conceptions of coupling are not for him. Raquels Jewishness simultaneously codes their
relationship as an attempt by him to bring himself closer to Judaism, but that fails as much as his
effort at monogamy. Richard Wilk describes Judaism as more concerned with prescribing what
people should not eat than in telling people what they should, and Josh violates one of the
religions vital tenets through his consumption of the very non-Kosher ham, exacerbated all the
more by him eating it right after one of the holiest days of the Jewish year (232).
Josh moves further towards embracing his refutation of binaries in the third season
through his relationships with Colton and Mauras friend Shea, but these attempts prove to be
equally ill fitting. After Josh and Shea go on a road trip to see Colton following Ritas death,
their casual conversation over sandwiches at an open mic leads to her telling him an anecdote
from her teenage years, thereby illustrating their increasing comfort with each other. Although
his budding relationship with the transgender Shea indicates a dalliance with queerness, the
romance fails as badly as his attempts at heteronormativity after he makes a rude remark about
her identity. Similarly, he queers his Jewishness by accepting Jesus at a service led by Colton, an

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action emblematized by a scene of him shucking corn with Coltons family when Ali comes to
visit, but this fails as well when Colton finally tells him to leave. Neither queer nor binary
identities fit Josh, and food illustrates his path between them.
Like Josh, Ali cannot settle into queerness or normativity either, as her dietary choices
and associations indicate. Her attraction to and trust of her trainer leads her to quickly adopt his
advice to stop eating dairy, a move which affects her relationship with cultural Judaism when she
changes the Pfefferman family standing order at the Jewish deli Canters to include tofu cream
cheese. Food and her attractions become entangled once again when she dates Dale, a
transgender man whose choice of Pabst Blue Ribbon epitomizes his rugged masculinity. But his
embodiment of masculine stereotypes turns out to be merely a fantasy, as Ali later realizes that
Dales beverage of choice turns out to be tea. Her vision of his PBR preference emphasizes her
internalization of cultural gender norms, which, in this case, are reified through a beverage. This
is not the first time in Alis life that beer has symbolized masculinity, as a flashback sequence
reveals, since a can of beer offered to her by an older boy who takes advantage of her after she
ditches her bat mitzvah highlights his age and experience, drawing her in.
Food also illustrates Alis failures to make her more markedly queer tendencies function
within heteronormative constructs. Prior to Joshs Yom Kippur meltdown, the image of her
preparing the meal with her girlfriend at the time, Syd, suggests the possibility of a stable,
monogamous relationship. Like the dinner, Ali and Syds relationship falls apart, showing Alis
struggle to make her queerness accord with monogamy. Likewise, the refusal of her later
girlfriend and professor, Leslie, to drink coffee made by an Israeli company at Sarahs synagogue
event signifies the ultimate untenability of their partnership. Food, sexuality, and Judaism are all
inextricably enmeshed for Ali, as they are throughout Transparent.

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But out of all the Pfeffermans. Judaism, gender, and food become most entangled for
Maura, who endeavors to find room for both her queer femininity and Jewishness. Taken aback
by her sudden maternal position, Maura fumbles over her newfound responsibility of lighting the
Shabbat candles over a dinner with Davina, Tammy, Sarah, and her children. Maura wants to
adapt easily into her role as a Jewish woman, but neither the finer details of her gender nor her
religious duties come naturally to her, as the ceremonial meal highlights. After she offends
Davina by questioning the suitability of her boyfriend Sal as a romantic partner, Maura atones
through the act of tashlich, a Rosh Hashanah ritual in which one tosses bread into water to
symbolize the casting away of sins, by throwing pieces of challah at ducks in a pond (Deutsch).
Given that this happens on Yom Kippur rather than the Jewish New Year, Mauras action finds
her yet again trying and struggling to observe a Jewish ritual associated with food.
Thus, Maura grapples with both her Jewishness and her gender, highlighting the
discomfort with binaries and norms she shares with her children. Shortly after she arrives at the
Idyllwild Womyns Music Festival with Ali and Sarah, Mauras discomfort becomes apparent
when she disgustedly bites into a nut loaf. I dont really know what Im eating, she says,
foreshadowing the exclusion she will soon experience at the festival because of her identity as a
trans women. The episode becomes inextricable from her Jewish identity when Soloway depicts
Mauras expulsion concurrently with Nazi attacks on Hirschfields institute in the Berlin
flashback, linking the transmisogyny she experiences with Jewish Holocaust trauma. Jonathan
Freedman explains that in this scene, the point is that historythe historical experience of
traumashapes the ways that people perceive events, understand their world even when that
world is no longer suffused with an immediate threat. Like her children, Maura struggles with
the boundaries of binary conceptions of religious and sexual identity, and she queers them in an

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effort to express herself. As Amy Villarejo writes, Gender haunts Maura in ways that prevent
easy or predictable affiliations, and she is revealed to be a Pfefferman like the others: fallible,
stupid, disarming, stumbling (17).
The characters varying journeys between identities come together in the final moments
of the third season, in which all of the Pfeffermans share what I will call a queer seder. As they
vacation on a cruise on the last night of Passover, Sarah and Ali construct an ad-hoc seder plate
consisting of items from the ships buffet, ranging from saltines standing in for matzo to wasabi
serving as the bitter herb. Importantly, the Pfeffermans are also all coming off of breakups of
various kinds, as their attempts to fit their identities within even queer inflected structures fall
short. They find family unity within their queering of Judaism, as their queer seder blurs the
boundaries of Jewish tradition while nonetheless maintaining an undeniable link with historical
ritual. The Pfeffermans are together once again, albeit forever changed by their various
dalliances with queerness.
Thus, the characters negotiate their relationships with Judaism and gender through food,
finding the cultural structures of each inadequate for capturing their complex and changing
identities. Soloway uses food to highlight the constructed nature of cultural Jewishness and
sexual identity, questioning the validity of binary conceptions of each. In Transparent, Judaism,
gender, and food are all vital elements of the Pfeffermans journeys of self-discovery.

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Works Cited
Beachy, Robert. Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity. New York: Knopf, 2014. Print.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: U
of California, 2004. Print.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. New York: Vintage,
2000. Print.

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Brumberg-Kraus, Jonathan D. "Meals as Midrash: A Survey of Ancient Meals in Jewish Studies
Scholarship. Food and Judaism. Ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon, Ronald Simkins,
and

Gerald Shapiro. Omaha: Creighton UP, 2005. 290-310. Print.

Deutsch, Amy. "Tashlich." Kveller Comments. Kveller, 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Freedman, Jonathan. "Transparent: A Guide for the Perplexed." Los Angeles Review of Books.
Los Angeles Review of Books, 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Gilman, Sander L. Freud, Race, and Gender. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993. Print.
Grimm, Veronika E. From Feasting to Fasting: The Evolution of a Sin: Attitudes to Food in Late
Antiquity. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP,
1994. Print.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 2010. Print.
Soloway, Jill, prod. Transparent. Amazon. Amazon.com, Inc. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Soltes, Ori Z. "The Art of Jewish Food." Food and Judaism. Ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon, Ronald
Simkins, and Gerald Shapiro. Omaha: Creighton UP, 2005. 27-45. Print.
Villarejo, Amy. "Jewish, Queer-ish, Trans, and Completely Revolutionary: Jill Soloway's
Transparent and the New Television." Film Quarterly 69.4 (2016): 10-22. JSTOR
[JSTOR]. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Wilk, Richard. "Paradoxes of Jews and Their Foods." Jews and Their Foodways. Ed. Anat
Helman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. 231-50. Print.