What ‘Transparent’ Can Teach Us About Money, Marriage, & Maybe Even Ourselves
A white wedding in the brown desert opens season two of Amazon’s hit show Transparent. After spending season one disentangling from her husband, rekindling a relationship with her college girlfriend Tammy, and recalibrating the family dynamic after her Moppa comes out as transgender, season two finds middle-aged mom Sarah spinning forward — or back? — toward holy matrimony with Tammy. Yet (spoiler alert) at the very moment she should be dancing the hora and precariously bouncing in a chair, elevated to new literal and spiritual heights, Sarah is sunk low on a toilet seat, caged within a narrow bathroom stall and moaning, “I don’t want to be married.”
It’s not exactly a mazel tov moment.
What’s compelling about the depiction of marriage on Transparent — including Sarah’s traditional heteronormative first marriage, her same-sex second marriage that began as a rebellious affair, and even her divorced parents’ still evolving relationship — is that it offers a critique of the traditional marriage plot in fiction and onscreen, financial implications and all.
Now might be a good time to mention I’m engaged. My own parents had an acrid divorce and drawn-out custody battle when my sister and I were very young. That’s partly why I prefer my television marriages messy and raw; they’re easier to relate to. That is also partly why this Transparent storyline is so resonant for me.
Marriage plot novels, popularized in the early 19th century, use the slow waltz of courtship and the quest to gain financial security and social status through marriage as their narrative premise. Jane Austen remains the reigning queen of the marriage plot; in an era when women had to surrender their personhood and property to their husbands, the inherent conflicts of their situations had endless narrative potential.
The traditional marriage plot may be as dated as the whalebone corset, but updated storylines about the connection between class, money, and love prove that marriage’s economic underpinnings endure. Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pretty Woman aren’t just movies; they’ve become classic films about women in dire straits who self-actualize only after finding true love with Mr. Right, a man who just so happens to be loaded. These modern “fairy tales” also perpetuate the retrograde idea that women need a man, and his wealth, to “save” them from their circumstances and change their station in life. Marriage plot 2.0, perhaps?
Modern marriage does offer a financial edge, from concrete benefits like tax breaks and the fluid transfer of retirement funds, to perks that can’t be easily quantified, like savings from pooling resources in a two-income household to the security that comes with having a partner buffer the impact of risk. Finance and marriage are inextricably linked. But both institutions are changing.
We live in a world where (some) men opt to be stay-at-home dads while higher earning moms remain primary breadwinners, and where newly married millennials are having more candid discussions about money and what combining income should look like in a true partnership. So what would a truly modern marriage plot, devoid of the assumption that a woman is financially beholden to a man, look like?
That’s the question Jeffrey Eugenides set out to answer in his novel appropriately titled The Marriage Plot. The book becomes quite meta as it explores what an empowered woman who has her own money and maybe even writes her own prenup agreement would look like in fiction … or onscreen.
I bet she looks a lot like Transparent’s Sarah Pfefferman.
We know Sarah felt stifled and bored in her first marriage, but there’s no indication she felt beholden to her husband for financial support. She wasn’t hemmed into a heteronormative marriage by limiting expectations about motherhood, or taboos about her sexuality. In her liberal L.A. milieu, leaving her husband for her college girlfriend is portrayed not as subversive, but as almost, well, cliched.
Her choice and its aftermath don’t follow a typical marriage plot. She’s exceedingly well off in both relationships; she goes from one set of bourgeois comforts to another, slightly more bohemian one. Her money-relationship archetype is not rags to riches or a star-crossed lovers, other-side-of-the-tracks for true love story. She doesn’t want to break free from her gilded cage. She wants to try one with slightly sleeker decor.
She’s not following a Thelma and Louise counter narrative, either. Sarah doesn’t abandon her lifestyle and ride off into the sunset. She gets in her SUV and moves laterally, only across town. She leaves a man, and a marriage where she’d lost herself, for a women who she thought could help her find herself.
In Sarah Pfefferman, we have a character whose worth has never been determined by a dowry, or has never had to surrendered all her possessions to her husband, or even, it seems, take her spouse’s last name. She doesn’t need a man or a woman to support her financially or uplift her socially. Here is a woman untethered by obligation, free to pursue whatever type of love she chooses; and yet, in both her marriages, she experiences a profound loss of self. Marriage, despite its modern upgrades, remains for her a trap.
Anyone with more awareness than the rubbery succulents decorating Sarah and Tammy’s wedding could see this train wreck coming. It’s made glaringly obvious by her Moppa’s (Maura) transformation and her changing role. That, and the show, beg two pressing questions: Can we still love someone we’ve committed to, even when they go through a drastic change? And can we be brave enough to answer the call to change within ourselves, even when it ruptures harmony and drives us full speed toward the terrifying cliffhanger of a major life change?
Sarah Pfefferman, it seems, did not want to end her first marriage. She just wanted to get back herself. This is the modern conflict in the marriage plot for independent women who are aware of the expectations set by pop culture: wild, passionate, yet also financially secure love is supposed to bring fulfillment. In fact we can’t find that from anyone but ourselves.
From the way Maura and her ex-wife Shelly actually grow closer after the former’s transition, we learn that love might actually be easier when we put ourselves first. The Pfeffermans are able to love again, albeit platonically, only after Maura learns to love herself.
As for me, I never expected a happily ever after, much less yearned to be married. Yet here I am, planning a wedding. It has taken me awhile to recognize that in the harsh, barren monotony of the marital desert, there might be elements of what a wedding represents: renewal, true partnership, maybe even hope.
The Roundup takes a glass half full approach to personal and behavioral finance. In her columns, Alizah examines the biases, assumptions and emotions we often unknowingly attach to money. And yes, she always rounds up.