We spoke to Jill Soloway about intersectionality, why awards matter, and the damn patriarchy
I was nervous to talk to Jill Soloway on the phone today. Mostly because I knew I couldn’t rely on stock celebrity interview questions like, “What wacky jobs did you have before Hollywood?” and “What’s your morning routine?” I mean, I probably could have asked that, and I think Soloway would have graciously answered, but you don’t talk to the great Jill Soloway and ask them if they start their day with a glass of lemon water.
Jill Soloway identifies as gender non-binary. A somewhat recent revelation. They are the creator of Transparent, inspired by their own experience with a parent transitioning later in life. After casting cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor in the role of a trans woman, Soloway heard the internet’s reaction and has since corrected course in the show’s four seasons. Soloway went out of their way to hire and train gender non-conforming writers, and trans characters are played by trans actors. Soloway’s new show I Love Dick is about a couple who become obsessed with the same man, Dick. But really, it’s a show about feminism, power, and the frustrating mind-fuck that is female sexuality. The writing staff for I Love Dick is comprised entirely of women and gender non-conforming people. Fun fact you might already know: Soloway’s production company is called “Topple” — as in, “topple the patriarchy.” 😏
Everything about Soloway’s life, from the clothes they wear to the art they produce, screams the Topple ethos.
I asked if we could jump right in.
HelloGiggles: You make an effort to hire trans and gender non-conforming writers and actors for your shows, which is fantastic, but how important is it that they are not just hired, but are nominated and recognized by “mainstream” awards shows?
Jill Soloway: Yeah, I think it’s really huge, actually. When I think back about the way awards shows used to be looked at, people would say, “Oh, it’s just people patting themselves on the back,” or “It’s the annual night where the industry pats ourselves on the back.” And I think that was true when it was a bunch of guys in tuxedos, you know?
But now there are so many different kinds of people rising up in the TV business, not only women and trans people, but people of color entering into the award-industrial complex. I guess if there was somebody who was like, let’s say a trans actor on my show — like Trace Lysette, or a trans writer like Our Lady J — if they didn’t get nominated, I think in the past I would’ve thought, “Oh well, I guess the performance didn’t break through,” but now I think, “I know the performance is great. I know the writing is great.” What are the qualifications and the qualities through which people make themselves known to these award-granting bodies?
JS: It’s beyond me saying, “Oh, I really hope these people get awards.” It’s about all of the things that people have to push against when they enter the industry.
HG: I know one thing you bring up a lot is not just creating feminist work, but the need to embrace intersectionality. But do you, as one person, feel like there’s a pressure for you to tell everyone’s stories?
JS: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a struggle. You go through each little stage, I think, when you’re creating a TV show, and first you say, “Let me make sure I have some characters of color,” and then once you have characters of color, you look around your writers room and you go, “Wow, I don’t want white people writing these characters of color, I need some writers of color,” and then once you have writers of color, you kind of go, “Well, but they’re still writing the show that was created by a white person, you know?” So maybe it’s my job to find creators of color and just help them to get their show on the air. Every step you take, you realize that there’s more that you could be doing.
You’re always going to run up against pushback from the internet, and I try to think of call-out culture as call-in culture, and try to respond to those moments, and try to just not have the anxious feeling of, “Oh my god, I fucked up, everybody hates me,” and instead try to transform that anxiety into, “Okay, I’m still not getting it right,” and I have to appreciate the feedback.
HG: When you were first starting out in your career, did you have to take jobs that you felt not necessarily compromised your values, but were more like, “Okay, I just need to do this to get my foot in the door, and then one day when I have my media empire, then I can create content that espouses the values that I actually believe in?”
JS: Yes, that exactly happened. Exactly like that.
HG: And how did you get through it?
JS: Well, how do you get through it? That’s a good question. Normally, I would say that if you’re just starting out in a job or you’re brand new, you don’t want to always be the squeaky wheel because then people will be like, “Okay, this person’s gotta go,” you know?
That’s a really hard one, ’cause I feel like if I told somebody to always be standing up for the way it should be, that could also get them fired, so…I guess, go to work, and then at night and on the weekends, you can be making things with your friends that suits you. Maybe try to do both at the same time.
HG: I was listening to your recent NPR Fresh Air interview, and you said that earlier in your career or even five years ago, when you had a more femme-presenting self, you were almost able to more easily break through the patriarchy because you looked like their idea of what a woman should look like. Am I interpreting that accurately?
JS: It’s not quite that, it’s a little bit more like I figured out how to sort of use what I had, which was a kind of playful, sort of youthful [presentation]. I’ve never been the boss woman with the shoulder pads, never had that conflict of if you say what you want, people will think you’re a bitch. That wasn’t my style. I was always: “Hey, I’m a kid, just like you. We’re all just playing. This is fun.” I think being cute and cuteness and kind of kid-ness was my way of getting my way.
And I do think a lot of times, women have to figure out exactly how they’re going to get their way in a certain situation, you know? If a place is mostly men, sometimes you have to act like the bitch. Sometimes you’re the mom. Sometimes it is being the cute little sis.
It’s my way of just trying not to be performative in any way so that I can’t manipulate reality with any kind of performativity. I can just be one person all the time.
HG: Is that more freeing?
JS: It is oddly freeing. I mean it’s kind of funny, I’m trying to figure out how to write about it. For example, I was listening to a radio show where there were just reporters talking about what are the exciting new trends for women’s bathing suits. And she was saying, “Women are loving a one-piece bathing suit ever since Baywatch came out,” and I was just realizing, I don’t have to get furious about that anymore cause she’s not talking about me. She’s not talking to me. I don’t have to go, “Ah! Why is she saying this about women? That women are loving the new one piece and they’re loving the high-cut thigh?”
That’s the kind of thing that would make me enraged before, when women would get thrown [together]. So now, when I have that feeling of rage, now I just think, “Oh, I’m not in that category anymore, she’s not talking to me.”
Jill Soloway’s latest show I Love Dick is currently streaming on Amazon, and the trailer for Transparent Season 4 is out now.