chat room

Jill Soloway Wonders What the Word ‘Woman’ Is For and Revisits an Old Debate (With Jenji Kohan)

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Spoilers ahead for season four of Transparent.

In their own life, Jill Soloway is comfortable with refusal, whether it’s rejecting the gender binary, or upending traditional modes of filmmaking and the male gaze. That journey has wound its way into the main narrative arc for the youngest Pfefferman, Ali, on the latest season of Transparent, released last Friday. Season four sends the Pfeffermans to Israel, using Ali as the means to enter the politics of the region. And instead of focusing on Maura Pfefferman’s gender transition, Transparent shifts focus to Ali’s as a nonbinary person. Soloway sat down with Vulture to talk about the trouble with the gender binary, tackling Israel and Palestine, that DGA fine, and revisiting a debate over the male gaze with Jenji Kohan and Emily Nussbaum.

I want to start by asking you what gender pronoun you prefer?
Oh, I use the they/them pronouns. They, them, theirs.

Have you considered a name change?
I think about it, yeah, I have, but I haven’t really landed on anything yet. I entertain ideas. [Chuckles.]

How did it feel to shave your head for the first time?
It feels great! I mean, especially doing something like this [press junket], where I remember last year, and the year before, and the year before, and the amount of time I spent getting my hair and makeup done. These things started to add up to me just felt unfair. I was just like, “How come Jay [Duplass] doesn’t have any makeup on? Why do I have to? Because the word woman describes me?”

So, slowly but surely losing all those things that go with being femme and then moving into a place where I’m, “I’m not femme, I’m butch,” but then, there are still a lot of things about a “butch woman” that I don’t really want. [Laughs.] Whatever a woman is. Now I’m even noticing: I’ll be invited to an event and women will be, “It’s all women. There’s no men here. Woo! We can relax, because we’re women.” It is an excuse to otherize people. One person’s boundary is another person’s trigger. When you pull a group of people into a room and you say, “Well, we’re all women here now so we can close the door and say X,” what does that mean? I think by moving through the world nonbinary, I get to question that. It’s a weird place for me, because I was probably somebody as recently as five years ago, who would’ve have been saying, “women’s group, women’s meeting, women’s event, all-women event.” Then, you know, I think people move to things like “women and non-gender-conforming people,” and you just start to wonder what the word woman is for.

Right. What does the category contain?
Yeah. So for me, just being able to move into that nonbinary designation has allowed me to question these things and live in my body with the question, which is a very alive place to be.

And more liberating I would assume.
Yeah, it is liberating. And like, Amy Landecker loves the feeling of getting her hair and makeup done, and she loves looking in the mirror afterward and being like, “Yes.” That’s the thing that made me start to go, “Well, maybe it’s not my politics about what women should or shouldn’t do, and maybe it’s my gender.” The fact that there is this third gender you can identify as was a beautiful relief.

Or multiple genders maybe.
I think it’s like both and neither, either/or, all the time. I prefer neither to both actually. There’s something about the word “non” at the beginning of nonbinary that sits right with me in a way that genderqueer never did. And agender never did.

Do you see it as a kind of refusal?
Yeah, there’s something I really like about the negative start to the word. [Laughs.] There’s just like, “I’m not in. I’m out here.” It describes an otherness that feels comfortable and safe.

Do you think that we should get rid of gender categories for acting awards?
They’re so crazy, right? I think gender categories are crazy for anything. If they’re going to do gender categories for acting awards, give us some gender categories for directing awards. Because then we can have a lot more women getting Emmys, you know? The gender categories just don’t serve anybody, and all of the various awards organizations were set up to serve a particular idea.

I just don’t want women not to be getting awards anymore.

Right. I understand the protective measure of it.
Yes. I wish they would protect women directors and women writers in the same way they protect women actors by saying, “Hey, if we didn’t give you your own category, we’d live in such a patriarchal male-worshipping world, that only men would get these awards.” A huge course correction would be necessary in society before any voting entity would be considered fair. There’d have to be a 100 years of women making television and then it might be fair in the middle. White supremacy and patriarchy — again these words are natural for us — but for other people, they read that and they go, “That’s academia,” and it’s like, No, it’s like naming the air. It’s naming the water for the goldfish. We live in this.

On Transparent, Ali experiences a similar discomfort around identifying as female. Did these conversations inform her journey this season?
Yeah, but back and forth. We inform each other. We have a lot of gender-nonconforming people and people who identify as nonbinary. It’s hard to tell when you’re working on a show like Transparent what comes first, because it’s always rolling.

Do you feel like she is “they?”
Yeah, I mean we got close to giving them the “they” pronouns at the end when the family was talking about it, so maybe season five we’re going to start saying they for Ali. But we finished season four, and she’s still using she pronouns. And she might have a name change.

Do you feel like she’s a stand-in for you?
Sometimes, but really everybody is a stand-in for me. And we’re all stand-ins for each other. There’s this thing that I would do when I would talk about the way men stand. That’s Mario, you know what I mean? Like, sticking your stomach out and being like, “Yeah, I’m a guy.”

I love Mario. [Editor’s note: Mario is an improv character that Judith Light’s character, Shelly, creates.]
I love Mario! Yeah, and what it means for a woman who grew up with an anorexic psychological profile when we connect that with her feeling like a bad girl, like a wrong girl, and all of her shame. Then she feels like Mario, and then she can eat. I really relate to that horror of being a woman and growing up having to control your appetite to succeed at being a woman. I relate to Josh a lot, just in that he can’t quite figure out how to love and he wants it so badly, but he feels so inept at what it really means to just literally care for somebody. Of course I relate to Ali.

How do you think celebrity has affected your own coming-out process?
I don’t feel a huge amount of celebrity in my day-to-day life. I feel it occasionally and it’s always really lovely, because it’s always people who are like writers saying, “You’re inspiring me to write.” It’s always queer people and trans people talking about their personal transformation. For the most part nobody knows who I am, and I don’t have that feeling that the whole world knows I’m in a relationship. When I was dating Eileen Myles, we liked to joke and pretend. I was going to tweet one day, like, you be Beyoncé and I’ll be Gertrude Stein, and a joke to us about how we’re neither of those people, but in our own minds we can pretend we matter to like 100 lesbians. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I mean, a lot more than that.
Okay, 215 lesbians care. I wish people cared more, actually. [Laughs.] Not for my own narcissism, which is real, but just for all the people who are queer out there in the world who don’t really have queer people and culture to look to.

Like the symbolic value of it?
Yeah, the symbolic value. You would think we changed the world, and then you go and look at somebody like Ivanka having all of that power around her classic femininity performance, and how comforting that is for so many people. Thin, beautiful, blonde, masquerading as power.

Well, there is a power there, right?

In her possession and performance.
Yeah, but it’s a performance, I guess. And that’s the thing that feels so unfair to me. You look at somebody like Trump and you connect him to Mario. Trump’s power is in his allowing. He’s letting go. He’s a big ol’ slob. And he’s like, “Hey, may the biggest slob win. Just look at the way I treat women. Look at the awful things I say about people.” He’s so entitled about his right to lead using a kind of ugliness. Imagine women having access to that kind of gender performance. The bigger, the better. The louder, the better. The fatter, the better. The more convex, the better. We’re all being shamed by this fascist, heteronormative, mostly male, mostly white government.

How did you decide on this narrative structure to think about Israel and Palestine this season?
We like to stay relevant. Especially after Trump is in office. That means taking huge risks and going, “Yeah, we’re going to strap on and get in our flight suits and zoom right to the center of crazy controversy and stand there in that place and feel it like artists.” For me, that meant putting the family all together, ’cause we’d been facing them outwards. That was a creative challenge for me. Just wanting people facing each other, instead of outward.

And then, we facetiously wanted to take the lighthearted notion of the Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii and be like, “Well, the Pfeffermans, of course they go to Israel!” We wanted to start with that facetious, lighthearted feeling, knowing that, when you’re queer and Jewish, when you’re trans and Jewish, it’s not so simple. And we really wanted the family and Ali to learn at the same rate that the average person would learn. Shockingly, there are tons of people who aren’t deeply aware of the conflict. There are a lot of Jewish people who will still talk about Israel as, like, our happy-go-lucky homeland. If you’re involved in the queer community, if you’re involved in the academic community, you know the word Israel means something else entirely, and we needed to slowly send these elements on a collision course. The tourist Israel, the academic Israel, the queer Israel. And Ali’s interest and understanding how the binary stops her from feeling whole just felt like a perfect map to laminate onto this region.

How did you cast the Palestinian actors?
We had great, amazing people. Obviously we spoke to people who were part of JVP [Jewish Voices for Peace] and people who were BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] activists. And we met Palestinian activists and we brought as many Palestinian actors into the scene as possible. Sometimes we had to cast people who weren’t Palestinian, but who were Muslim. Some of the people were actors; some of the people were activists. We had Palestinian activists with us there at the farm, because we shot that all here in L.A. We didn’t actually go there.

So we had activists with us, helping to give birth to some of that conversation about checkpoints, about the intricacies of bureaucratic violence. A lot of people think about Israel and they think like, “Gaza, uprising, violence.” What we wanted to tell the story of was what it felt like to be Palestinian and living in Israel and just trying to live your life, having to go through the checkpoints and understanding the occupation, what it’s doing to people day-to-day.

Did you feel like there’s a pedagogical intent in that?
I mean, always. I don’t really try to shy away from that with feminism, with anything, because we’re learning. When people say, “You don’t want to be making propaganda,” I’m like, cis-hetero patriarchy has been making propaganda forever. I love the word propaganda. I had to grow up watching fucking white dudes act like women should be competing for them on the basis of their financial success — that’s propaganda. So I’m gonna make my propaganda until it’s all equal. And people just aren’t open about it, so I’ve heard those criticisms before where they say like, “Well, you don’t want your art to become preachy and I’m like, ‘Beauty pageants are preachy.’” [Laughs.]

Were there any concerns about filtering the Palestinian experience through Ali?
We run into similar things with trans stories, where this is a story about a family, there are five characters, we want to tell Davina’s story. Sometimes it’s told through Maura’s point of view as Maura’s roommate, and sometimes that feels like it works and sometimes it feels inappropriate. So we had to encounter Palestine in a way that the Pfeffermans would. And the way that Ali would, which was starting as a tourist, and like, “Oh, I met this person. Oh, they’re an activist. I’m interested in this person, now I’m learning about the conflict.” We actually kept Ali a little bit more innocent so that she could be a little bit more surprised. We had to play more within the confines of what would be realistic for this family than what we all knew and understood as activists.

What are your own views on Israel?
They’re evolving every day. The simplest thing I can say — and this is true of America as well — is what we’re looking at is a fundamentalist, orthodox religious government. The Israeli government is being run by people who have very fundamentalist views about the binary: “This is Judaism, this is Israel. A Jewish state is Israel. Israel must reflect a Jewish identity.” Well, what is a Jewish identity? What they’re reflecting is an orthodox Jewish identity. I guess I want to hold space for the possibility of a reform or reconstructionist or revivalist or a reinvention of a Jewish identity that could also take up space in politics. In the same way that Trump is our president and will openly act like it’s his Christian mission to protect people against a Muslim threat. He’s using his Christian orthodoxy to inspire people to hatred. They’re doing the same thing there in Israel.

One of the meaning of intersectionality is that even if I wanted to choose between my queerness and my Jewishness, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. Because of that, I have to dream of this other thing, which is a place where I would be able to say I love Israel. I would be able to say, as a Jew I love the dream of Israel. But as an activist, I love the dream of peace even more, and I actually do believe that all the people who are on the left do actually have a spiritual belief in peace and love and tolerance and acceptance. But because we’re so used to religion being combined with orthodoxy and repression, the people on the left aren’t really saying, “Hey, we stand for something too. We stand for peace. We stand for loving all people. We stand for accepting all people.”

I wanted to revisit a lively conversation you had at the New Yorker Festival a couple of years ago with Jenji Kohan. I was curious how you view your philosophical differences around filmmaking and the male and female gaze?
Well, there’s Emily Nussbaum, and there’s Jenji Kohan. Emily is a huge fan of Jenji’s, and Emily also has gone on record as saying, “I don’t believe in the female gaze.” I met Jane Campion for the first time last week and she said, “Oh my god, thank you for I Love Dick. You have given me explosive thoughts about art-making.” I keep meeting actresses and filmmakers who tell me that they watched I Love Dick and that it changed their relationship to their process. So for me, saying there’s no such thing as the female gaze and saying it so quickly from somebody like her, who’s a cultural namer of things, that just feels so sad to me. Wow, so many women trying to claim subjectivity through naming, how it feels to break free from having been looked at and attempting to put that into writing, directing — it’s so filled up with so much excitement for me. But there are some people who don’t actually see patriarchy. They haven’t felt harmed by patriarchy. Patriarchy means that men have a certain class, have access to things, and the women who perform well get their blessings. For people who have had access to that class and to those men, and have had the blessings of those men — white supremacy, patriarchy — those things aren’t obvious. You can’t see them. I don’t want to start a fight over whether or not cis people can write trans people, or white people can write black people. Of course they can, the question is, should they? And if you have privilege, shouldn’t you use it to try to open up the ranks a little bit?

I think about how something like television or film is so relational: It’s based on these relationships that you have with actors, crew members, writers, and directors. That inevitably creates a culture of its own that the work comes out of. Even if I do believe in principle that one person can write a different perspective from their own, if you have created a culture where there is only one group of people producing the work, then what’s really produced?
And then thinking about what it means to create a culture, like a feeling on set, or a feeling in the writers room. Like, who do we become as we see ourselves reflected in each other? Who do we grow as when we’re surrounded by people where we can just be? As a queer person, as a nonbinary person, I find myself in a room with other queer people, other nonbinary people, and you begin to relax. I’m not seen as “that lesbian,” you know? When you think about Donald Glover’s writers room on Atlanta, what it felt like to have a room of all people of color, and what that does day in, day out to those writers to believe they don’t have to look around the corner when the white person is coming to be like, “Hold on a second, protect me! Protect my view of myself!” So I’m always going to be taking a stand for as much openness as people can tolerate.

Is this a conversation you’re going to have to have with the DGA? [Editor’s note: Soloway was hit with a fine from the DGA after I Love Dick directors claimed they didn’t receive credit for scenes they shot that ended up in other episodes.]
[Laughs.] I’m trying to figure out how to, yeah, because there’s a lot of group process going on. There’s a lot of group process going on, and scenes will move from episode to episode to episode. I can say that I find it fascinating that I Love Dick, which was a book that was meant to excite and antagonize patriarchy, would be the one show that is getting called out for doing this, and all shows do it. All showrunners go down to the set and say, “How about this instead of that?” All shows move scenes from episode to episode to episode.

So why is I Love Dick being the one that’s like “Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick gets huge fine”? I think that has something more to do with the triggering component of the bombastic, proud, content female, insisting that there’s such thing as the female gaze. Why is this the show that’s causing controversy?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jill Soloway Wonders What the Word ‘Woman’ Is For