You don’t watch the new show, “Transparent,” as much as you mainline it. Like me, you may plan to just watch one episode of the season before bed on Amazon Prime, but then find yourself hours later staggering from the couch, realizing the workday ahead is a wash. Behind the addictiveness is creator Jill Soloway, 49. I have long admired her work, not just for its entertainment value but for the layers of feminist questioning about sexuality behind it, which make her programming plug into the brain’s dopamine receptors all the more strongly. She is a peculiar Hollywood hybrid who quotes Andrea Dworkin in conversation, but also creates some of the most blithely raunchy sex scenes on television. Here, the author, filmmaker and Sundance award-winning director—also known as a writer and producer on the former HBO series Six Feet Under—discusses her ongoing challenge of pushing boundaries with feminist-friendly sexual storytelling and a heavily Jewish sensibility.
Ms. Blog: It’s very interesting that the most noted shows of two of the major streaming TV services, Netflix and Amazon Prime, are by women showcasing an astonishing diversity of female (and queer) characters. (Jenji Kohan is the creator of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and then, of course, your show is on Amazon.) Your main character is a transgender father coming out to his family, but you also have many other characters set on their own paths of exploration, including the family’s two daughters. How have these new streaming frontiers been freeing for you as a feminist producer?
Jill Soloway: The great thing about Amazon is that within hours of the show’s premiere, we had all these amazing critics saying they loved it. When you’re making a show that airs on traditional television, the networks test it with all these “average” audiences that typically feel very suburban and hostile, especially as a feminist creator who wants to push boundaries. It can be hard to push past that—sometimes it feels like they’re choosing people who hate you on purpose! But with the Internet, Amazon was essentially saying, “Hey, what do you think?” to everybody at once, and our audience immediately found it and said, “We love it!” Because of this, I think, all these new channels of distribution are especially freeing to storytellers outside the straight white cis male paradigm.
You have written in your 2005 memoir, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants, about a central question in your life, personally and professionally: women as the subject of “sexy” images versus being the creator of “sexy” images. There are plenty of boobs of all kinds on OITNB, and female nudity is a part of your show as well. How is that different in content and tone from, say, productions by male directors?
No one does sex for women well—not in film and not on TV. Women are accustomed to seeing distorted images of themselves reflected back by way of the male gaze, but media that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now—not just myself, but also showrunners like Jenji Kohan. We’re trying to show sex and desire from a female vantage point, and my ultimate hope is that I can inspire women, queer and trans people everywhere to join in and tell their truths about desire, identity and sexuality from unconventional perspectives.
What are your challenges as a filmmaker in portraying sex from a woman’s POV? Did that affect the current availability of your award-winning film Afternoon Delight? Do you think there is a double standard in seeing graphic women’s sexuality as more “dirty” than the same thing in reverse with males? You have discussed Martin Scorsese’s hooker-heavy The Wolf of Wall Street squeaking by censors and yours—with comparable content from a female POV—getting limited distribution because of its raciness.
This kind of feeds into the above—it’s all about subverting the male gaze and not allowing men to control the narrative. Male directors definitely can get away with more, especially when what’s being shown feeds into the idea of satisfying male sexuality. And it’s definitely something that makes it difficult for movies that show sexuality from a female or even genderqueer perspective to get distributed as fairly as their more male-oriented counterparts, whether it’s the MPAA or just a sales agent who’s worried that your film is too much of a risk. Personally speaking, however, I actually love to try to equalize all sexualities and genders—to try to create audience experiences that are symmetrically weighted, so that the viewers can become invested in all characters equally.
The Jewishness of the show has almost become more of a talking point than any of the story lines we’ve done about gender or sexuality. It’s more controversial to be “Jewy” these days than to be trans—the YouTube comments on the trailer for the show have people saying some outlandishly anti-Semitic things. Given the way Judaism is generally portrayed, I wind up feeling like writers use Jewishness as a character archetype or some sort of quirky personality trait, but with Transparent I was trying to portray the totality of this family’s lived experience. That meant delving deep into details of daily life that aren’t the most stereotypically Jewy but which resonate deeply with anyone who grew up in that kind of family. As for Judaism and womanhood, those are two things that for me have always sort of gone together. I think it was Andrea Dworkin who said that anti-Semitism is really just hatred of the feminine: They’re both rooted in a fear of questions. Womanhood and Jewishness are both experiences that are centered around questions, and we live in a world dominated by perspectives—in terms of both religion and gender—that are overwhelmingly answer-oriented.
What is Wifey.tv [an online curated video network for women], and what about its mission is feminist? What hole exactly is it filling?
When Rebecca Odes and I created Wifey.tv, it was borne of this notion that there was a place missing for grown-up women who want content about things other than whether you’re hot enough or whether you’re a good enough mom. It goes back to the idea of the female gaze—I’d love for Wifey.tv to become a focal point for the broadcasting of female perspectives of all varieties, whether gay, straight, old, young, cisgender, transgender. I want to use Wifey as a platform to promote female voices, either by sharing their videos on the website or through original content.
What is next for you?
There are a few projects in the works: I have a book proposal, as well as a couple features I’m developing. Wifey.tv is launching a screening series to promote films made by and about women, and we’re going into our first round of financing. Mostly, however, I’m gearing up to dive back into work on Transparent—we start writing in January, and production on the second season starts this summer.
Photo of Jill Soloway from Wikimedia Commons
Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including All in My Head: An Epic Quest To Cure An Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache. Her first two books were about Gen X women and feminism, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement (1991), noted as the first “Third Wave” feminist book.