When Jill Soloway’s parent came out as transgender in 2012, they immediately knew art would help them process the news.
What they didn’t know was not only would the resulting project, “Transparent,” win multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, but that they would go on a journey exploring their own gender, eventually identifying as nonbinary – neither male nor female.
Soloway, who is currently on a tour promoting their new memoir, “She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy,” talked to The Lily about several themes of their book, including consent, ambition, gender identity and the #MeToo movement.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: People may be curious, given that you identify as nonbinary, why your book title uses the pronoun “she." But it’s not a reference to you, specifically, and is instead more broadly about women, consent and blame. In your book, you wrote that you’re “obsessed” with consent. Why?
Jill Soloway: I don’t really know. I remember early on encountering a news story about a  gang rape in Glen Ridge, N.J., where I learned the phrase “meaningful consent” because the gang rape victim was a woman who was mentally disabled. I started thinking the phrase “meaningful consent” was interesting because women and girls are at a disadvantage when being trusted just for being female. I realized then that in the eyes of the law, which was mostly created by men, only men are capable of giving meaningful consent.
TL: You’ve expressed frustration about how consent is portrayed and thought about — in the media and otherwise. What frustrates you and how does that impact the art you make?
JS: In patriarchy, what’s happening a lot is men and boys think they’re responsible for both sides of consent — deciding when they consent and when the women or girls they’re with are consenting. Looking back at sex scenes in “Transparent,” because they were created from a female or queer point of view, there was a lot of time spent making sure we could see on the faces or in the eyes or through words that female characters were consenting to move onto the next moment.
What we’re talking about is an ethical conversation that says there is no snapshot moment of when a woman gives consent. When a woman says, “Yes, I’d like to come over” or “Yes, I’d like to make out,” none of that confers consent to do anything beyond that. When I look at the television or movies I was raised on, there were a lot of moments that’d simply jump right over the moment of consent. You’d see two people in a bar making eye contact and then before you know it they’re making out, and then it jumps to when they’re having sex. But the moments where someone checks in and asks “Is that what you want?” are never included.
TL: You grew up in a household animated by your mother’s activism and in a neighborhood where the Black Panthers were widely admired. How did being raised in that type of environment impact your worldview and the art you make today?
JS: I sat on the floor and licked stamps to put them on envelopes with those little pink sponges with my mom and her feminist friends as we were trying to get people elected and talking about the Equal Rights Amendment. Because our neighborhood was a model for how people could be integrated and happily live together, I just assumed we were part of a movement and everyone was part of a movement to change the world. For me, that feeling of changing the world is an anti-depressant that gets me up every morning.
TL: In elementary school, you were “gobsmacked” one day when you looked up on the wall and saw that every president had been a man and you decided you wanted to be the first female president. While you haven’t gone down that kind of political path, effecting change is something you’re still focused on. How do you do that through media?
JS: Roger Ebert said that storytelling is an empathy machine. When you’re in the middle of experiencing someone else’s story, particularly in film or on TV, you’re putting yourself in the body of the protagonist. You’re feeling what it feels like to be them. I’ve gotten a little bit spoiled with how quickly “Transparent” moved from a very small thing between me and my computer as this imaginary world I was writing. I was living in a space where I created a fake family so I could experience and move through feelings of fear and shame and allow them to get worked out through these characters.
It was a personal, psychological experience for me writing the pilot. Then, the specificity of those emotions were quickly communicated to not only this country, but Amazon’s reach of 230 countries. It’s just so moving when you think about how a personal story that resides in somebody’s gut goes to someone else’s gut and can be a workaround to the political ways we’re dealing with these issues.
TL: You long felt uncomfortable as a woman. Why was that?
JS: It’s so weird because I’ve come to the end of this journey by going, “Well, I’m nonbinary so that must be why I felt all this gender trouble,” but then I talk to women and a lot of them feel the same way. Why do I have to get dressed up this way? How come when I’m being photographed I have to wear a full face of makeup? What is it about being a powerful woman that means holding your stomach in with Spanx while powerful men can let their belly out? These things are gendered ways of moving through the world where women have to take up less space so men can take up more space. They’re really problematic for lots of women — not just women on their way to becoming nonbinary.
But for me, it really helped dealing with this unease I had around how I was performing when I would be “femme” or “feminine.” I needed to leave parts of myself behind to be attractive to men and I knew all women engaged in this kind of act where they’d be one person with their boyfriend or husband and then another person with their best friend.
For me, moving into a queer identity and a nonbinary identity allowed me to integrate all parts of myself and be that one person — the person who thinks, talks, socializes, has sex and is present.
TL: What’s the difference for you in terms of how you experience the world now that you’re nonbinary compared to when you identified as a heterosexual woman?
JS: It started off with that feeling of compulsory heterosexuality where women are taught how you have to act around a man if you want him to be attracted to you. In patriarchy, you have more power if you have men on your side and one of the ways to have men on your side is to have them attracted to you. I was walking around in my 20s and 30s trying to make sure men were attracted to me.
What does that mean specifically? That meant I didn’t talk a lot. I didn’t argue. I didn’t go deeper and deeper into my most complex and fiercest intellectual ideas out of fear of intimidating them or scaring them off. There were parts of my mind I would just leave at home so I could have access to privilege.
We’ve watched film after film of men having important conversations while beautiful women sat silently at the table. As a heterosexual woman, I’d be with men who were having an intellectual conversation and assumed the women should stand by and be decoration over and over and over again.
TL: As soon as your parent came out, you knew you were going to make art out of it. How do creative outlets help you process things?
JS: It’s like a projector. You’re taking something that’s inside of you and you hold it at arm’s length and you see it through the lens of your craft. When you step outside of being present to imagine the telling of the story, in some ways you grab a hold of your own protagonism and your own perspective.
You’re taking control of the narrative by telling the story. I think women, nonbinary people and people of color are learning that they have the right to tell their stories. Now, we’re also demanding our stories be heard because it’s our stories being heard that really helps us move through, I think.
TL: You wrote in your book about Jeffrey Tambor playing Maura Pfefferman in “Transparent” and one quote stood out to me: “When Jeffrey was dressed as Maura, he felt like an accessible version of my dad.” Given that connection and the personal nature of him playing a character inspired by your parent, how did that impact how you processed and handled the sexual harassment allegations against him that prompted you to fire him?
JS: Because the show is based on my family, when the allegations first came out about Jeffrey Tambor, I was much less open than I would’ve been if I was working on a different show. Because it was my personal story, I was incredibly protective of that story. In many ways, it inhibited my ability to feel the appropriate amount of empathy for Van [Barnes] and Trace [Lysette] in the beginning when they first told their stories.
TL: Van Barnes told NBC that the response to the allegations was only “partially” handled to her satisfaction. She said Tambor being fired was “just,” but that “they haven’t completed the whole process of helping me stand back up on my feet.” What obligation, if any, do you think workplaces have to alleged victims of sexual harassment?
JS: It’s a really interesting time right now in our culture where we’re really beginning to reckon with these questions for the first time, including the question of who takes responsibility and what form that responsibility takes. A lot of people who are dealing with these questions of accepting responsibility are also in a position where they’re looking at a huge world of things like insurance and legal consequences and all the ways in which people are monetarily or otherwise offered ways of apology. Nobody has figured this one out yet. Being somebody who’s feminist, nonbinary and queer thinking about revolution, but also in a position where I’m “management,” I’m one of the few people who’s out there putting myself on the line saying, “I don’t know how to do this. We’re all working on this. Let’s figure this out together.” And that’s really the best I can offer at a time like this when it’s all so new.
TL: At one point, you write in your book: “What am I doing to topple the patriarchy? It never feels like enough.” Given how you also wrote about inheriting your mother’s “astonishing propulsive ambition,” is “enough” an attainable end point?
JS: When I think about my ambition, sometimes I think, “Okay, my ambition is too big.” I’m thinking about things like peace and Israel being safe. At the same time, I go, “Wow, Trump was just a guy who had a reality show and he dreamed about the White House.” These men who have ideas about power dreamed about the White House. I think queer people should be dreaming about the White House. I think trans people should be dreaming about the White House. These things are totally possible in our lifetime; things are moving so quickly. I think absolutely anything is possible. I dream about all of it. It will never be enough.
(Disclaimer: “Transparent” is available for streaming on Amazon. Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post. The Lily is a publication of The Washington Post.)