Jill Soloway has a solution so obvious it’s, well, transparent. “Every time I see an untenable situation politically, I say, it’s simple: Let women lead, let women lead, let women lead everywhere,” suggests the writer-director.
“I feel like if men just abdicated their seats to their favorite woman, we should just see what happens.”
The revolutionary proposition was part of an illuminating conversation about gender and culture with Jill’s sibling Faith Soloway, and moderated by WNYC’s Alison Stewart, at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit.
Jill’s aims are much broader than any single project though. Through their media company called Topple—as in “topple the patriarchy”—they are bringing together cohorts around marginalized groups and helping artists think of themselves as activists. (Jill identifies as non binary and uses the pronoun “they”.) “We are creating our own power groups and coming together for our own intersectional power movement,” said Jill.
But it all started with the breakout and groundbreaking series Transparent, whose origins came after Jill kept hitting a glass ceiling. They were rising as a TV writer, but no one would give them the opportunity to direct: “I thought I wanted to move to Northern California and wear caftans and write feminist poetry.” Meanwhile, Faith was in Boston writing musicals (who wouldn’t want to see Jesus Has Two Mommies?), when the siblings got a phone call that would change their lives: their parent was coming out as trans.
As Faith recounted now, “Coming out as a lesbian was hard in the 1990s so I had compassion for her and what she was saying.” The resulting series wasn’t so much a conclusion of this family journey—it was a coming together. “The TV show was my way of processing artistically what was happening in my life and get really deep in a way that I was afraid to do,” said Jill. “I wanted to make the world a safer place for my parent. I wanted it to be a safer world to have a trans parent.”
Around the same time, Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans, ushering along the moment: “It became so normal so quickly and that was really astonishing, the speed at which the world changes,” said Jill.
The siblings’ own feelings about gender identity have been in transition over the years. Faith pointed to herself, saying “This is what I looked like when I was six. I didn’t play with Barbies, I did boy stuff, and I wore boy clothes,” she said. “This gave me the allowance to be who I was.”
As Transparent gained acclaim, Jill was increasingly in the spotlight. “I always felt really uncomfortable getting my hair and makeup done because dressing up meant dressing femme. I can’t believe I have to put on these Spanx,” said Jill. “Now I like getting dressed up because I feel like myself.”
“That’s why I love the non-binary pronoun and gender identity because it kind of feels like nothing. I get to step out of gender for a minute, I’m not male or female, I’m not straight, not butch, not bi, I’m just Jill.”
Growing up in the same household also came with a kind of implicit understanding. “Faith was a lesbian, so I thought I had to be straight,” joked Jill. “It would be all too much to have two lesbian daughters….but I was sort of more attracted to everybody. Everybody might be my soulmate!” Now at home in who they are, Jill said it feels “more relaxing and more powerful.”
There have also been some recent difficult times. Transparent was consumed by controversy when its lead actor Jeffrey Tambor was accused of harassing his former assistant and a cast member on set. “It was complete hell,” said Faith. “It didn’t feel real, it didn’t feel right. It felt like we messed up and didn’t protect people. It was very confusing and painful.”
Jill likened the experience to a death, with all the accompanying trauma and grief, especially since they worked hard to create a safe space on set for trans people: “It felt like the death of a dream, the death of a revolution.”
After choosing to rebuild the show after Tambor left, they actually decide to take it to the next level. Faith had a residency at Joe’s Pub in New York called “Should Transparent Be a Musical?” and they workshopped songs. Says Jill now, “The songs kept us alive and kept us afloat when we thought it was over for the Pfeffermans.”
So musical theater fans, get ready for the Soloways’ very own Jewish Christ Superstar—or an “anxious Godspell”—with Faith noting they should be so lucky to be compared to those long running mainstays. The Transparent musical movie will debut on Amazon in September.
Jill, who also recently released the book She Wants It, chose that title because they recognize that women are expected to connect with their creativity and create from a place of desire, yet women are shamed for having desire in our culture.
But through Topple and their own personal projects, the Soloways are both exploring and exploding a system of long-held beliefs. “We still live in a world of capitalism, so you have to create something that has its own value and use it to interrogate the system,” said Jill. And they both continue to do exactly that.
Watch the full interview here.
Additional reporting by Michelle Smawley.