Jill Soloway wants to weaponize love
Let’s get this out of the way: Jill Soloway is not stepping down as the showrunner of Transparent. Although recent headlines have suggested that Soloway — who identifies as gender nonbinary and prefers “they” and “them” pronouns — is ending their reign as showrunner of the groundbreaking Amazon dramedy, Soloway recently clarified to Mic that they haven’t carried out showrunner duties for at least two years. Soloway will continue to write, direct and oversee production for the series’ eventual fifth season, but the nominal title of “showrunner” will pass from its current holder, Bridget Bedard, to My So-Called Life and The Wonder Years producer Jill Gordon.
Incidentally, Soloway also wasn’t showrunner in 2016 when they won an Emmy — their second overall — for their directing work on the show’s second season. Their powerful acceptance speech, which urged marginalized viewers and artists to “topple the patriarchy,” was not just a rousing battle cry but an auspicious moment for the trans rights movement. Now, one year after that speech, with Transparent about to drop its fourth season on Sept. 22, Soloway recently spoke with Mic at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel to discuss the trans rights movement, the future of Transparent’s Pfefferman family and the true meaning of the word “woman.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: How would you describe Maura Pfefferman’s emotional journey in season four?
Jill Soloway: Maura’s still kind of a child. She is part of a generation much like my parents’ generation, and I think a lot of people don’t know a lot about that history of transness. We tried to show [it] in season one with [the fictional retreat Camp Camellia] as a place where “straight men” cross-dressed. This season, we’re showing Davina [played by Alexandra Billings] in the world of balls and pageants and the drag world and the AIDS crisis. If you’re a trans woman — let’s say you’re in your 60s, maybe even in your 70s — you pretty much came up through either one of these worlds: the gay world where people were in drag, or the heterosexual cross-dressing world — both of which were sort of these part-time ways of being female.
So coming up in the gay world is one very particular way, it has a lot of community with it. For people who come up through the heterosexual cross-dressing world, there’s not that much camaraderie. There was actually a lot of loneliness. There was a lot of being diagnosed by a cis-, hetero-centering medical industry that named transness as a fetish, that named cross-dressing as a fetish. People don’t really understand how cross-dressing may or may not be unexpressed transness. There’s still this question of, “Is it some weird fetish or is it just trans people who aren’t out yet?”
That’s Maura’s history. That’s what she went through. That’s the world she came through: decade after decade after decade of hiding, shame. “There’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong with me at my core. It’s who I am. It’s my femaleness. But I’m psychologically diagnosed as weird.” That is a gigantic prison to emerge from. Especially at 70. So, she’s really just getting started. She’s kind of adolescent. She’s just barely in her adolescence, being out and being free. So she’s actually doing amazingly when you think about it, [with] her sense of dignity and comfort in her body.
“One of the things that I hate most are the things that get laminated onto the word ‘woman.’” — Jill Soloway
So, in addition to working on Transparent and I Love Dick, I know you’re working on a memoir.
JS: Yeah, I’m writing a book right now. I’m doing my rewrites on it. I’m going to hopefully have that come out in the next year or so. [It’s] just talking about the journey from my parent coming out [as trans] to now, and sort of going back into my childhood to try and understand what we did and didn’t know, and really understanding my own gender journey, as well as the world. And also creativity for women ... learning how to find your voice and how your desire interfaces with your creativity and your sense of self, and the right to speak. The right to have a voice. Shame.
There are so many people who, I think, struggle with shame when there are straight white men who have the handle on so much protagonism. It’s kind of an obvious answer when you ask them how did they get that power. Besides patriarchy, besides capitalism, they also don’t really run around with a bunch of shame. They’re not walking around going, “What’s wrong with me?” because they’re not used to that feeling. They’re not indoctrinated by being otherized. Straight white men are continuing to make culture because they believe they have the right to.
As women, people of color and queer people begin to say, “Well, you know, I want to write and I want to direct and I want to tell my story,” first they’re fighting against mountains and mountains of shame simply being able to put the words “I am” next to each other — “I want,” next to each other.
We’re fighting against having been looked at as “she’s hot,” “she’s not,” “he’s gay.” “That person is black.” Being thought of as “that.” In the heterosexual white U.S., we’re all trying to get over that. So that’s what my book is hoping to address. And with Topple, my production company, not only am I working on creating other shows, but also finding different creators, showrunners, writers, people of color, women.
What sort of misconceptions do you face from your colleagues in Hollywood as a gender nonbinary individual?
JS: Well, I get misgendered all the time. It generally doesn’t bother me. I let people do it. But one of the things that I hate most are the things that get laminated onto the word “woman.” And one of the things that’s laminated onto the word “woman,” which is why I don’t like using that word anymore, is the idea that women are expected to perform certain standards of beauty — really without their consent.
And that was one of the things I noticed as I started being recognized for what I was doing as a writer and director. [I] still was expected to kind of go through the machine of like, “What dress are you going to wear?” and “What can you do with your hair?” and like, “What makeup are you going to wear?” And people assume that I wanted to be in conversations about shoes or conversations about how I looked. I find all those conversations distracting from the things I really want to talk about, which are politics ...
Or art ...
JS: Or art! Or life. Or God. People assume women are interested in aesthetics in a way that they don’t assume with men. That’s something I wish would stop. Even when I say, “I don’t really want to have a conversation about whether or not I’m cute enough,” they’ll just be like, [adopts a Valley Girl voice], “Oh my god, no, why? Your hair here looks amazing.” And what I’m saying is, “I don’t want to be taken in aesthetically by you.” I’m attempting to move myself away from the category which people assume consents to a competition about aesthetic success. That’s something that people can’t seem to stop doing: commenting on how I look.
And then if there isn’t a mention of a female celebrity being pretty, there’s focus on what makes her not pretty.
JS: Yeah, or how she’s disheveledly succeeding at being pretty without even trying. Some feminist was like, “Well, why don’t you just redefine what the word ‘woman’ means?” and I’m like, “No, I’ll just wait until the word ‘woman’ doesn’t mean this. I don’t need it anymore. I’ll come back to the word ‘woman’ maybe one day when it doesn’t mean these things — it doesn’t mean ‘curves,’ it doesn’t mean ‘beauty,’ it doesn’t mean ‘mother,’ it doesn’t mean ‘caring.’”
These are the words that get laminated onto a woman. They had to create these expectations for people that often end up in failure: “I’m not a good enough mother. I’m not a pretty enough woman. I’m not curvy.” Like, what? You know men have these things as well, with masculinity and what it means to be a man. But it’s nowhere near as immense or intense, and it’s not the first expectation for men.
Men come into a room and people assume that they want to talk about ideas, and they’re not looking at them saying, “Are you manly enough?” But if a woman doesn’t immediately adhere to standards of female beauty — particularly in the entertainment industry — she [has to] opt out. And I don’t really want to opt out. I just want to be.
You’ve been in the entertainment industry for some time now. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen since you first started out?
JS: I would say that in the past maybe five years there was a huge sea change when it came to women. Like, I really noticed when Orange Is the New Black succeeded. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a show about 10 women. I haven’t seen this before. It was around the same time as Girls and [The Mindy Project] and Broad City, where I had been raising my fist going, “Unlikable female protagonists! We need them!”
I would go into meetings [before that] where people would say, “Modern Family is the paradigm, where’s Ty Burrell in your show? We need a man in the show, so that people’s husbands and dads will sit down with [those male characters] and then watch.” “Why?” “Because the show can’t succeed unless it succeeds in all four quadrants: older men; younger men; older women; younger women. Your script must appeal to all four.” And that changed.
“What [liberals] actually stand for is tolerance and love for all.” — Jill Soloway
I know with I Love Dick, one of your goals was to revolutionize portrayals of female sexuality on television. Have you seen any effects or any reverberations from that?
JS: Female filmmakers and female actors just love I Love Dick. People like [Top of the Lake co-creator] Jane Campion have been saying amazing things, both publicly and privately. And there’s this question of whether there is even such a thing as a “female gaze.” Do women see it differently? Rolling around in the question and asking how we see, when we’re no longer trying to be seen, is just such a fun artistic assignment for people. So it’s more like I have conversations with artists — with women, with queer people — who appreciate the way that I Love Dick kind of liberated the form.
And I don’t think anybody can say, “Well, you can’t do that on television,” because I Love Dick was willing to do things that you normally think couldn’t be done on TV.
What sort of advice would you give to younger trans and gender nonconforming individuals during this time of increased violence toward trans people in the United States?
JS: I think the religious right gets a lot of legibility to each other through their identification as religious. But I think there are people on the left who are as identified with their spiritual beliefs — like peace, like tolerance, like love. These are all things that people on the left believe in, but they don’t claim them as religious or spiritual, even though they are very spiritual things. So I always encourage people who are coming up — whether they’re coming up through the trans world, whether they’re people of color, whether feminism in particular is their way — to be willing to look for the big ideas like love, like tolerance.
Find ways to gather together, not just through marches and through politics, but also look for ways where we can really claim our ethics. Liberals are painted as people who are kind of wobbly — that we don’t actually stand for anything. But what we actually stand for is tolerance and love for all. And that’s a really big thing. And nobody’s really found a way to weaponize that. I wish we could weaponize that. I wish we could create fake news and bots and hacks — for love.
Season four of Transparent will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime starting Sept. 22.