We often talk about the need for diversity in Hollywood, but we rarely talk about how to do it. This leaves us with the clumsy approach in practice today, as writer Beejoli Shah discovered last year: the “diversity hire” position in the writing rooms of television shows. The problem with that approach, of course, is that it tokenizes minorities. Anyone who fills that spot is aware of their “other” status, which perpetuates the very stigmas the role is intended to mitigate. Still, according to Shah, “most every writing room has one.”
It is with that in mind that I reflect on the fascinating debate between Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and Transparent’s Jill Soloway at the recent New Yorker Festival’s panel for LGBTQ TV. Kohan, of course, has been celebrated for creating a nearly all-female hit show that places LGBTQ women and women of color in prominent roles. OITNB has broken barriers for the LGBTQ community for starring trans activist Laverne Cox and for not shying away from female sexuality. Soloway, one could argue, has furthered the work of OITNB by focusing on the difficulties of coming out as a transgender parent in her series. Both critically acclaimed shows exist exclusively on streaming channels, off of cable.
I wasn’t at the panel, but accounts I have read describe Kohan as “somewhat antagonistic” towards Soloway for employing a “trans affirmative action” program. At first, it surprised me that two prominent women trying to do similar things in similar media would clash so much.
But is it that surprising? We currently have no good model for how to introduce diversity into our writers’ rooms, and Soloway and Kohan are among the few women who are actively trying to foster it. And as they’re charting new routes, we’re seeing how broad and complicated an issue it is, because real diversity isn’t “one size fits all,” like Hollywood pretends it is. We would never expect, say, two white guys like Joss Whedon and Vince Gilligan to agree on their casting decisions, so why do we expect that of Kohan and Soloway?
Soloway spoke about the difficulties of finding a female trans writer for the show and said that for Season Two, her staff is going to find and train five trans women to write spec scripts, hire one, and leave the other four with something they can shop around. To this, Kohan replied, “I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate.”
Maybe I am being generous too Kohan here, but in her response I detect fear of the aforementioned “diversity hire” stigma — that someone might be hired specifically for their “otherness,” rather than for their writing ability, and then be expected to write mostly about the thing that tokenizes them.
Kohan has a point, but here’s why Soloway’s diversity hire works and Hollywood’s often don’t.
First, Soloway’s background. The premise for the show is modeled after her own experience as the daughter of a transgender parent. Second, she has built diversity into the perspective of the show: she hired trans consultants to make sure the show gets it right and employs a trans-friendly behind-the-scenes environment with at least 10 crew members who self-identify as trans. Rather than plopping a person into an unwelcoming space that clearly sees them as different, she is bringing a person into a space that is welcoming, safe, and understanding.
Not only that, but she is taking her mission beyond the show and into other writing rooms in Hollywood as well. She reflects this in her response to Kohan: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be otherizing Maura [Jeffrey Tambor’s character] in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers’ room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me. It’s absolutely necessary, and it’s gonna change the show.”
But Kohan, who has done so much to put marginalized women on the screen, seems to care less about authenticity and more about catering to the mainstream — or at least, what Netflix execs perceive as mainstream. I don’t endorse Kohan’s comments, and what she said about writer Lauren Morelli leaving her husband for OITNB star Samira Samira Wiley was very insensitive while trying to be funny (“I turned her gay. I made her gay. I felt there wasn’t enough balance in the room, so I have a magic wand and I make people gay”). But all along, Kohan’s approach has been to slip in some brussel sprouts with the usual meat and potatoes, and I understand that impulse.
In an interview with NPR last year, she referred to her main character — the pretty white blonde Piper Kerman (Taylor Schilling) — as her “Trojan Horse.” “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals,” said Kohan. “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.” Her statement is blunt, honest about the TV landscape, and sad, reflecting Kohan’s view that diversity is something that needs to be translated and made palatable for white, male decision-makers.
This showed up again at the panel when discussing the male gaze. Soloway was concerned about objectifying Gaby Hoffmann’s character in a three-way sex scene, a concern which Kohan dismissed, saying, “My first goal is just get it, and I’ll worry about who’s gazing later.”
Though Kohan certainly comes off as gruff and insensitive, I think we miss something crucial if we focus on parsing out who is right and who is wrong. When it comes to diversity, we have few models for what works, and the conversation between these two women gives insight into the tough questions we have to address when we make diversity a priority: How authentic can we make these experiences while still appealing to the mainstream, and is that a false dichotomy? How much do we need to translate and explain? How much context do we provide? Are we being fair to the people whose stories we are presenting? What responsibility do we have to open doors for the people whose stories we want to portray? How far are we willing to (or can we) go for our mission?
Ideally, we wouldn’t have to explain anything about these characters, but if Hollywood were ideal, we wouldn’t be fighting to tell stories about trans women and women of color in the first place. Kohan and Soloway are creating different contexts for people usually pushed to the fringes, and that’s a very positive development, but their discussion shows just how difficult this work is.
I hope that we move to a place where minorities don’t need to translate their experiences for white men, but in order to get there, we need to listen to and learn from both the Soloways and the Kohans of the world.