Jill Soloway

Trans Discourse

Air Date: November 28, 2015

Jill Soloway, creator of the Amazon original series Transparent, talks about gender identity.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Fascinated, enthralled, and amazed. These were just three of the emotions running through my bones when binge-watching Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking Amazon Prime series Transparent. And days and months later reflecting on her momentous Golden Globe-winning work.

The show stars Jeffrey Tambor as a 70 year old father who comes out to his three adult children as a transgender woman and transitions gender assignment from male to female, from Mort to Maura over ten episodes. “Such precision about language, politics, and etiquette is ever-present in the cultural milieu that Soloway entered when creating the show,” The New York Times wrote about our guest’s series. Soloway told NPR I think of my work as this kind of holy trinity … funny, dirty, sad. It’s really easy to be funny, you get a lot of funny people in a room, the show is funny. It’s really easy to do sad, you just put some sad music on and write dramatically and everybody can do that. It’s really hard to get dirty right.

Now she’s developing a female MTV comedy about two women who are hit by lightning after meeting at a camp ten years earlier and who bond over enthusiasm for feminism. And I want to thank Jill so much for being on The Open Mind today.

SOLOWAY: Great to be here.

HEFFNER: What is contemporary feminism according to Jill Soloway?

SOLOWAY: I feel like feminism has been at a bit of a, of a dead end for the past I don’t know, five or ten years where uh, feminists have been fighting about things like whether or not Emma Watson is a feminist, whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist. There were the sort of second and third wave feminists and I guess the first wave feminists who um, you know, the sex positive thing ended up I think causing some real trouble for feminism.

When I came up, it in, uh, women’s studies, it was all anti-porn and then now the sort of sex-positive feminists came to the forefront and uh, the question I think of um, these huge questions, huge questions about, about porn, about consent, about beauty standards, about gender presentation, um, about gender, uh, trans, transwomen and lesbians sort of are, are in a, or have been in a bit of a standstill. Um, so I think that feminism is just about to break open into a place where there can be a lot of inclusivity and a lot of um, conversation and hopefully a lot of excitement, and things seem like they’re changing right now.

HEFFNER: And for our viewers on PBS who have not yet downloaded and streamed Transparent on Amazon Prime, tell us a bit about the history here, it’s personal, it’s intimate.

SOLOWAY: Um, well I’ve been a TV writer for I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 years, if not more, and was kind of uh, uh, always trying to figure out what that show was gonna be for me, what was gonna be the moment where I created, um, something that was gonna break through. I always felt, I would, I would go into meetings and pitch ideas and say to TV executives I want to write something that nobody’s ever written before. Um, I want to create television that’s gonna change the world, and I didn’t really know, you know, what I was talking about when I said that, I didn’t have anything in mind, I just sort of was speaking that way generally. And then, in my own life, my parent came out as transgender maybe 3 or 4 years ago now, and then they did and I, I realized that uh, there was a whole huge part of my legacy that I was only beginning to understand. I also realized that um, that this was gonna become my cultural contribution.

HEFFNER: What has been the most surprising takeaway, Jill, about the reception?

SOLOWAY: Yeah, well I think it was surprising for us and it was also probably surprising for Amazon, because I watched as Amazon went like oh, let’s you know, let’s dedicate more attention, more money to the marketing and the publicity of this show because people in a wide range of you know, there’s a wide range of audiences who are responding so yeah I think for us, we did think there would be like those feminists who are like this is my show or maybe Jewish people or maybe queer people or maybe people with trans people in their lives or gay people in their lives would say this is my show. The show has really caught on as just a sort of a very loveable family show for a really wide audience, and that’s been incredibly exciting.

HEFFNER: When you were accepting your award, you were perfectly, no pun intended, transparent in your endorsement of these values that are shifting as you describe, a whole generation towards not only a greater sympathy and consciousness but a, a real respect for community that’s, that’s struggled, uh, you’re, um, completely emphatic in that position and I think back to, to Jodie Foster’s comments only a year or a few years earlier, which were kind of cryptic and um, not as long as a half decade later, you’re on the stage, um, embodying, uh, advocacy for um, a, a long-maligned, um, group in, in this country. Tell, tell me about that moment because it, it really um, so uh, viscerally hit people.

SOLOWAY: I appreciate that, thank you for saying that. Yeah, I know when we started writing the show and started creating the show, the actors, writers, me personally, we were really thinking about it as art and thinking about it as comedy and drama and trying to get the, you know, story right and shoot great scenes and I was learning how to direct and learning how to really create my own show and it was, it was really about creativity. And of course the process is always gonna be primarily about creativity, primarily about creativity but as we started to put the show out into the world, we recognized how important the show was to the civil rights movement of the trans community right now. Um, that the trans community is really at the beginning of a civil rights movement and it’s huge, the number of um, you know, laws that still have not been changed, it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against trans people in a majority of the states, you can say, you can say to somebody, no you can’t have this apartment because you’re trans. Um, no, you’re actually getting fired because you’re trans. Oh you can’t use either restroom actually because you’re trans, that’s legal in most states, so we are just like at, if the, if the, you know, if the um, if the civil rights movement has you know, is at a hundred, we’ve probably only gone one percent so far. Uh, first we need to get the basic human rights in order. Um, and so yeah, in preparing for the possibility that I might win at the Golden Globes, that the show might win, I definitely like sort of took off the table the notion that I would approach the stage and go ah, oh my God, um, okay, oh phew, what am I gonna say? Like I knew that um…

HEFFNER: No you freed us from that too. [LAUGHS]

SOLOWAY: Well that’s a, that’s a luxury I think and I recognize that uh, if we had the, a moment where we were gonna have the ears and eyes of potentially the entire globe, you know, with an international audience, then I wanted to use those 30 seconds and they were very clear, you know, 30 seconds. I wanted to make sure that I use those, those 30 seconds to potentially affect the movement and to um, help as many trans people be humanized in as, as many places in the world. So yeah I, I worked hard to make sure that um, I, if we won I would be able to speak clearly and speak open-heartedly about love and about compassion and connection with the trans community.

HEFFNER: How moving. Jill, does that make you an artistic activist or an activist artist, how do you think of yourself?

SOLOWAY: Yeah, I think of myself as an artist and I think um, artists are activists, a lot of times when things change in the world of politics, they happen culturally first, they happen with the artists first. Arts and culture can change people and then the people can make demands for the government, um, make demands, make political demands based on how they’re, they’ve um, you know, transformed. So um, yeah I think you know, it was really cool to hear Obama say the word transgender for the first time in his uh, in his speech a few weeks ago and I had people Facebooking me and saying it’s because of your show, you know, but I think that yeah, when you, when you get to know trans folk, um, and you know, let’s say uh, you know, Ian Harvie, the character who plays um, Ali’s boyfriend Dale, you know, in episode 7, and he’s a transman and uh, you know, you watch, besides, besides Maura, all the other trans people, you know, something as simple as, as caring for a person like that and saying listen if they go to the mall, they have to run home to go to the bathroom, they’re not safe anywhere. Uh, it’s really just an odd, [LAUGHS] odd thing that our country still hasn’t quite figured out how to do, so um…

HEFFNER: So are we embarking on the end of a stigma, Jill?

SOLOWAY: Yeah, it’s gonna take some time, I mean um, I’m learning so much about gender and gendered language and gendered spaces and, and uh, you know, there are, there is a lot of use for gendered spaces, people use the idea of gender to break down the feeling of chaos in the world, you know? I notice gender all the time now so you know, I’ll be waiting to get on an elevator and notice that you know, somebody, ladies first, you know, it’s like the chaos of 10 people standing in front of an elevator and figuring out you know, how do we get on? Well one thing that people do is they let ladies go first. And uh, what’s a lady? Is that somebody who’s, you know, born female, who’s dressed beautifully, is it somebody who’s female, female assigned at birth, somebody who is presenting female or presenting fem, is it, you know, it’s, it’s so odd when you start to notice the ways that gender offers people, um, tools for reducing chaos. Um, but um, the fact that people gender other people and need to, to gender other people seems odder and odder and odder to me everywhere I go, you know? I notice that waiters really like to gender people. Sometimes I’ll be at, I’ll be at a restaurant with friends of mine who are genderqueer who don’t necessarily, you know, who may be, you know, female but who may look really butch and get really offended when waiters come to the table and go ladies, you know, has anybody brought you a menu? Ladies, would you like, even though they’re female they hate being called ladies. Um, so uh, yeah, I’m not necessarily trying to create a gender revolution but I am, I am excited to be part of something that causes people to question their assumptions about gender.

HEFFNER: Like you said, it was a family story, um, how, how is that going to evolve further in, in what you’re currently working on with season two?

SOLOWAY: Yeah, well um, we’re just starting to get into it, we’re just trying to figure out what exactly the family wants for season two, um, you know, they all sort of connect to each other and they all trigger each other. In season one, we found ourselves, uh, talking about this thing we called the ring of light. It’s uh, this idea that Maura and Shelly and Sarah and Josh and Ali were all connected to this ring of light that they didn’t really understand but it was their legacy, it was their family, it was their connection, it was their Pfefferman-ness, it was the fact that they all grew up in the same home but they didn’t really know what else. They didn’t know how to take care of each other, they, they didn’t know how to really be honest with each other, um, so in season two they’re really kind of learning. In season one we asked a question that we like to call would you still love me if, dot dot dot. And in season two we’re asking the question would you still love me if I’m happy? So all the characters are going to be taking a step towards their own personal happiness and having to deal with the fallout of how that affects the rest of the people in their family.

HEFFNER: One of the motifs seems to be nature versus nurture in some sense. The, one of the questions in our conversations about homosexuality for example, are you born gay?

SOLOWAY: Mm hm.

HEFFNER: And I don’t, your, your answer is complex because it shows that the circumstances under which someone comes out, uh, as an environmental factor, can very much influence norms within a household.

SOLOWAY: Mm hm. I think in particular when you talk about you know, whether or not somebody is born gay or is gay or what their nature is, when you think about Sarah who didn’t identify as a lesbian, uh, but who identified as a straight woman but who experimented with her uh, sexuality in college so um, you know, there’s, there’s the moment before uh, Maura comes out where Sarah is um, having uh, this sort of dalliance with, with her ex, Tammy, um, and then as soon as uh, Maura comes out, Sarah really conflates and confuses Maura as coming out with her own. Uh, Sarah then decides very, very quickly oh you know, my parent is trans and I am a lesbian. Um, she sort of grafts her parents’ queer identify onto her own life as a way to I don’t know, maybe not experience the feelings of um, integrating her parents’ transness or possibly to finally grab onto something that she suspected could be her legacy but that she maybe didn’t really want to um, face. Maybe it allows her to face herself. But um, yeah, that’s very common when people come out in families, everybody starts to come out, it’s not necessarily people come out as trans, people can come out as anything, um, uh, or even go into recovery, some people you know, go back in rather than come out, they say I’m, I’m not gonna drink anymore or I’m not gonna gamble anymore and when, and a family is a system and so when one person makes a big change, uh, it automatically sets off this domino effect on everybody else in the family.

HEFFNER: So it’s nature but nurture contributes?

JUMP?

SOLOWAY: I think the best hope would be a sort of toppling of the global patriarchy. It’s probably more important for there to be some sort of you know, gender reparations first for the next hundred years before…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Explain that.

SOLOWAY: Well, there are so many women who don’t have any access to a lot of the things that men have access to, so that’s the first thing is that there’s an imbalance between um, the masculine and the feminine in our society, so uh, trans-ness is one thing and trasnmisogyny is something else entirely. Um, there’s a book called Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano who really explains how transmisogyny and misogyny are connected. Uh, when women transition and become male, they actually have a, don’t have a ton of trouble, um, because they’re going and grabbing that male privilege…

HEFFNER: Mm hm.

SOLOWAY: Um, and they, and that access to male privilege kind of gets them applauded by society, like oh look, now you’re a man, we’re happy for you. However when men transition and become women, they really, really have a hard time. Uh, transwomen are victims of violence at a rate, you know, of ten times the regular population, the cis population. Transwomen of color are murdered and like, you know, many have already been murdered this year, um, there is something about uh, the transfeminine population that really raises the ire of people and makes them the victim of violence much more so than just their transness. So um, that’s huge, that’s a really big deal in terms of you know, what this has to do with feminism and what that has, this has to do with uh, the feminine being respected in our culture. I, I, I look at things like um, so, so to me when I read Whipping Girl and I see how much more trouble transwomen have than transmen, how, how much hatred there is towards transwomen, um, it’s, Julia Serrano says, she says this idea that’s so interesting to me which is people really give transwomen a hard time through bullying, through violence because there’s this underlying expectation that anybody who would choose to be a woman must be crazy. And so, people look at transwomen with sort of subconscious judgment, um, and that’s really a hatred of the feminine, that’s a sort of, that’s an ingrained misogyny. Um, so, to me when I look at what the feminist movement is asking for, particularly around um, conserving women’s uh, right to their own bodies as well as keeping the earth safe from violence, these are, women’s relationship with their bodies and the way that we’re policed by the government, uh, the way that the earth is policed by war, uh, these are all about this planet being out of balance towards the masculine. So uh, first when I talk about the gender reparations, first we need like a few, a hundred thousand years of the feminine being in power and uh, you know, some sort of matriarchy coming into position to try and you know, do something about all the murder all over the planet. And then after that, a gender-neutral world.

HEFFNER: Hm.

SOLOWAY: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Well that’s a healthy blueprint, aspirational certainly. As we inch closer towards that, um, reparations being maybe a little unrealistic, right, no?

SOLOWAY: I can, I can dream.

HEFFNER: You can dream, no…

SOLOWAY: Female directors, female writers, you know, women politicians.

HEFFNER: No of course, is that, is that though enough of a reparation, would a reparation be in effect the United States Senate not being dominated by old white men?

SOLOWAY: I mean you know, you, you look at something like President’s Day and I recognize what, you know, what it looked like for me to be a little girl looking around at the pictures of all these white men as presidents and, and all the little girls were told you know, just by looking at who the presidents are that uh, you know, that you can’t uh, you can’t lead this country, you know…

HEFFNER: You think still though? I mean especially given,

SOLOWAY: Well so we’ve got, we’ve had one African-American president and so we might, we might have Hillary but uh,

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] But I mean in terms of who’s in the classroom? And what that curriculum is dictating? And if they’re going to assign Transparent, I hope it might not be, you know …

SOLOWAY: I mean yeah, that’s great that things are changing, I mean Shonda Rhimes spoke at the Writer’s Guild Awards and said that I think Scandal was the first time in 35 years that an African-American woman was the lead in a television show? I think the last one was Julia, about a housekeeper.

HEFFNER: Mm.

SOLOWAY: I mean there’s still so much work to be done for women and people of color, queer people and people who are otherized every single day to keep white men feeling comfortable with their privilege. I mean giving up privilege is, is really hard. And you know, white cismales, and cis is the opposite of trans, white cismales have had power for hundreds of years, thousands of years, they’re not giving it up easily, and all of the people who are otherized so that white people can have power or white cismales can have power, women, people of color, queer people, trans people are slowly but surely asking for the privilege of protagonism. Whether that means as a character on a television show, as a writer, as a director. Uh, running a company, running a, running a country, running a, a state, like you know, this is just starting, this is just starting. We’re nowhere near finished. We’re only just beginning and uh, I hope I get to live to see some of it, some of it really change.

HEFFNER: Mm hm. I think you are a representative of that, of that change, do you feel that way?

SOLOWAY: I.. uh, you know, It’s weird because I think as a kid, you know my mom is here with me, I think, I grew up in the 70s as part of the civil rights movement, my parents were activists and I really believed that the world was going to change, I really believed that the peace movement was going to work and that the war was going to stop and racism was going to end, and I believed in what you know, Dr. King was doing, you know, all of it, we were very excited as children in our neighborhood, believing that … um …revolution was really afoot, and that the world was going to become a better place and it was a real disappointment to get into my teenage years and my adult years and see that you know … things were going to get a lot, lot worse before they got better, so, it’s exciting to see that things might be getting better soon.
HEFFNER: Is the civil rights movement in your mind a model because you talk about a trajectory here that is similar to the way that folks began to think about reparations and then moving towards practical means of securing those rights in the political process – um, often senators will say, um, behind closed doors that this has been important in the political story that it was the women, it was the Susan Collins, and Olympia Snow, the presence of – the small presence of women in some of our deliberative body who created a platform where policy would actually be enacted because there wouldn’t be this divisive climate.

SOLOWAY: Yeah, well, a lot of people talk about the difference between the masculine and the feminine style of leadership, that the masculine is competition, the feminine is collaboration. Uh, you know, we, I look at all of these like you know, these monitors everywhere and all this war and all this real horrificness, real horrificness happening in our culture and um, it, it does seem like if some of the, some of the you know, male politicians would just you know, give some women just sort of maybe take a year or two off…

HEFFNER: Mm hm.

SOLOWAY: You know, just like okay we’ve had our way with the globe, we, let’s admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. Uh, we don’t know how to get from point A to point B, we thought we did. Uh, let’s, let’s get some help from, from our feminine side.

HEFFNER: So in the ideal world, does, I don’t think you’re suggesting a patriarchy is replaced by a matriarchy but yes.

SOLOWAY: Why not? Sure, let’s start there.

HEFFNER: Okay.

SOLOWAY: Yes, let’s start there.

HEFFNER: Well, well there are certainly, and I don’t, I don’t know if you’re cast as fine…

SOLOWAY: It would be fine.

HEFFNER: Well, I think it would be fine too but, but it’s, it would be as to your mind a fantastic and, and yet radical uh, departure from, from the present. And, and uh, and so I don’t want to call it a lofty vision, because you have shown real demonstrations of, of progress. But in, in the um, in the lingo, in the, in the rhetoric, in the kind of nomenclature behind these conversations, uh, how do you suggest to a woman on a college campus who uh, sees the Rolling Stone publish a story uh, alleging a gang rape, a horrible horrific scenario and in the click of a button, uh, retraction, uh, which uh, totally disregards what they just said, uh, this woman was gang raped, oh no wait she wasn’t.

SOLOWAY: I’m glad you asked about this because people don’t talk about consent anywhere near enough. To me, to me the question is not whether or not anything happened to that woman and whether or not she lied and whether or not uh, journalistically it should have been reported. I mean the fact that these questions keep coming up, the fact that these questions keep coming up, the fact that uh, over and over and over again this notion that uh, someone who says that they have been raped isn’t trusted, this to me is the interesting part.

HEFFNER: Mm hm.

SOLOWAY: The thing that the gender movement teaches us and the, the mind-blowing stuff that has occurred to me over the past few years is I’ve gotten to know women who don’t have vaginas and men who don’t have penises, is you begin to question why, uh, this question of consent is only placed on women.

HEFFNER: Hm, hm.

SOLOWAY: And uh, as long as you’re asking, Alexander, Alexander, the peop—the, the vagina is thought of as the receptive organ and thus consent is always in question because the vagina receives. Consent is never in question for the masculine, because the penis enters. And so this is the problem, is not that people are either lying or not, but that nobody’s talking about the fact that women are bec—by their very nature questioned as to whether or not they’re consenting because of their physiology. So nobody asks this question about transwomen, nobody asks this question about men. Nobody, you know, the article in The New York Times over the weekend about a, about a college student who is 21 who had an affair with a, with an older mentor who is 28 and you know, they had sex for the course, over the course of the year and now she says she was sexually assaulted, she says it was rape, she says she was a sex slave, slave, this question wouldn’t happen with a male student and a female professor because of people’s physiology.

HEFFNER: Hm.

SOLOWAY: And that to me is the unspoken thing that nobody speaks about, that nobody teaches high school students, nobody talks about with college students which is because of the way women’s bodies are built, because of the way men’s bodies are built and because of the way intercourse happens, uh, the question of consent is always upon uh, the woman or the feminine, so I wish people would have these kinds of gendered understandings of consent so that uh, these symptoms like this thing you’re talking about with Rolling Stone, this is a symptom, this is not, the question is not whether somebody is lying, the question that, the idea that someone could by lying is a, is the problem and, and all of these news stories, all this constant confusion is a symptom of an unhad discussion.

HEFFNER: On that note Jill, I want to thank you for being on The Open Mind. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the open mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.