‘Transparent’ Creator & Director Jill Soloway On Identity, Intersectionality & Toxic Masculinity

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There are numerous things we love and admire about ‘Transparent’ creator, writer and director Jill Soloway. Most recently, we love that as she accepted her second Emmy Award for directing, she stood on stage in front of the many Hollywood celebrities and heavyweights, as well as millions of people around the world, and unashamedly and loudly claimed we need to “topple the patriarchy!”.

Her show, loosely based on her own real life family experience watching her own parent go through a transition, has broken boundaries, brought transgender issues to light in a major way, and shown Hollywood that hetero-normative story lines are not the only stories and types of character arcs audiences want to see. In an interview with Variety after her win, as season 3 of the show was starting, Jill talked about how the current state of politics around identity has factored into the creative process.

While the push-back isn’t as bad as expected for such a ground-breaking show, the way it is being used in discussion around feminism and inclusivity is exciting.

“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,” she said.

The term “intersectional” might be unfamiliar to some, but for a lot of feminists like Jill, there is no other way to describe feminism, because it consciously includes other issues such as race, sexual orientation, immigration, etc to intersect with gender equality and acknowledge how differently discrimination affects different groups of people.

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“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?…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,” she said.

The fact that TV shows like ‘Transparent’ can be a vehicle to spread messages and movements is an incredibly powerful form of currency.

“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,” added Jill.

Given that the show is portraying characters and issues that haven’t been mainstream before (thankfully we have more now – Laverne Cox’s Sophia Bursett on ‘Orange Is The New Black’ is probably the other most notable example) Jill is very conscious of how she writes her characters, not wanting to assume complete authority on the transgender perspective from her own female gaze, an issue that often comes under fire in Hollywood when it is female characters being written from an entirely male gaze.

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“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,” she said.

She doesn’t believe a person should only tell stories about their own specific identity, because then many others never see themselves reflected on screen. It’s about bringing the normally excluded voices into the mainstream.

“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…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,” she said.

Something she is fighting against (in her battle to topple the patriarchy) is the unfair standards placed on female creators vs men. She used the example of how Lena Dunham spoke about the Met Gala with Amy Schumer, and complained that pro football player Odell Beckham Jr. did not want to pay attention to her. For her part, she was expressing vulnerability about being the type of woman the media and fashion and advertising doesn’t hold up as the “beauty” ideal.

Instead, she was taken to task about her irresponsible comment and her failure to acknowledge the sordid and awful history of white women crying “rape” about black men and having them subjected to horrific violence or a punishing justice system that has disproportionately imprisoned them more than any other demographic in the United States.

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While Jill is not excusing Lena’s comment, her point is how easy it is for the public to hone in on a woman’s vulnerability and hold it against her, which male comedians like Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David do not experience.

“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…“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,” she explained.

It’s one of the reasons the female gaze needs to be more present in entertainment, not just to represent a wider variety of stories on screen, but because it has a greater impact in society. In an essay for Time.com regarding Donald Trump’s heinous comments about women he admitted to sexually groping without their consent, Jill explains how the “locker room talk” excuse about Trump’s multiple sexual assaults is a clear example of how far toxic masculinity has infiltrated our culture.

“When people say, Boys will be boys and this is just the way it is, I know that’s not true. This. Can. Change. I remember how there was absolutely a moment in American history where the civil rights movement powered a hard left turn, where white people talking about black people in polite company, where using the once tossed around N word in front of another white person became cause for lawsuit, firing, social suicide, exclusion. But not so with men talking about women,” she wrote.

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Her thoughts on how this dangerous mindset has allowed to continue for so long is wholly tied into the patriarchal hold over society today. So powerful it has been, that it has successfully managed to “sort” women into two binary categories (the “whore” or the “good girl”) and enabled women to get it on the shaming. The good girls get held up high by men, are approved by men, and married by men. The other half are the “bad women, the drunken women, the passed-out women, the strippers or the sluts” who aren’t “approved” by the male gaze, and therefore become fair game for shaming.

“Women call other women these names because women are unknowingly following a map about access, a how-to manual once offered as a way to live but more recently exposed as a map to gaining access to power. Patriarchy yells loudly and whispers subtly — constantly — that ladies, you really really wanna be one of the ones held aloft, if you want to be safe,” Jill writes.

” We get it — we are only revered in relation to our ability to impress you, to earn status through positive performance ratings from you. It’s hard for us to stomp and strut and take space when we’re teetering on the tiny real estate that is a pedestal,” she continued, before explaining exactly why the patriarchal model of power needs to be taken down because it only benefits a select few.

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“White cis able-bodied educated males from the ruling class are at the top, holding nearly all of the power of the planet. You get access to this power if you’re married or related to one of these men. As you head down the pyramid, by daring to be perhaps — an unrelated white woman without a ring or poise, or gosh, a black woman, or a queer person or a trans person or a disabled person, your fall speeds up exponentially. Down down down at epic speed you go, to second- and third- and then a 10th-class citizen. Your legal rights drop away. Your safety. Your body rights drop away. You are not a body, you are a piece of a body now, you are being murdered slowly, with words and ideas,” she said.

Instead, there needs to be an equal exchange of power where the fear and stigma around people who have historically been the “other” can be stripped away to reveal the humanity we all share.

“It’s time to change the reductive, dangerous binary definitions that simplify our understanding of each other. The sooner we acknowledge the continuum on which our lives exist the sooner we’ll respect each other and embrace our glorious diversity,” she concludes.

Conversations are important, so is awareness. But having a medium like television and a vehicle like an award-winning show can help further the push toward greater equality.

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