[Spoiler alert: This interview contains plot details of “Transparent’s” Season 3, which was just released on Amazon.]
“Transparent” creator, writer, and director Jill Soloway just nabbed her second Emmy in a row for directing the Amazon Studios original, which was inspired by her own parent’s experience of gender transition. At the end of her speech, the director cried out “topple the patriarchy!” Soloway is unabashedly saturated with the jargon of academic, progressive feminism, regularly invoking concepts like “the female gaze” and “intersectionality” when discussing her work and its theoretical underpinnings.
As the creator of a program that has become a vital example both of the transgender rights movement’s growing steam and of streaming television’s revolutionary power, Soloway has become something of a lightning rod, too. As beloved as “Transparent” is, the show has also received criticism for the casting of a cisgender man (Jeffrey Tambor) as a transgender woman.
Variety spoke to Soloway about finding the balance between art and politics, and between critique and creation, as well as what the Pfefferman clan is facing in Season 3.
Last season, Season 2 had a storyline in Weimar Germany. This season, there’s a few different timelines.
Last year when we were decorating the shows with flashbacks, we were just sprinkling them across. But every time you leave the present to go to the past there’s a little bit of a — you have to really have earned it in your story. You have to be willing to lose the trajectory of the present to go back in time. So, this year, we were just like, let’s put it all in one episode and see how that feels. We’ll probably try something different every year.
Episode eight [“If I Were A Bell”] is directed by Andrea Arnold. It’s about Maura when she was 12, and we have this fantastic 12-year-old trans girl [Sophia Grace Gianna] playing Maura. It’s America during the nuclear war. You know — duck-and-cover, “everybody get in the bomb shelter” moments. That’s where we go historically this year.
In episode three [“To Sardines And Back”], there’s also some time-jumping to the early ’90s. You wrote that one with your sister, Faith [a producer on the show]. Was there something about your own youth there?
Well, we laminate our childhoods on to the Pfeffermans, even though it was a completely different time period. We’ll write the Pfefferman childhoods and then we’ll be like — oh, wait a minute. They’re 15 years younger than us. They’re in their early 40s, so they’re 10 years younger than us, so we need to change things.
Is one of the Pfeffermans more like you, and one of them more like Faith?
Not really. I think Faith and I are both like all three [Pfefferman children]. I really relate a lot to Josh (Jay Duplass), and of course I really relate to Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and I relate a lot to Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Faith is really very much like Ali and very much like Josh. Faith was the original lesbian in our family. So she and Sarah have that in common. The O.G. lesbian.
Because “Transparent” is a show that talks about political identities, it has its detractors from all over the political and progressive spectrum. How does that affect your creative process? Or more specifically, how do you stop it from affecting your creative process?
There’s not a ton of pushback. There’s a little bit. We had some pushback season one for casting a cisgender actor in the lead role — for Jeffery [Tambor] being cis and Maura being trans. And I totally accept and welcome and agree with that criticism. We had a little bit of pushback Season 2 from some Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival people who were like, You’re painting us all with the same brush, and we’re not all TERFs, we’re not all trans-exclusive radical feminists.
Actually it’s very tiny, the amount of pushback I get. I don’t really notice it. I think that in this crowded landscape, if people are arguing about intersectionality and they’re using our show to do so, fantastic. It’s great. These are the conversations that are going to define the future of the feminist movement — the future of any kind of intersectional civil rights movement. If we’re in a world where we’re capturing the attention of people — be it their anger, be it their outrage, be it their humor — I’m thrilled.
Intersectionality is this motif in this season. There’s that amazing scene with Ali in the dentist’s chair in the second episode [“When The Battle Is Over”], where she imagines herself playing “Wheel of Fortune” and the word is “intersectionality.”
Well, it’s everything. There is no other word right now that means the same thing. I wish there was — because it’s such a long word that people just assume it’s an academic word. I did a talk the other night with bell hooks at the New School and she’s like, I hate that word. I live in Kentucky, nobody knows what it means. Well, what’s another word that can talk about the ways in which that multiple oppressions are either shared or not? It’s a confusing word, because people use it in two different ways. Some people use it to say hey, if I’m a woman and [you’re] African-American we are intersectionally similar in that we are both oppressed. Some people use it for the exact opposite, which is I‘m a woman and [you’re] African American, our oppressions have nothing to do with each other. Do not confuse them. When you try to put them together you’re erasing me.
Just because the word is kind of new in popular culture, people don’t know quite what to do with it. What I’m always looking to do is — I think because I come from a place of being a child of the civil rights movement and the [Equal Rights Amendment] — I’m always looking to find commonalities and say, do people of color and queer people have anything in common? If so, do we have a movement to share? Assuming that people are one or the other, and of course there are people who are both. My personal interest would be having those conversations at a giant rally in Washington. But those aren’t really happening, so they’re happening in the characters. They’re happening in story.
Episode one [“Elizah”] is just a total intersectionality koan, or something. There’s this character named Elizah (Alexandra Grey), and the whole season has this Passover underlying story. It ends with a seder, in episode 10 [“Exciting And New”], on a cruise. There’s a lot of stuff about freedom and liberation, and this character of Elizah, who’s kind of a representative of the Elijah character in the seder. As she’s standing there in the mall at the climax of episode one [an argument in the shopping mall] — is she saying, I’m a trans woman of color. On my left are these people of color who work at the mall with me, and who are here to protect me. On my right is a trans woman, and she needs my protection. What do I do? Who am I? Confronted with my intersectionality divided. These people who would connect with me over race, this person who would connect with me over my trans status.
To me intersectionality isn’t one interesting word. It’s everything. It’s the center of everything right now. It is the only word that we have that organizes the questions of how there can be a forward-moving power movement on this planet. Ali is similarly obsessed — as one of my main characters, I get to make her obsessed with the same things I’m obsessed with.
She talks about feeling unsure about taking part in it, too. She says she fears to study black writers because she’s afraid she’ll do it wrong. Is that a fear you’re depicting, or one you identify with?
Both. I mean, it’s such a tightrope to do that first episode. I felt the culture changing while we were making it. For me to be a white person telling a story about an African-American trans woman, and not being African-American or trans myself, it’s a very delicate use of my privilege. I read an article where Ava DuVernay and Oprah were talking about the difference between reflection and translation, reflection and projection. And I’m translating and projecting while I’m telling stories about African-American trans women, because I’m not African-American or trans. So there need to be more trans creators.
I’m always looking to hire trans people and bring trans and gender-nonconforming and people of color into any of our various industries at Topple [Productions] and allowing women of color to tell their own stories. Allowing trans people to tell their own stories. That was part of our learning curve in season three: Whose story do we have the right to tell?
There’s a push and pull between who has the right to say things. There’s a feeling that people who haven’t felt or identified as something shouldn’t say things, and conversely that only people who have felt something should say specific things. As a creator, this must be a difficult thing to navigate.
Well, it was so easy for me to fall on either side of the tightrope. I could say, as a white upper-middle class Jewish queer person, I should only tell stories about white upper-middle class queer Jewish people. And then somebody who might be from a different class or who might be racially different will say, well, why are you only telling your stories, why don’t you tell my stories? Then I go, yes you’re right, I will also tell these stories and then people say, why would you tell the story of somebody you don’t represent?
So I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that really the only thing to do — besides attempting to tell a full version of my story which includes confronting privilege, which is a white story, which are the stories we’re telling for the “Transparent” characters this year — I also have come to the conclusion that really, my main focus needs to be identifying, hiring, teaching, grooming, distributing people of color, women of color, trans people. And giving them the space and freedom to tell their own story the same way Amazon has given me the freedom to tell my story.
It can be difficult to act in the public eye, when you’re afraid to speak or act because it could be a mistake.
I think as long as you are willing to stay in the conversation, and the follow-up conversation, and keep interrogating your mistakes, and not be afraid to face what you’re getting wrong. Which is terrifying, especially for women who want so much to be liked, to be a good girl, for people to think they’re pretty. You know, whatever the things are that we were raised with that we have to believe.
I look at people like Larry David, who had a whole storyline about a family named the Blacks. And you look at Jerry Seinfeld who recently said on a talk show [“Steve Harvey”], you know, I love black people. There are straight white men who absolutely, positively, aren’t called on the carpet for the things that people like me and Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer are.
Women — especially vulnerable women who lead with their vulnerability — they hold it up there and go okay, there’s something wrong with me. I look at Lena Dunham, I look at her remarks about that evening [at the Met Gala, where she commented that football player Odell Beckham, Jr. didn’t notice her], and she was sort of holding up this idea: I felt like s–t that night. I think society goes, yeah you are. You’re a piece of s–t. When women or people of color or trans people or queer people attempt to name their self by leading with their vulnerability — it almost becomes this bullseye for society to go, thank you for your vulnerability, we’re going to attack, right there. It’s not happening to Larry David, it doesn’t happen to Jerry Seinfeld. It doesn’t happen to Louis C.K. There are so many white cis men who are taking such risks with race and gender. “Louie” did a whole episode about a trans woman. This person was played by a cis person. And people talked about it a little bit, but people didn’t attack. People leave straight white men alone for the most part.
You’ve talked about the female gaze before. When you’re thinking about filming “Transparent” — and now “I Love Dick” — how consciously are you, like, “I’m going to do this female gaze thing?”
I am 100 percent consciously doing it. I don’t know if it is the female gaze, I don’t know what the female gaze is — but I’m absolutely investigating. It’s a 100 percent of what I’m focusing on, not only so I can express myself, but so that I can be really, really clear on the tools of storytelling and filmmaking. So that I can share them with women, people of color, and queer people — people who have been historically otherized and kept from the gaze. I’m like an archaeologist with a toothbrush, just going, what if I put the camera here?