When Jill Soloway casually dropped “topple the patriarchy” into her Emmys acceptance speech (twice), it was not the first time the writer/producer/director made her story.
Since “Transparent” debuted in 2014, Soloway put Amazon on the map as a television producer, created the first streaming show to win a Golden Globe for best series, and re-defined on-set culture by setting rules prioritizing emotional communication over throwing someone under the bus.
And as Soloway grows, so do the Pfeffermans, the fictional Jewish family whose smothering, bickering, nit-picking love is the emotional heart of “Transparent.” In its third season, which debuts this Friday, “Transparent” comes out swinging with controversial storylines that seem intent on addressing criticism Soloway received for casting few people of color.
Neither overly defensive nor entirely ingratiating, Soloway throws Maura into the heart of the problem with an opening episode that plays more like a short film than an episode of television. Never one to balk at making her characters look bad, Soloway throws them into the deep end, then sits back and watches them thrash around. The result is the best thing art can be: entertaining and revolutionary at the same time.
The first episode of Season 3 reminded me a bit of “Afternoon Delight.”
There are some shots that are very similar — the driving, the looking, and the idea of trying to rescue somebody.
Why did you decide to focus only on Maura for that episode?
We wanted the episode to feel like we were throwing down a gauntlet. Just being like: Surprises will happen. There are other episodes that are mostly one or two characters, where we’re not doing the bop around that I learned on “Six Feet Under.” It’s Maura going on her own little intersectional fairy tale. Right to the heart of it. Just walking her body into the fray of the big question: “Do two people have more in common because they’re both trans, or because they’re both white, or because they’re both black?” It’s asking the hardest intersectional questions in the form of storytelling.
With this season, you’re walking your body into the heart of it as well.
Yes, I feel like I’m putting myself out there to potentially be mauled by the social media monsters.
But it’s great that you listened to the criticism.
I think it’s so much easier to shut down and say, “I’m not gonna go there.” If I’m not going to do work about race, if I’m not going to do work about class, and I’m only doing work about my own world, then I’m not pushing the conversation forward.
You make it very obvious when Ali is giving a lecture on intersectionality.
She’s saying: “I’m afraid to do work about women of color, I’m nervous to investigate or approach women of color, because I’m afraid I’m gonna get something wrong.” I definitely wanted her to say that. It’s a treacherous moment for people who would attempt to have these conversations publicly. I had a conversation with bell hooks at The New School the other night. I was terrified. Of course I can’t wait to meet her, she’s so brilliant, but I feel like I’m just learning. I think we (white people) have to get more comfortable getting called out — especially women.
Why women? Is it because people see an ally and they think: “You should listen to me, because Judd Apatow is definitely not going to listen to me”?
I look at what Lena Dunham was saying with Amy Schumer — she’s in what she thinks is the privacy pod of a conversation between two feminists about feeling invisible because they don’t conform to certain beauty standards. She’s not thinking intersectionally, she’s just thinking like a little revolutionary: “I’m gonna say how horrible I felt about myself that night.” And — oh, shit — she forgot that there’s a big world out there, and that your feminism does have to be intersectional.
These are the same questions we talk about with Nate Parker. Where, as a white woman, is it my place to attempt to interrogate Nate Parker’s rights as a filmmaker? I think the main answer we get from society is: Be careful, and/or listen, and/or be quiet. If I’m a filmmaker, what does that mean? If I’m making television, what does that mean when it comes to race? When it comes to gender? It probably means that I need to be careful.
Because I see myself as a provocateur, because I like stepping into the fray, because I love starting conversations, I wanted to just go out there on that tightrope and hope that I can stay up with my little balance bar. It’s like — “I’m up here! Hey, at least I got up here!”
At the same time that you’re responding to the criticism, you’re doing it a little irreverently.
We’re trying to expose privilege. We can’t make the Pfeffermans learn intersectional lessons as quickly as we want to learn them, because they’re characters. So the season is going to be about growing and learning and facing their privilege, but it’s starting at place one. When I think about this whole season, there’s an amazing episode about Boyle Heights in the 1950s and nuclear war, there’s an amazing episode that takes place on a cruise, there’s an amazing episode about trans people and HIV. I think people will look at the season as a whole, and hopefully we will be pulled into people’s hearts because of everything we attempt, instead of being abused because of a few things that we get wrong.
You gave a talk in Toronto about creating a female gaze.
I’m trying. If there is such a thing. Maybe it’s the queer gaze, maybe it’s the other gaze, maybe it’s the gazed gaze. It’s what it feels like to look back, and to look at being looked at, and to name the feeling of being an object or the object.
The more I learn, the more I recognize that I’m just filled with rage about having been othered my whole life. That there’s never been a female president before, and people act like that’s normal. That there are so few female leaders, and we’re supposed to act like that’s normal. The fact that cis men have normal, cis men have the ground level default human. It’s just shocking when you think about what that’s done to us, and how that has informed how we move through the world every day. Let alone how we make content, how we make television, how we watch television, how we feel about ourselves.
What happens when we get the camera? What I have at Amazon, which is this unbelievable amount of creative freedom where there are no cis men saying: “Eh, don’t do that” — I’ve never had that before. What happens when I can use the camera however I want, I can write whatever I want, I can say whatever I want? What is it I want to say?
It’s brand new. There’s no way that the female gaze would be mentioned in the same sentence as the male gaze as if they have anything to do with each other, as if they’re 50/50, as if they exist on a binary. How dare anybody even say there could be any such thing as a female gaze when we have grown up being used as objects in male storylines for thousands of years?
I read one interview where you said you had written twenty pilots with a woman at the center, and then “Transparent” went.
It took a cis man playing the lead woman for anybody to notice my work. It happened. That’s the way it was supposed to be I guess. I wish it could have been different. I’d be a lot wealthier now if I’d been successful for twenty years.
“Transparent” Season 3 debuts September 23 on Amazon.