Show Creator Jill Soloway on Why It’s Time for a TV Revolution

Last week, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) released a report studying the gender and ethnicity of the directors of more than 220 scripted television shows during the 2013-2014 network season. For those in favor of diversity, the study yielded disturbing, if not predictable, results.

During the 2013-2014 season, white men directed 69 percent of all episodes studied, down from 72 percent. Men of color directed 17 percent of episodes; up from 14 percent the year prior. White women directed just 12 percent of episodes, and women of color directed an abysmal two percent of all analyzed episodes. Both numbers for women remained static from the 2012-2013 season, indicating zero improvement.

Shows such as Boardwalk Empire, Fargo, Hannibal, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia made the DGA’s “Worst of” list because they were directed exclusively by white men. In total, 62 out of the 225 series analyzed used women and minority directors less than 15 percent of the time.

On the other hand, DGA’s “Best of” list featured 49 series that were helmed by women or minority directors at least 40 percent of the time. Mike & Molly, The Fosters, Awkward and Modern Family were among the placeholders on the “Best of” list as were Orange is the New Black, Two Broke Girls, Pretty Little Liars, and Switched at Birth.

We had a chance to chat with TV writer, director, showrunner, and producer Jill Soloway about the current state of television diversity and what can be done to help change the status quo. Arguably one of the most influential behind-the-scenes women in television, Soloway is a three-time Emmy nominee best known for her work on series like Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara. Last year, she released Afternoon Delight, a film that earned Soloway the Directing Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. This Thursday, Soloway is set to release Transparent, an Amazon Original series about a transgender woman named Maura and her family.

HelloGiggles: The recent study released by the Directors Guild of America seems to highlight the lack of diversity in television. White women account for just 12 percent of episodes, and women of color account for only 2 percent of all episodes. More than 10 percent of all series reviewed didn’t hire a single woman or person of color.

What do you think needs to happen to break out of this cycle where the media we’re exposed to—the media that shapes us from our earliest years—is created almost exclusively through the lens of white, cisgender men?

Jill Soloway: Gosh, I wish I knew — full scale unarmed global revolution? People hire people they’re comfortable with. Anyone who is creating content is almost automatically creating propaganda for the self, just like you and I are. The sooner more people who have access to economic power, entertainment-making tools, boardrooms, the sooner that lens can shatter. It’s more than activism within the world of TV hiring (although we can start there). I’m thinking maybe a movement around intersectionality (although it probably needs a sexier name to really take off) would, as a by-product, have the effect you’re looking for.

HG: Some might say, “Who cares? If the female characters portrayed are strong, resilient, awesome personas, why does it matter what race or gender the writers, directors, or producers are?” How would you respond to that? Is there an issue with trying to portray a group (whether racial, gender, age, nationality) that you don’t belong to?

JS: With Transparent, the only thing I’m truly able to rep is how it feels to be the child of a trans person. With amazing input from some trans folk we hope to have gotten close to getting Maura right (I think our portrayal will certainly be close enough for the majority of the cis population, by the way; the people whom Nick Adams at GLAAD calls “the movable middle”). White cis men have had their hands on the wheel, on the means of production, forever, and are not going to hand over that power easily. All cis-male writers rooms need to be called to task for not aiming for more gender-balanced perspectives. Oh, that and the full scale unarmed global revolution I mentioned earlier.

HG: In line with that last question, your latest project is an Amazon series called Transparent, focusing on a family in which the patriarch comes out as transgender to their children. You, yourself, are not transgender, yet you’ve managed to portray trans people in a positive, accurate light. Do you have any advice for individuals who find themselves in a similar situation, trying to accurately capture the experiences of a minority group in a respectful way?

JS: Hire trans people in as many positions as possible and listen, listen, listen. Read as many books as you can, put yourself in the immersive position of wishing to be schooled and educated rather than defending what you’re used to. I think privilege is so pervasive that people don’t even understand how it works within their own psychology.

HG: Alison Bechdel was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. One of her most well-known contributions is the Bechdel Test, measuring sexism in popular fiction. Do you think the Bechdel Test is an accurate means of measuring whether or not a particular show/movie is gender-inclusive?

JS: I’m so glad it exists but apparently there are all kinds of really sexist movies that pass the Bechdel Test (Bechdelsploitation and 9 Films That Surprisingly Pass the Bechdel Test).

HG: Who are some cool, diverse people working in television (writers, directors, actors, producers, etc.) that our readers should look up?

JS: Rebecca Odes, Ali Liebegott, Tracy McMillanFaith Soloway, Bridget Bedard, Jennifer Ventimilia, Shadi Petosky, Numa PerrierSilas HowardMacho Mel Shimkovitz, Devon Kirkpatrick, Zackary Drucker, Alexandra Billings, Amanda Overton, Leon MostovoyJen Braeden, Julie Rei GoldsteinGina Prince BythewoodAndrea Sperling, Jamie Babbitt, Angela Robinson, Rebecca WalkerAmos MacCynthia Mort, Beth DeAraujo, Kelly Oxford, Ian HarvieSara Benincasa, Rocco KayiatosSarah Thyre, Michelle Lawler, Cass Bugge, Awkwafina, Janicza BravoRhys ErnstJessie Kahnweiler, Tig Notaro, Beth Lisick, Tara Jepsen, Jibz Cameron, Erin Markey, I could go on and on and on.

HG: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

JS: Thank you for writing about these issues! Also, in planning the revolution and, in particular, trying to rebrand intersectionality into something easier to chant, I’m a huge fan of an artist named Favianna Rodriguez. She’s making the most inspiring art. She really gathers many of the separate social justice ideas and distills them into moving graphics.

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