The following is a reprint from the Spring 2015 issue of Ms. Click here to get your copy!
Jill Soloway’s series Transparent is changing the face of contemporary television in more ways than one. Previously known for her writing on HBO’s Six Feet Under and for writing and directing the film Afternoon Delight, Soloway introduces an unmatched variety of offbeat characters on her show, then has them negotiate sexuality and gender identity with a candor and clarity rarely seen on TV. The series also put Amazon Studios’ slate of original online programming firmly on the map, and what better way to do that than with a dysfunctional-but-loving family headed by a patriarch-turned-matriarch?
Ms.: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how being the child of a trans parent who came out late in life helped you shape your ideas for the show.
Jill Soloway: Most people hear the word transition and think that it’s like a door that you go through, with a before and after. The biggest lesson I’m learning is that transitioning is something that’s constantly happening and can take months, if not years. It’s more like trans-ness can be representative of a constant state of becoming, of growing, of unfolding.
Ms.: We see that unfolding in Transparent in the shifting dynamics between siblings and partners and parents and children.
Jill Soloway: You know those water rides where it’s a giant tire with your family, and there’s something in the middle that you’re trying to hold onto and it’s spinning and you’re moving at the same time? I think the shifting protagonists create a shifting morality and a shifting consciousness that makes the show just feel really fun to watch.
Ms.: With the success of the show, and as an outspoken feminist in the industry, can you speak to how you are helping shape media culture?
Jill Soloway: People are almost always perpetuating the male gaze with- out even noticing it—even women, because it’s what we’re used to. I’ve tried to ask the question, “What does the female gaze look like?” We have these stories, these myths that are handed down that were created by masculine culture, that punish women for not serving the needs of men. We have to take this opportunity to help women viewers and gender-nonconforming viewers feel like the subject instead of the object.
Ms.: What impact do you think your show has had in and around the trans, queer and feminist communities?
Jill Soloway: Because Transparent is kind of cool and because it’s a beautiful, funny, non-tragic, non-reality show portrayal of trans-ness, it invites a higher level of understanding and thought. The book Whipping Girl by Julia Serano gave me a gigantic education about how trans misogyny intersects with transphobia. I do think the inclusion of trans women in the feminist movement is going to change the feminist movement, and change it in a way that the feminist movement has been waiting for.
Ms.: Any advice for aspiring female creators?
Jill Soloway: I want to inspire women to be chest-pounding, foot-stomping and loudly screaming—insisting vigorously and vigilantly and annoyingly for their voice. You can try to enforce the idea that people need to bring women into these positions, but the truth is that women need to insist on their right to have these positions. Cis men are actively defending their right to be the subject, and they’re unconsciously afraid of being otherized by allowing women to take the camera and the pen and the director’s chair. There are so many ways in which we’re kept away from our voices and from power that nobody’s even conscious of. The fact that most reviewers are men. The fact that men will unconsciously give notes that privilege the male characters. It’s everywhere.
Rather than try to compete with men on men’s terms on men’s playing fields using men’s tools, take note of the way your femaleness provides you with the secret pathways and hidden doors and back-alley steps to power. I stopped thinking about how I was lacking in the things I didn’t know about directing—lenses, equipment, cranes, all kinds of shit—when I realized that as a mom, as an improviser, as a friend, as a camp counselor, those are the tools that make Transparent feel natural and homey. Besides just creating a really bawdy sense of overconfidence to compensate for the ways in which we don’t even realize that we give up voice, [it’s also important] to not overlook whatever feels natural to women about their power in other parts of their lives, and bring those things into their professional sphere.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. She’s written for both popular and academic venues on gender and sexuality in American culture, contemporary art and television.