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Transparent: What Rita did to Josh was molestation, plain and simple

Carrie Nelson is a writer and filmmaker based in NYC. Her bylines appear on websites including The Daily Dot, New York Observer, Bitch Media, and The New Civil Rights Movement, and she was a founding editor of the global feminist blog Ge...

It's critical that Josh and Rita's past relationship on Transparent is labeled abusive

Season 2 of Transparent covers a lot of ground: Maura takes significant steps forward in her transition, Ali uncovers unexpected details about Grandma Rose's past, and every romantic relationship that seemed happy (or, at least, moderately functional) at the start of the season explodes in flames by the end. But one of the storylines that I found most compelling is one that had very little time devoted to it — the deepening of Josh's understanding about his relationship with Rita.

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When we meet Rita in Season 1, she's a strikingly beautiful middle-aged woman who appears to be one of Josh's many ongoing affairs. But it's a lot more complicated than that, we soon learn; Rita was Josh's babysitter during childhood, and they began having a sexual relationship when he was a teenager. Everyone around Josh finds the relationship to be inappropriate — Sarah calls it "creepy"; Syd calls it
"lecherous" — but no one makes an effort to intervene. Through flashbacks, it becomes apparent that all of the Pfeffermans knew about the sexual relationship when it began. Why none of them made an effort to stop it then is never explained.

It's critical that Josh and Rita's past relationship on Transparent is labeled abusive
Image: Transparent/Amazon

It's not until Colton enters the picture that we see the full extent of the Pfeffermans' collective denial. When Josh finds out that he and Rita had a child together — a child who is now a 17-year-old man — he steps up to the plate to be a role model. He and Raquel even invite Colton to move in, once it becomes clear that the boy has an interest in reconnecting to his biological families. But including Colton means including Rita, something that Raquel won't tolerate.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that Raquel is the first character to explicitly name Rita's relationship with Josh as molestation. Objectively speaking, it is the only way to look at it; Rita took advantage of Josh when he was a minor, making his ability to consent null and void. But even though other family members and friends have no problem using coded language like "lecherous" and "creepy," Raquel is the only person who is comfortable labeling the situation as abusive. She is the only person who understands that until Josh deals with his trauma and with the unbalanced power dynamic in his relationship with Rita, he will be doomed to continue struggling to make every other relationship in his life functional.

It's critical that Josh and Rita's past relationship on Transparent is labeled abusive
Image: Transparent/Amazon

Even though Josh and Rita's sexual relationship has ended, she still will call him over to her apartment to fix appliances or clean mold out of the fridge. He puts his foot down when he can, yelling "That’s enough!" when Rita won't stop singing an uncomfortably incestuous version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair," but he’s never quite free of her. Raquel senses this, and as much as she loves Josh, the events of Season 2 make her understand that as long as his abuser is in his life, he won't be able to truly be in a healthy relationship with anyone else.

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Halfway through Season 2, Maura confesses one of the deepest, darkest Pfefferman family secrets to Josh: she and Shelly knew about Rita's pregnancy all along. They never told Josh, out of a desire to "protect" him, and they made a donation to the church run by Colton's adoptive family to provide for him from afar. This devastates Josh, as it erodes his already depleted trust in his family.

It's critical that Josh and Rita's past relationship on Transparent is labeled abusive
Image: Transparent/Amazon

Though they strive to keep their relationship together for a whole 'nother episode, once Maura confesses the truth about Colton, it's clear that Raquel and Josh's relationship won't survive. She sees clearly then that the problem isn't just with Josh — it's with everyone in his family who refuses to acknowledge what really happened with him and Rita. Knowing she can't save him, she saves herself and leaves.

Raquel's departure is undoubtedly the right call for her. But how it will end up affecting Josh is a great concern. My fear is that with Raquel and Josh’s relationship over (for now?), there isn't anyone else in his life who will encourage him to dig deeper into his increasingly queasy feelings about Rita and the secrecy within his family. I want Josh to enter counseling, or a support group, or even just acknowledge to a friend or one of his sisters that he's a survivor of abuse. But since he's unlikely to do this on his own, and since no one else in his life is going to acknowledge the problem, I am worried that Josh’s abuse will continue to be pushed to the back of his mind and will never be properly dealt with, by the character or by the show.

More: 9 Best quotes from Transparent creator Jill Soloway's address to AFI

Transparent is an ensemble show; though Maura was the central character of Season 1, each of the five Pfeffermans appear to have equal screen time and equal development of storylines in Season 2. The fact that Josh's trauma has taken a long time to unpack isn't surprising, then — it's simply what’s to be expected for a character who isn't the primary focus of every episode. My hope, though, is that even if Raquel won't be in Josh's life going forward, he will still find a way to deal with this issue as the upcoming seasons progress. It's only fair to him as a character if he is allowed to begin dealing with his past.

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