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From lesbianism to S&M, Transparent explores sexuality in unique ways

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...

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines

Transparent Season 1 introduced us to the Pfeffermans. Season 2 helped us to get to know them much better — the women, in particular. This season is devoted to themes of physical discovery, female sexual empowerment and giving in to pleasure. It is so rare to see a full season of television so committed to those ideas, and Transparent is unique in allowing its female characters to truly explore their sexualities and all of the complications that go along with that.

At the start of the season, the Pfefferman women think they know what they want: Maura and Shelly are rekindling their flame, Sarah is marrying Tammy and Ali wants to reconnect with Syd. They're all on the right track, but their visions of happiness at the start are a bit off base.

Maura is right about wanting to be in a relationship for the first time since her transition, but Shelly has never been the right woman for her. Sarah is right to be divorced from Len, but marrying Tammy was never going to be the answer (blame it on her "f*** goggles," as Ali puts it). And Ali is right to start exploring her lesbian desires, but she just isn't ready for a monogamous, long-term commitment the way that Syd is.

So where do their journeys to self-discovery take the Pfefferman women? And what might it mean for what will be in store for them next season? Let's get to theorizing.

More: Transparent's Jeffrey Tambor reveals how playing a woman helped him find himself

Maura and Shelly's separate paths

I was pretty excited to see Maura and Shelly back together at the start of Season 2. They seemed so happy at the wedding, even as the rest of the world crashed down around them. And at first glance, it looked like this could truly be a new chapter for them. If Maura's secrecy about her identity is what led to their relationship's demise, maybe they really could begin anew now that she is living openly.

Maura's transition was never going to be enough, though. She still can't handle Shelly's clinginess and indecisiveness, and Shelly's sexual aggression is too much for Maura in this early stage of her transition, as she is just beginning to get to know her body in an authentic way. That moment in the bathtub was thrilling for Shelly, but it pushed Maura too far. It underscored her sexual shyness and embarrassment.

"Don't make me do this," she begs, reluctantly consenting to pleasuring her ex-wife for the first time in more than 20 years.

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines
Image: Transparent/Amazon

But even once Maura realizes that things with Shelly won't work, she doesn't understand how to find something that will. Her friends, Davina and Shea, are interested in "trans-amorous" men, straight-identified men who fetishize transgender women. But Maura's not interested in fetishization or men, and she's especially not interested in men who want her to look or dress a certain way.

Her journey comes to a head at the Idyllwild Wimmin's Music Festival — a stand-in for the recently disbanded Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Both Michfest and Idyllwild share a transphobic admissions policy: only "women-born-women" (or cisgender women) are allowed to attend. Maura realizes the policy too late, and though no one asks her to leave, she chooses to do so — but not before hitching a ride with Vicki, a supportive queer woman whose status as a breast cancer survivor means that she doesn't see Maura's body parts as signifiers of her gender.

When Maura and Vicki sleep together after leaving Idyllwild, we see Maura experience sexual pleasure for the first time in the entirety of the series. She takes it at her pace, she tells Vicki what she does and does not want, and she allows herself to feel satisfaction.

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines
Image: Transparent/Amazon

This is a huge turning point in Maura's journey — perhaps the biggest step her character has taken in two seasons. Vicki might not stick around for long, because, let's face it, none of the Pfeffermans know how to manage long-term relationships. But now that Maura has seen what she wants, and she knows how to find it, I anticipate that she'll be feeling much more sexually fulfilled come Season 3.

More: Transparent's Sarah and Tammy are headed for trouble in Season 2

Sarah's introduction to submission

Early in Season 2, it becomes clear that Sarah's not interested in either of the romances that she pursued in Season 1. She's not even particularly interested in dating. What she wants is sex, and not necessarily sex with a man or with a woman, and not even necessarily sexual intercourse. What Sarah wants is BDSM.

After her marriage with Tammy officially dies, she moves into a tiny apartment close to Len's house, to be near the kids. This is the first time Sarah has lived totally on her own in years — possibly in her entire adult life — so she gets lonely fast. And when she does, she turns to sexual fantasies of Mr. Irons, the high school disciplinarian who wandered the halls with a paddle during Sarah's youth.

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines
Image: Transparent/Amazon

The most fascinating element of Sarah's sexual fantasy about Mr. Irons is that he never actually touches her. He just watches her, and talks to her, and slaps his paddle against his hand. He doesn't have to touch her; he exists solely for Sarah's own enjoyment. And goodness, does she enjoy this fantasy.

But she struggles to implement it in real life. When she has a date with Dr. Steve, her weed dealer, and asks him to enact her fantasy, he does so goofily, not having any real desire to hurt her, even consensually. Just because Dr. Steve is a man doesn't mean he knows the first thing about dominance.

Like Maura, Sarah's transformation happens at Idyllwild. She sees a woman leading another woman on a leash, and she follows them to the festival's BDSM camp. The woman who so captivated Sarah's attention is Pony, a pro-Dominatrix, who Sarah starts paying to see for spankings and other impact play. She can't stop smiling when Pony slaps her, so excited that her fantasy has become something tangible.

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines
Image: Transparent/Amazon

Sarah's transformation is about something much deeper than a newfound interest in kink, however. After all, it's not a coincidence that this desire is stirred within her once she begins life as a single mother and starts to feel out of control in every aspect of her life. The former superstar housewife can't focus on cooking or cleaning or PTA events or any of the things that used to bring her joy. So she finds joy in the lack of control, in the play of submission and powerlessness. Sarah's starting to embrace the chaos and find her control in its midst. She is going to be more empowered than ever come Season 3.

More: Here's what Fifty Shades means to a real dominatrix

Ali's queer awakening

Ali's Season 1 journey was more dramatic than in Season 2, but the changes she goes through this season can't be ignored. After brushing off Syd's advances in last season's finale, she decides to make amends, and, in the process, finds herself falling for Syd, her best friend since childhood.

As Ali develops a comfort in Syd's lesbian community — and in her bedroom — she also develops a friendship with Leslie Mackinaw, a poet (and former colleague of Maura's) who may also make it possible for Ali to pursue a master's in Gender Studies at UCLA. But Leslie's of a different generation — she doesn't believe in monogamy, she doesn't believe in age gaps, and she doesn't believe in taking things slowly. So when she makes her interests obvious to Ali, Ali's interest is piqued.

Transparent Season 2 empowers women through sensual story lines
Image: Transparent/Amazon

That's not what Syd wants, though. Syd's comfortable in her queerness and with women like Leslie; in Season 1, we learn that she's already dated one of Ali's professors. Ali's a few too many steps behind her, exploring her curiosities in a way that makes Syd deeply uncomfortable. And Syd's discomfort isn't exactly misplaced; by the time Syd calls off the relationship, Ali's interest in Leslie is already firmly established.

You might be recognizing a pattern by now: Everything culminates at Idyllwild. Ali likes Leslie's queer circle, and being in a forest filled with women and music and sensuality drives her to Leslie's tent late at night. They sleep together, convincing Ali more than ever that her interest in women will not be fleeting.

The future of Ali's relationship with Leslie is left ambiguous, which is for the best. Ali's new to lesbianism, and settling into a long-term relationship with anyone probably isn't going to help her move forward in deepening her self-awareness. Slowly, though, she is starting to realize who she is and what she wants, and come next season, a lot of her questions may have clearer answers.

What did you love about Transparent Season 2 — and what are your predictions for Season 3?

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