‘Transparent’ Creator Jill Soloway on Caitlyn Jenner, Lena Dunham, and Mark Ruffalo’s Trans Casting Controversy
In a candid talk, Transparent creator Jill Soloway calls out Hollywood’s cis male privilege and reconsiders her decision to cast a cis actor as the trans lead of her show.
The week before we sat down with Transparent creator Jill Soloway at the press day for the third season of her hit Amazon series, a controversy of sorts was unfurling in the media over the casting of a cisgender male to play a transgender character in a new film.
Two weeks after our conversation, Sunday night, both Soloway and Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender actor playing trans character Maura Pfefferman, accepted their second consecutive Emmy Awards for the series—she for directing, he for acting—with Tambor using his time at the microphone to say, “I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female.”
Clearly we had a lot to talk about.
The controversy at hand brewed when actor Matt Bomer was cast to play a transgender sex worker in the new movie Anything, which will be produced by Bomer’s The Normal Heart co-star Mark Ruffalo.
In a series of tweets endorsed by many members of the LGBT, specifically trans, community, trans actress Jen Richards took the opportunity to educate Ruffalo and Bomer on their complicitness in silencing trans women by not giving them the opportunity to play trans roles, not to mention the risk of inciting violence against trans women by perpetuating the notion that trans women are really just men. Ruffalo responded in kind: “I hear you.”
So with season three of Transparent premiering Friday and Soloway in the throes of press for it, we asked her what it’s like to, four years after casting Tambor to play Maura—a character inspired by Soloway’s own parent coming out as transgender after age 70—reexamine the decision to cast a cis actor in the role, in light of this conversation and after all the progress we’ve made as a culture over those years.
She remembers a moment after shooting the pilot where she thought, “Holy shit. What did we do?” she tells me.
She also says that, four years ago, Tambor “reminded me a lot of my Moppa pre-transition. We felt that this was a story of a late transitioning person who looks a certain way, doesn't necessarily have that passing privilege.” But also: “None of those benchmarks would work for me any longer.”
As for Ruffalo, whom she calls a “friend and a revolutionary,” and Bomer, she says they’re “living in a post-Transparent world. They’re living in a post-Dallas Buyers Club world, a post-Tangerine world.” The rules have changed, because culture has changed.
Her entire 1,000-word response to the question is pasted at the end of this Q&A—and should be required reading for everyone in Hollywood—and culminates with Soloway saying: “Until trans people have more narrative representation, until women have more representation, until people of color have more representation, we absolutely have to be asking people of privilege—especially white cis men—to curtail their desire to project their notions of Otherness onto the characters they create and, instead, provide opportunities to trans, queer, female, Black artists and simply step away from the steering wheel.”
Of course, that’s not all we talked about. Season three of Transparent kicks off with Maura realizing that even after transitioning, being accepted by her family, and finding a network of trans friends, she’s still not happy.
We discussed the importance of exploring Maura’s state of mind after the transition moment—the moment that is rarely explored—and Soloway’s decision to start the season with a standalone episode that has Maura attempting to save a black trans woman from a possible suicide attempt. (The other Pfeffermans don’t arrive until episode two.)
Caitlyn Jenner also makes a buzzed-about cameo in season three, a decision which Soloway caught some fire for on social media because of Jenner’s political beliefs, but which she defends to me: “I’m a ‘Leave Caitlyn alone!’ girl.”
From tackling privilege and race in season three to the recent Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer controversy and, as mentioned, her impassioned plea that we stop allowing cis white men to exclusively be the ones to tell the stories that aren’t theirs to tell, here’s our conversation:
The season starts with Maura on a chase through Los Angeles to find and save a trans black woman, Elizah (Alexandra Grey), who says she might kill herself. Why start with that bottle episode, of sorts?
I think when we look back at episode one of season two and that first shot of that wedding, we kind of just hung there forever and as you’re watching that shot, you go, ‘Wow, they’re not going to cut away, they’re just going to sit here…’ We wanted to do something this time that felt like the same boldness. So we thought what if the first episode was just Maura? We keep waiting to cut to the other family members and we just stay, stay, stay with her.
It upends people’s expectations.
And then, too, as much as Aly [Gaby Hoffman’s character] is obsessed with intersectionality, I am as well. To be able to take this story moment for Elizah where she’s standing in the mall and on her left are people of color and on her right is a trans woman and she is at the intersection of being a trans woman of color. We’re asking the story question, “Where does your loyalty lie?”
It feels like a tightrope to be willing to do that much about race. I think for white people to try to take on race is really dangerous. Sort of like, it’s not your job to do it. It’s a treacherous area to try and get right. I think the easiest thing would be to say, “Well the Pfeffermans are people of privilege so that’s what we’re going to write about.” But to say “alright we’re going to try to walk this tightrope and pull it off” to me feels like a creative challenge that was really exciting.
Do you feel like because you’ve earned respect for sensitively telling stories about women and the LGBT community—often marginalized in terms of story—you might have also earned a trust, in some way, to talk about race?
I certainly wouldn’t say that because I’ve earned trust on trans issues I have trust on race issues. I think with this first episode I’m just attempting to be vulnerable in telling the story of privilege. People are so afraid right now of wading into the deep intersectional waters, because they’re so dangerous.
I’m thinking about Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer wanting to have a conversation about feeling invisible as women because they don’t have perfect bodies. I think in their minds they were going there to say what gets unsaid. “You’re a woman and you feel ugly and what’s the funniest thing you can say to another comedian about your gender?” And so she said it. And then the internet helped her realize that in doing so you are actually perpetuating another stereotype, and you’re completely racially insensitive while you’re exploring your gender oppression.
The season begins with Maura’s realization that she’s not happy. “Will you still love me if…” She’s realizing that the “if” she had worked towards isn’t making her entirely happy.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. “I’m just going to come out and be happy.”
Why is that realization important to have at this point in Maura’s story?
A lot of trans people focus on the transition moment. Culture loves to focus on the transition moment, the before and after. Even Caitlyn Jenner, the way her transition publicly had this [air of], “You’re no longer going to see my previous gender presentation. Now here’s the new me. I had a bunch of surgeries, I was in hiding, I came out, ta-da!”
Most trans people don’t get to have that ta-da moment. Most trans people, the transition is a much slower, more tenuous, painful process, with or without surgery, with or without access to medical care. But it’s definitely I think what a lot of trans people have in common, thinking that the transitioning of the coming out will mark the beginning of a new era. And it certainly marks the beginning of a new era of honesty, but happiness I think is so much more elusive.
Honesty and happiness don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Authenticity and happiness are not the same thing, which I can tell you from my experience. I think all of us writers sat in the writers’ room and went, “Wow, we had a very similar experience to Maura. We have everything we ever wanted. We have great reviews. We have all the money we want from Amazon to have the creative freedom we want. Here we are!” But we’re just as miserable as ever. The hole only gets bigger! You can’t escape.
It’s actually harder, because you don’t have the thing to blame anymore. You can’t go, “If only I was successful I’d be happy.” You can’t say, “If only I had an Emmy I’d be happy. If I only I had creative freedom I’d be happy. If only I could transition I’d be happy,” because, yeah, those are outward things that are these goal posts, but at some point you have to turn inward and do the work of becoming a person.
When it was announced that Caitlyn Jenner was coming onto the show there was a strong social media reaction. Did that surprise you?
Yeah. You know, as Trump says, “Incoming…” He’s always talking about incoming press, that in this day and age you can be sending out as many press releases about your new season that you want but when the social media monster starts to roar about your show, as much as my first impulse is “leave us alone!” I think you can’t really deny the fact that what you want as an artistic creator is a loud conversation. So these days it doesn’t really make me mad anymore. These days, I’m like, “We’re trending! That’s great.” I personally on my Facebook page, if I see people trying to trash Caitlyn, I really think a lot about this book Whipping Girl that I read by Julia Serano.
She’s one of our best trans thinkers and philosophers. It’s a book that I give everybody, including Caitlyn Jenner, as they’re entering this world. They’ll say, “What’s the first thing I need to read to understand?” and I’ll say, “Read Whipping Girl.” What that book really clarifies is what trans misogyny is. There’s misogyny in the world and there’s a hatred for trans people, but when they go together there’s a certain kind of violence and hatred that is reserved for trans femininity and, in particular, very femme trans women.
When people don’t quote-unquote “pass” like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, whom people can point to and go, “Didn’t they do a good job? They’re so beautiful.” And when somebody like Caitlyn attempts to become her most authentic version of herself when she’s in her 60s, or my parent when she’s in her 70s, these are women who have been exposed to a lifetime of testosterone, so they don’t necessarily present the way that America wants their ladies on TV to look. So it’s a feminist issue for me. What it means to conform. What it means to be pleasing to the male gaze.
I think there are a lot of people you can take down for their political views. I’m kind of a “Leave Caitlyn alone” girl. Find someone else to argue against. Leave your Facebook posts for Roger Ailes. Leave her alone.
I read a write-up of your conversation with bell hooks. And you had really self-aware and smart things to say about the controversy with Matt Bomer cast as a trans woman in a film that Mark Ruffalo is producing. What is it it like to, four years after you cast Jeffrey Tambor and in a very different time in this conversation, be asked to reexamine the decision to cast a cis actor as Maura, in light of controversies like this?
I remember a moment after shooting the pilot but before we got picked up, standing in my bedroom after finishing reading Julia Serrano's Whipping Girl, putting it down, and thinking, “Holy shit. What did we do?”
Although I would never invoke the same reasons today, in 2016, knowing what I now know—back then, four years ago, we had our reasons why we felt it was okay for Jeffrey to play Maura. Of course he was brilliant at the role. He reminded me a lot of my Moppa pre-transition. We felt that this was a story of a late transitioning person who looks a certain way, doesn't necessarily have that passing privilege. None of those benchmarks would work for me any longer.
The only way I am able to defend my casting of Jeffrey is that the story of being the child of a trans person is my story to tell. But I understand why trans people are pissed at me. I appreciate how they have schooled me about the tropes that cis folk repeat: a trans woman looking in the mirror, putting on lipstick, hating her genitalia. It’s just not OK.
At this point if you're a filmmaker you can't just scan the landscape for a great trans actor and then shrug if you can't find one. You have to seek out, find, identify, train, promote and protect trans people. It's an issue of economic justice, class and access. A lot of trans people haven't had the privilege—the time, the wealth, the supportive parents—to say "I think I'll spend four years in an acting conservatory!" Many trans people have had to scrape to simply live each day. Of course there won't be a huge pool of available people yet. It's coming but it takes being willing to interrogate ourselves as creators and try harder.
I respect Mark Ruffalo as a person. He is a friend and a total revolutionary in his political life. But he and Matt Bomer are living in a post-Transparent world. They’re living in a post-Dallas Buyers Club world, a post-Tangerine world, our society transforms and reinvents the rules every day because of the real-time conversation and iterations of our culture that the internet and social media churn daily.
Lately I've been feeling more and more comfortable calling out white cis male creators. I know what they think—you don't want us to make any more movies about white guys, so here we are trying to make movies about people not like us. They are well intentioned. But at this point it feels a matter of tonnage. They've simply been crafting storylines for the rest of us for so, so long.
If cis male producers are going to attempt trans stories —but aren't going to ask trans people to come into the tent, there will be a real problem. And you can't just bring in one trans person—who might feel more like a paid apologist than a consultant—but multiple trans people, as well as the entire trans community. GLAAD exists. Nick Adams is fantastic. He can be called by any production at a moment's notice to provide resources, reality checks, feedback.
If cis male producers/writers don't want feedback, if they don't want to bring in trans folk to the seed stage of an idea, they have to cop to the fact that they're saying: “I really want to tell this story, but I only really want to tell it within my connection to another cis male. We want to—and we're going to—make this thing expressly without any trans people in the room. We want to taste their experience but do that without them, without their actual trans bodies or lived lives in proximity to our process. We want to be alone in the private world of our privilege while we explore this."
All of this is what we’re beginning to ask ourselves—to look at intersectional activism and say, all of these people who are getting otherized—people of color, women, queer people—what they have in common, (even though intersectionality means we don’t have everything in common)—is that we have had to live with the ways in which white cis men have projected their fantasies of who we are onto the culture.
In my case, I grew up femme without ever realizing I had a choice. Finally after all of these years and realizing that I have inherited a genderqueer legacy, I was able to say, “You know what? I don’t want to look hot all the time to have a conversation. I want to be myself. I don’t want to have to put on a bunch of hair and makeup to be worth looking at, worth being filmed for an interview. I just want to be myself. That's the privilege that cis males have and I would like to borrow that bodily feeling to move through the world.
I’ve been dealing with what white cis men have been projecting about their fantasies about how women should behave since I was a child. We've all had to perform within those expectations for access to their tools, money, success. People of color have as well, of course. Trans people have especially, forcibly, violently been expected to conform to cis males ideas about life—often by penalty of death if they don't stay under that radar.
Until trans people have more narrative representation, until women have more representation, until people of color have more representation, we absolutely have to be asking people of privilege—especially white cis men—to curtail their desire to project their notions of Otherness onto the characters they create and, instead, provide opportunities to trans, queer, female, Black artists and simply step away from the steering wheel.