Transparent is no stranger to featuring groundbreaking, never-before-seen moments on television. In the fourth season, which released its full 10 episodes on Friday, Jill Soloway’s Amazon comedy features one of its transgender characters in a full-frontal nude scene.
In the second episode, titled “Groin Anomaly,” Davina (played by Alexandra Billings), who has played a friend and mentor to Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman for three seasons, is lying on her stomach getting massaged by her boyfriend, Sal (Ray Abruzzo). Davina is living with HIV and struggling with how she feels on her medication, and the pair are discussing how they should be treating her health. When struck by a shooting pain, Davina rolls over to continue the conversation, exposing her breasts and, for the first time for the transgender actress, her penis.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen that on television before, on a few levels,” Billings tells The Hollywood Reporter of the scene. “I don’t think there has ever been a transgender woman, first of all my age, who is pre-op and who is someone who had HIV. Also, I wasn’t fetishized. I wasn’t sexualized — or desexualized.”
Billings has been acting in both trans and cis roles as an openly transgender actress for years. But when Soloway and the writers met with her ahead of the fourth season to mine from her life, Billings, joined by Transparent co-star Trace Lysette, suggested she go nude for the first time.
“Every year they ask us to come in and they go, ‘So what do you think?’ ” Billings recalls of the meeting, a process that allows both Billings and Lysette to serve almost as consultants. “So I come in with a big tablet. I just ramble off things. And I think everything I asked for, they did.”
What Billings loves most about the scene is how it normalizes the trans body.
“It was very smart — and I had nothing to do with this, this is all Jill and the writers,” she says. “I sort of just turn over and you go, ‘Oh!’ The great thing is that with Sal, my boyfriend, it’s not a thing. We’re having an argument about something very true and deep that is in every relationship, just misunderstanding and illness, that doesn’t have anything to do with my body.”
Featuring trans-inclusive nudity on TV sends a needed message to both the trans community, and, Billings says, the world. “It’s taken me a long time, but I like the way I look. It’s not a perfect body, but it’s mine, and it makes me really happy. I feel really free,” she says. The scene stands apart by not featuring the trans body as a “pariah,” victim or “some kind of sex doll,” she says, adding, “Imagine if we could get women of all kinds — trans and cis and everyone in between — to feel the same way? Not only Hollywood would change, but I think the world at large would. You’d think more about women leaders.”
The season was the biggest yet for Davina, as Transparent viewers learned her backstory during a series of flashbacks. In the present, Sal is fed up with Davina for “giving up” and kicks her out of the house. The series then travels back in time to before Davina transitioned to show how she, then a young male, engaged in a relationship with an older HIV-positive man and contracted the disease.
“Ninety-percent of the flashback is my true story,” says Billings. “The sex work. The HIV. The drag pageants.” The 56-year-old actress, who transitioned in 1980 and who has been living with and has become a visible advocate for AIDS, applauds the show for highlighting her story.