Jill Soloway's 'Transparent' Reckoning
VOX: Alright, from WNYC Studios, this is Nancy. With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
VOX: Are you...trying to get my number? Is that what’s going on? Is that what’s happening?
VOX: Are you hitting on me?!
TOBIN: Unfortunately I play for the wrong team.
VOX: Um, excuse me, excuse me.
VOX: Fluidity baby!
TOBIN: So, we’re going to go back in time a bit...
KATHY: OK, how far back?
TOBIN: Back to 2014.
TOBIN: Barack Obama is president, the winter olympics are happening in Sochi, everyone is doing the ice bucket challenge...
KATHY: Ok. got it.
TOBIN: And also...a groundbreaking show makes its debut…
[MUSIC: Transparent theme]
KATHY: I remember that.
TOBIN: And the show lands at this moment where transgender rights are just starting to reach the mainstream. But slowly, and sometimes with a lot of problems, Caitlyn Jenner hasn’t come out yet. Jared Leto wins an Oscar for playing a trans character even though he is not trans. Laverne Cox has to explain to Katie Couric why it’s not OK to ask about a trans person’s genitalia on TV.
KATHY: Oh my god. And I just remember feeling like this show...it arrived at just the right moment.
TOBIN: Yeah, totally. So for people who haven’t seen it, Transparent is about a trans woman coming out to her family late in life. And all of the characters felt really real, especially in the ways that they were imperfect, difficult...even sometimes unlikeable.
MAURA: (whispering) I love you kids, I love you kids.
[almost exclusively crosstalk]
SARAH: It is cancer, oh my god
ALI: Daddy, are you dying? Just tell us if you're dying.
SARAH: You were right...I knew it was cancer
ALI: Daddy, are you dying?
JOSH: I don't think he has cancer.
SARAH: Just tell us if you're dying
JOSH: He looks good
MAURA: Thank you
ALI: It doesn't matter how he looks
SARAH: Remember Jill Goldberg? She had a melanoma for three years. They couldn't see it then boom, she's dead.
JOSH: Jill Goldberg is dead?
TOBIN: But the show also wasn’t without controversy. The fact that the main character Maura was played by a cisgender male actor, Jeffrey Tambor, made a lot of trans people angry. In later seasons, we got to see a lot more trans actors in supporting roles...and the show was known for hiring trans writers and crew behind the scenes.
KATHY: But after the last season wrapped, it was widely reported that Jeffrey Tambor had been accused of harassment during production, charges he has denied. He was fired from the show. And Transparent went from critical darling to maybe over.
TOBIN: The creator of Transparent is Jill Soloway who identifies as gender non-binary. Before Transparent they worked on shows like Six Feet Under, United States of Tara. And now they have a new book out: It’s called She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy.
And, you know, Jill is a complicated public figure...some people feel like they haven’t done enough to reckon with what happened on the show while it was going on...or even now. In a lot of ways, this book is Jill’s attempt to talk about it...and explain their understanding of their own gender and how that’s evolved.
KATHY: We talked about a lot of that when they came into the studio...but we started the conversation before Transparent...I heard the story about how they almost got a job at the show Glee, but got turned down by Glee’s creator, Ryan Murphy.
JILL: Yeah it was just this moment I actually want to make sure that there is I don't want to continue putting air into some idea that Ryan Murphy wronged me because I totally worship him and I'm so glad he's doing what he's doing and. But it was a moment for me where I thought I was going in one direction and went in another like super duper heavily heavily prepared for a meeting where I thought I was going to be working on Glee and just kind of saw it as my life path in this moment when I was sort of at rock bottom financially and hadn't gotten a job for a really long time and had been trying to get my own thing going get my own thing going make my own show and realizing OK I'm not going to be able to get my own show going you have to go work on another show. I thought that Glee was going to be my golden ticket to rescue me from poverty and had these great meetings, was told I got the job. Popped the champagne and then I started to celebrate and imagine my new life working on Glee and then the offer didn't come the offer didn't come the next day the phone didn't ring the phone didn't ring the phone didn't ring the phone didn't ring I called my agent like what's going on with the glee offer. And they're like OK I have to tell you something. They asked around about you...word is you're difficult.
KATHY: What does that mean.
JILL: I don't know. I mean maybe just that I vigorously wanted my own thing. Maybe maybe it was a good thing that meant I wanted to make my own thing happen maybe I'm too bossy.
KATHY: Like you had ideas.
JILL: I think it could be a gendered thing. You know men don't really get that. I think women get a thing where if your you have a lot of ideas and they're coming out of the face of a lady you have to be kind of careful of how you express them. You can't vigorously say I want this and I want that because it sounds upsetting coming from a woman I think.
JILL: Which brings us to the theme of the book she wants it's hard to have artistic creative political desire when desire is something that is shamed in women and girls from an early age.
KATHY: That's true. I feel that.
TOBIN: Right. Right. Well and so then you know speaking about sort of hitting this glass ceiling in your career you then go on to start topple which is your production company. And it's you sort of created this very intentionally inclusive and open space. And I was wondering if you could talk about like what were the things that you did to foster that at your company.
JILL: Well let's see we have some topple principles that name what we're up to what we're doing and certain things like our revolution must be intersectional, gather often, things you know about like not throwing people under the bus. Emotionally connecting. process over product. So there are all these kind of little sort of secret tweaky anti capitalism hacks. You know of course we want to have a great product. Of course we want it to be marketed to the world. Of course we want everybody to love it but we don't focus on those things when we're making things we focus on how it feels to be in the room with each other and making sure that the process has integrity, people feel safe, People feel inspired to go to other risk spaces and that's that's our formula.
KATHY: And then you know from there moving onto like sets like on Transparent. I read that you had people go to workshops you made sure to hire trans actors and crew members and stuff like that. And even with all of that really great intention like something like the the situation with Jeffrey Tambor still happened and like I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that.
JILL: Yeah I think you know at first I was feeling really like Wow does this mean that all of our principles were bullshit if this could still happen on our set.
KATHY: Yeah yeah.
JILL: And then I really reminded myself this is a reckoning. This is a tsunami that's happening on the entire planet. It's not just happening to us it's happening to everybody. Anywhere where there are men in power people are starting to reclaim the right to be in the world without being exposed to toxic male power. And so for me as somebody who's been saying topple the patriarchy for all of these years and for me as somebody who's been believing in this revolution I had to take you know eventually had to find a way to take my own personal feelings my feelings of hurt feelings. You know how could this happen. And anything that would be self-centred or shame based like oh my god what did we do wrong. Which of course are huge questions that I and all of us had to go through. Important questions... but it was such a cultural shift such a huge moral reckoning for every single person in the country and all workplaces that you know I felt like you know of course it could happen to us as well.
TOBIN: Yeah well and you write in your book about how a lot of the first wave of emotions that seem to hit you was about like oh no the show is going to go down. Like all these opportunities for people like in our cast and crew and the storytelling is potentially going to go away. And I feel like that must have been very complicated for you to navigate.
JILL: Yeah, yeah it definitely was. it's um.. I think I I felt like I was in a very particular position. Being somebody who was vigorously waving the time's up flag…I called it like the HQ 70s Show that's if you're into old Dewey decimal numbers the HQ 70s are where you find all the queer Jews. Magnus Hirschfeld and Sarah Schulman. Anybody who's writing about gender in Judaism is in the HQ 70s. And I sort of had this like we're the only HQ 70 show that has ever been and maybe will ever be. And now it's about to be gone. And yes it was for reasons like that for sort of this is my family this is a story based on my family. I really wanted to protect the show. And it was really hard for me to get past my feelings of protecting the show and relating humanly to the women who were coming forward. And I got there and you know I wish I had been able to get there instantly.
KATHY: Well sort of speaking about protecting the show kind of going forward. I personally have a hard time separating art and artist and I feel like that's uh..almost everything is political now at this point. I guess my question is how do you… I guess how do you still think about Jeffrey temblors performance on the show?
JILL: Yeah it's really interesting. I love Jeffrey of course. I worked with him for so many years and everybody in our family feels emotionally close to him just as we do with Trace Lysette and Van Barnes. we feel equally attached to all the people in our family and all of their humanity is important to us equally. Everybody's humanity is equally important.You know I think it's going to just take a little bit of time to ask ourselves what his performance means. And it means different things to different people. I think trans people have always felt that he was in the wrong role and have always felt hurt by seeing a cis man playing a trans woman. There are a lot of cis people out there for whom this was the perfect way to understand trans ness because he represented an American dad in Arrested Development that they could understand. Oh wow. Dad's changing! So for a certain a certain percentage of kind of straight cis popular culture audience Jeffrey Tambor actually made the most sense. Probably.
JILL: So, there's a fifth season which is a movie musical that we're working on right now.
TOBIN: I’m so excited about it
JILL: It's going to try to do a really surprising twist on this question of like who plays Maura and it's a very queer centric and trans centric processing of what happened and a cap on the creation of Transparent as well as a tunnel to a new world. The world of music and the world of musicals. So in some ways we see the show transitioning and we see this show transitioning into a musical and hopefully to go onto Broadway and to you know
KATHY: Oh my god, that would be amazing.
JILL: Yes… We got the stuff. We got these really beautiful original songs my sister has been writing for a decade and we're choreographing right now and Amazon is letting us make a big ol’ musical sort of like Somewhere between Jesus Christ Superstar and you know I don't know what it maybe and Transparent…
KATHY & TOBIN: [LAUGH]
JILL: What’s a really Jewish show?
TOBIN: It's like Transparent and I guess The Goldbergs.
JILL: A little bit of Goldbergs. A little bit of Jesus Christ Superstar, sort of Flight Of The Conchords tone, some Rent in there. So yeah we're just having fun singing and dancing and remembering the joy of creating and the joy of this family and really just kind of stirring the pot and adding all the elements to just kind of get ourselves bubbling up again.
TOBIN: After the break, Jill Soloway talks about putting their personal life on screen...and what it was like for those two worlds to intersect.
KATHY: Nancy will be back in a minute.
KATHY: We’re back to our conversation with Jill Soloway.
TOBIN: So one of the things I found fascinating about Transparent and Jill is that they actually pulled a lot from their personal experience for the show...One of Jill’s parents also came out as a trans woman…and a lot of what Jill and their family experienced is reflected in what the character Maura goes through on the show with her kids.
ALI: And I renamed him.. her... her, him, what do I call him or her?
SARAH: What do you mean?
ALI: I renamed him last night. I started calling her.... her.... "Moppa."
ALI: Yeah, like Momma and Poppa. Moppa
SARAH: That's actually really sweet
ALI: It's not sweet, it's insanity!
KATHY: By the way, Jill also calls their parent “Moppa.”
TOBIN: So you write in your book about the experience of having a parent come out to you, your Moppa. Having your Moppa come out to you as trans. What was that experience for you like at the time and how has it changed for you over time?
JILL: Yeah it's kind of always changing and it's really nice to talk about it from my position now as a nonbinary person who sometimes identifies as trans. As I’m trying to look back on the journey, the person who experienced that moment was cis was straight and was going like holy shit everything isn't as I thought. The person I am now looking back on it was entering a door of freedom to reinvestigate my own relationship with gender and our family's legacy. And so you know the phone call has been many different things. It was it was one thing on the day it happened. And it gave birth I think to me really wanting to write transparent almost in a way where I was running to get ahead of my anxiety. Like if I can very quickly write something that makes all of this seem kind of cool. I'm going to be OK. And even the amount of fear I had in the short while following that phone call. I look back on and I think oh my god I really had so much shame. I was afraid to tell certain people, I couldn't imagine telling certain people and there were a lot of people in my life, people that I was really close to who I didn't tell until I said I'm working on a new project. I have a cut of the pilot would you like to watch it. They watch it and then I would say this is my story.
JILL: It was like the pilot allowed me to wrap it in gift wrap that made it OK for me to hand to somebody.
KATHY: Can you describe the scene in transparent when the Maura comes out.
JILL: So in the pilot, Maura comes out to the audience at a support group.
MAURA: I made a commitment here last week that I was gonna come out to my kids, and I didn't do it. Because it just wasn't time, you know? They are so selfish.
JILL: And then I think we cut to like the second episode which is you know Maura coming out to Sarah.
SARAH: Are are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?
MAURA: [CHUCKLES] No, honey, all my life, my whole life I've been dressing up like a man.
KATHY: How...how similar was that to happened in real life?
JILL: In real life my parent came out on the phone. It was actually my friend Nicole J George's whose a cartoonist who had such a beautiful reaction when I called her and told her it was like I called my queer friends first because I had trans friends and queer friends and I understood transness in my social life. It was just that my parent was from such a different generation and also because I knew my parent as my father that I was just feeling this lack of equilibrium. And Nicole said something like Oh my God it must be such a relief for her to get that fuckin monkey suit off.
KATHY: Did you feel like you were able to in the pilot tell a version of the story that was more comforting for yourself?
JILL: Yeah well first of all it wasn't us. It was people playing people who were a few people removed from our family so it had that emotional distance. So I could kind of empathize with my parent imagining how she felt by writing a scene for Maura and her support group talking about her children being selfish. And it's sort of like I really wanted to take up residence in all sides of the perspective mine and my sisters and my moms and also my parents, my moppa’s, and allow everybody's perspectives to be valid in writing the pilot. And you know that style of writing I learned from Alan Ball with six feet under is this kind of moving narrator. It's very anti-hero's journey. It's like let's check in with everybody and everybody has a different perspective. There is no hero there is no villain. You know the villain is reality. The villain is life. The villain is trying to get through life but we’re all doing our best. And it- it was a way of me healing my family's understanding of ourselves.
TOBIN: You as a writer it sounds like it allowed you to be compassionate in a way that maybe someone who doesn't have that might not have been in this moment when your moppa came out to you.
JILL: Yeah yeah I mean I think I was definitely compassionate for sure. You know it was really very hard for me to imagine that at the age of 75 she had held this her entire life that seemed to really really sad. But also I was so proud of her and so amazed that she had taken the steps to get to the place where she could come out. I mean what what a journey what a person. I'm always reminding her you know you changed the world moppa, you changed the world. She says you changed the world Jillian I go no you did actually. You could have gone to your grave with this. I could have never known. And you knew you had to tell us. And by telling us we all changed and I got to write the show that changed so many people and so many people come up to me and say I came out because of your show I used your show to come out. You know the same thing. Watch that show. OK we have to talk. So the promise of what can happen from one person sharing their truth with another. A person turning their need to be okay into art and how the specificity of that emotional work can translate to other people. It's kind of mind blowing I feel. I feel so lucky.
KATHY: Has that come back into your life like for you to come out to maybe the other parts of your family like your sons about being nonbinary?
JILL: Yeah it's very kind of like gentle journey my nonbinary ness is this thing where like I think for the past you know two or three years I've kept checking in with myself and going like, “Is this really true or are you really non-binary or are you making this up?” Like what is this thing you're saying about yourself. Could you stop being this today. What if somebody said you're not nonbinary you have to be a woman you know would you be upset. And like yeah I actually would be really upset. I have to remind myself over and over again oh this designation that says you are neither a man nor a woman in some ways you're both sometimes you're either, you're constantly moving back and forth between one and the other or you're neither. All the time.. actually feels like a very comfortable safe idea of how I want to feel and who I want to be. I'm neither both either and constantly able to change from either, both, either, all the time. What an amazing place to move through the world.
TOBIN: well so with this awareness you're gathering of sort of how gender is operating in your life and in the world. How do you talk about it with your sons? How do you talk about gender with your sons?
JILL: My older son is in his 20s and he goes to the new school so he gets it. There's no environment that he enters where people aren't always naming their pronouns. When I talked to Isaac about my moppa way before I was even thinking about my own gender. Isaac understood my parents trans ness in a really natural way before I did. And my younger son is 9 and yeah he's he gets it too. I mean you know I'm still mostly mom and she and around the house and I don't ever hassle anybody if they say she or her so I say I use both pronouns I use she and her and I also use they and them because there are many places where it's just easier to identify as she and her and not make a big deal out of it.
JILL: I don't know who listens to this audience but like if there are any young people listening to us talk right now they'd be like the the the the. I know this I know this the the boring boring boring boring. You know, if you look at like tumblr, we're way behind. I'm talking about this thing of like nonbinary as if it's like. And so there is this thing which is neither a male nor female, I’m acting like it's really important, like 25 percent of people under the age of 18 apparently in California identify as nonbinary.
KATHY: I did not know that fact.
JILL: Yeah. Any kids are listening to this they're really embarrassed for us. We’re being So.. such fucking grandpas and grandmas right now because they’re all like yeah, duh.
KATHY: Jill Soloway’s new book, She Wants It, is out now. For season 5 of Transparent, you’re gonna have to keep waiting.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: Alright, credits time!
KATHY: Matt Collette and Matt Frassica!
TOBIN: Production fellow…
KATHY: Temi Fagbenle!
TOBIN: Sound designer…
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Jenny Lawton!
TOBIN: Executive producer…
KATHY: Paula Szuchman!
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Barack Obama is president...The Winter Olympics are happening in Sochi...everyone is doing the ice bucket challenge…
KATHY: Oh my god, I did that.
TOBIN: And also...a groundbreaking show...wow I actually have to stop.
TOBIN: I just computed that you said that you did it.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] I’m surprised you kept going.