Earlier this year, Jill Soloway delivered a powerful keynote address at South by Southwest about the film and TV industry’s lack of female directors. She asked all the men in the audience to stand up and imagine growing up as women do: being told they can be anything they want, but surrounded by evidence that they can’t. As Soloway spoke, she flipped through a slideshow of paintings depicting God and Jesus as women, along with the photos of every president, including President Trump, as women. Then she asked women to stand up and gave a similar speech, only this time about a world that catered to them and only them, where if they got tired of their families, they could retreat to their woman caves, even though they’d already taken over the TV room to watch other women playing sports. (“Because you need space! You need so much space!”)
Afterward, Vulture spoke to Soloway about the origins of this “body experiment,” how Trump’s election has affected her new show I Love Dick, the future of Transparent, and the next step in the fight for transgender bathroom rights.
Where did you come up with the idea for that slideshow? I loved it so much.
It’s something I’ve been wanting to make forever. I remember sitting in a classroom with the images of the presidents around my head, being like, “Okay, I know I’m the smartest person in the classroom, so I’m gonna run the world. ” But [points to imaginary portraits] man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man. So I really wanted to translate what it feels like to wonder, “Why can’t I?”
We’re not socialized to understand the depth of the feminist movement and human rights struggle for women. In school, when they teach you all the presidents, they say, “These are the presidents.” They don’t say, “This is the way white hetero patriarchy has been instilling itself in our lives. This is awful that these are all men. This is a form of emotional abuse. We’re gonna teach you all the presidents, and we’re really, really sorry women, we’re really sorry little girls, this must be hard for you.” They just go, “These are the presidents. Memorize them.”
Has the election of Donald Trump affected Transparent and your new show, I Love Dick?
It’s affected I Love Dick maybe even more because we were shooting it during the election. I Love Dick is a show that’s specifically meant to take on the patriarchy and was conceived in a world where we assumed we were going to have our first female president. I Love Dick is about anger. When the election happened, it just became so much more necessary.
I’ve seen the first two episodes. Chris Kraus, the character played by Kathryn Hahn, is just out to destroy her life and everyone around her.
She just keeps getting worse! She doesn’t stop. She lets her desire be the driver. She just keeps fucking it up for herself. I Love Dick is a tale of objection, which means she allows the way that Dick ignores her to fuel her hardest voice. It’s the perfect thing in terms of the election — here’s this awful, awful, awful man who openly degrades women and was elected to take care of this country. To me, it’s like you live with your single mom, your dad left, and she starts dating this really weird guy who wants you to call him “uncle” and comes over to the house with this awful toupee and his smelly cologne and his horrible convertible and he’s got a bombastic personality and he looks at your tits. It’s this very familiar feeling of, This awful shit is coming to our house and we’re all supposed to treat him like he matters. We know he’s awful because he smells awful and he looks awful and he’s treating us awfully, and we’ve been told he’s our new daddy.
For women, it was and continues to be this incredibly triggering experience. It’s not just about Hillary didn’t win. It was a year when a woman was finally ready to win, it was a year when a woman should have won — so overqualified — but because of a subtle misogyny, because 70,000 people decided to settle on the narrative of her as a liar, that’s all it took to make the difference. It’s a spiritual crisis for women on the entire planet that somebody who — forget the pussy-grabbing thing — somebody who runs beauty pageants is president.
I talked a lot about pageants in my [keynote]. It really messed with me as a little girl. Because I loved them. I had my paper and pen out and I picked my favorite and I loved watching them. I had the Miss America Barbie doll. And you look at people like Ivanka and Melania and even Kellyanne Conway to some extent, you watch them make the trade, which is, “I will become more powerful through my ability to be good at being looked at, that looked-at-ness allows me access to this man’s world and this man doesn’t care about his looked-at-ness. In fact, he’s ultimately ugly.” We have to crack through this prism, that demand to be looked at.
How did you get the idea for I Love Dick?
Sarah Gubbins, who wrote the pilot, sent me an article that was in The New Yorker about Chris Kraus and we were like, “I can’t believe that there’s a book called I Love Dick.” That’s the funniest name ever. There’s nothing better than sitting in public holding up your I Love Dick book. It’s just such a funny cover.
One of the things about the book that was so fascinating was here was a story about a woman and her husband who are both obsessed with a man. We’ve never seen this kind of love triangle, where a woman says to her husband, “I have to tell you something, this is really embarrassing, but this guy is turning me on.” And then the husband goes, “Let’s talk about him. It turns me on when you tell me about him. I want to hear about Dick.” Her trying to engage this masculinity that’s actually engaged with other masculinity. That’s a perfect metaphor for what this world feels like to me.
Women are used as conduits for men to experience other men. Men will go to strip clubs together, they’ll look at Playboy together, Donald Trump and Billy Bush will go on the bus and be like, “What about that fucking slut? What are you gonna do to her?” It’s not about that woman; it’s about the fact that she was a conduit for Billy Bush and Donald Trump to talk about sex together. It’s really homoerotic. There’s so much homoerotic reality in the lives of American men. People are like, “What are you talking about?” And I go, “Men watching porn are looking at dicks all day long.”
So what happens to Chris’s story about her love and attraction for this man when her husband gets ahold of it and tries to make her a conduit? That’s the really intellectual version of it. The simple version is a love triangle where both the woman and the man are interested in another man. That’s so juicy, so soapy, something I’ve never seen.
Really, it’s a show about a woman finding her true voice. By describing the conditions of her confinement, which is patriarchy, it’s just perfectly set up for this moment in history, which we had no idea was coming. The morning after Trump won, I came to work and I was like, “Guys, louder, uglier, worse, monstrous.” There are a lot of lines in the show about Chris wanting to be a female monster. All the women in town start to want to be monsters fueled by their own desire. That’s one of the effects that Trump had on me: I really started to be able to let go of my shame. I want all the little girls of the world to dream of one day growing up and being an awful president. [Laughs.] We shouldn’t just have to want to be president. We should want to be a disgusting president.
Has Trump fueled Transparent in a different way?
Yeah, for sure. We’re shooting episode four of season four right now and we’re taking on global problems. All I can say is that Ali [the character played by Gaby Hoffmann], in her gender journey, finds herself wanting to explore things like borders and boundaries. Ali’s story in season four is really about becoming an activist and about wanting to embody a nonbinary reality.
I just finished editing my first episode and I was just like, “I don’t need any more of the emotional music in between the scenes.” I don’t want to create genial connections. I saw this movie called Krisha, and I loved the way it was just so openly ugly and so much about a kind of hunger and appetite. I did a lot of saluting of Krisha in my directing of my first episode. I just wanted my filmmaking to be more bombastic and less sweet and less worried about being likable. Like a lot of artists, especially women and people of color, I just don’t really give a shit anymore. Doing what I want, making what I want. I’m not going to try to make my work likable.
Are there any overt Trump references in there?
A little bit, but not actually.
During the election, Trump said transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice, then he reversed himself. What’s your take on the fight ahead?
We’re at such an early point in both this administration and the fight for trans rights. If it’s on a scale of 100, we’re not even at one yet. I don’t know what Trump is doing in terms of making promises and then enraging people and using outrage on the left as a tool. He might be using it to keep us distracted. I don’t feel like we should be thinking about his policy or his shifts because I think that they’re being carefully un-thought out. Like an un-studied mess. Things are carefully appearing messy to keep us running around, trying to mop up the messes as liberal people. While much more devious, much darker, much more awful things are being done about our global safety.
We’ll never know why the Gavin Grimm case got turned away from the Supreme Court. We don’t know if they wanted a lot of chaos to occur on the state level. I don’t understand enough about how the government works to really understand what this is going to do. There are some people who felt like the Supreme Court case was coming too soon. That we weren’t ready. Gavin being a focal point was very exciting because we finally had our Roe v. Wade person, but there are people who said we actually need a little bit more time to get our act together, in terms of having the entire country’s public consciousness ready to advocate.
As an advocate for trans rights, what do you do right now?
About bathrooms? I think if you are invested in the urinal business, that’s on the way out. If you’re a business owner, create a bathroom where there’s sinks and stalls. People like stalls. I don’t want to be essentialist and say women need this and men need this, that men like to pee in public and women like to pee behind a door. I know a lot of men who don’t like the urinal. People need privacy. Let them have a stall. Of any gender. I’ve been going to the bathroom for 50 years. I’ve never seen anybody’s genitals in a public restroom.