What Does Jill Soloway Want?
By Meredith MaranNovember 29, 2018
Center stage at the Largo, Jill Soloway pumps two fists in the air, drawing cheers from the packed house. “It’s so good to be home!” Soloway says. “We’ve been on book tour for two weeks. It’s a jungle out there.”
Jill’s older sister, Faith, poised at the piano, laughs into the mic. “In Chicago, we had to put our mother on the stage. She came out with red-arrow Post-its on all the pages of Jill’s book that upset her.”
Jill rolls their eyes theatrically. “It was a lot of pages.”
On cue, the crowd roars.
Others, unspared, might have their own copies of Jill’s book dotted with Post-its, too. (Now ex-)husband Bruce takes a drumming for not quite showing up for his wife. “I tried to push down the anger that Bruce hadn’t yet arrived to my birthday party,” Soloway writes. “I thought, […] I can’t believe this is the person to whom I will be married for the rest of my life. I don’t want to tell him the ways I need him. I want him to know.” And Soloway’s brief, life-altering romance with poet Eileen Myles, first announced in the pages of The New Yorker, died as publicly as it lived, onstage at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “We have things in our relationship that we haven’t quite worked out yet,” Soloway told the audience, as Myles nodded their assent. “We have lots of things to talk about that we’re too embarrassed to talk about alone, so we’re going to talk about them with you guys.” A gust of surprise blew through the theater’s 300-person crowd, but soon, the spectators joined the conversation.
Back at the Largo, Faith plays the first notes of a musical interlude, Jill’s cue to exit the stage. “Let’s hear it for my sister,” Faith says.
“Sibling,” Jill yells from the wings.
“Sibling,” Faith concedes. “I’m getting used to them being gender nonbinary. The pronouns keep tripping me up.”
The program unfolds, more feminist rally than book tour stop. Jill and co-presenter Roxane Gay invite the audience to join their conversation about femininity, gender fluidity, and BDSM. Faith and friends preview songs from the final season of Transparent, which will end with a single feature-film-length musical. The show-stopper is a duet between Shelly, the Pfefferman/Soloway family matriarch, and daughter, Sarah, who’s desperately resisting her mother’s intrusiveness. Shelly’s message to Sarah is classic Pfefferman/Soloway: “Your Boundary Is My Trigger.”
This is what it’s like on publication week for the memoir She Wants It, Jill Soloway’s latest disruption-seeking missile, and you don’t have to live in Los Angeles to hear Jill live and in person. Soloway. Is. Everywhere.
Defining patriarchy as “men corroborating one another’s reality” for the ladies on The View. Explaining “their” use of the pronoun “they” instead of “she” as “a bridge” between male and female on CBS This Morning. Telling Newsweek that “[e]ven though I don’t identify as a she anymore, I love the power of She Wants It.” In dialogue with Nanette superstar Hannah Gadsby — to whom the book is dedicated and who appears in the book’s acknowledgments — onstage at a New York Times talk.
It’s a big job, being Jill Soloway. The divorced parent of two sons, Soloway is best known for the Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning, unabashedly autobiographical phenom that is the Amazon series Transparent. But wait, wait: there’s more. Soloway also runs Topple (as in “topple the patriarchy”), the production company within Amazon Studios that produced Transparent and Soloway’s second Golden Globe–nominated series, I Love Dick.
Founded by Soloway in 2015, Topple is currently developing eight new series and four feature films, along with the fifth and final, Jeffrey Tambor–less season of Transparent.
Jill Soloway’s bio describes them as “an artist and activist.” Indeed, the 53-year-old devotes their formidable energies to both — mostly by creating activist art; sometimes by co-creating activist organizations. An active participant in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, in 2017 Soloway co-founded “50/50 by 2020,” “an intersectional power movement in arts and entertainment” that asks, “What if Hollywood wasn’t run by cis white men?”
Also, a few months ago — in their spare time? — Soloway launched TOPPLE Books, an Amazon imprint that specializes “in stories designed to drive discussion and social change about sexuality and gender.”
Like many “overnight successes,” Jill Soloway’s was a long time coming. After college, they worked as a production assistant on music videos and commercials in their native Chicago, presaging Transparent with theatrical transgression, collaborating with sister Faith on plays like The Miss Vagina Pageant and The Real Live Brady Bunch.
In 2001, Six Feet Under executive producer Alan Ball read Soloway’s short story, “Courtney Cox’s Asshole,” and immediately hired Soloway as a writer on the iconic show. “Desperate for something else of hers to read,” Ball blurbed Soloway’s first memoir, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants (2006), “I hired her so she would be forced to write more for my own private enjoyment.” The job ran as long as the show did, ending in 2005.
Fast-forward to 2012, the year Soloway almost gave up on Hollywood, because Hollywood seemed to have given up on them. Their episodic work on various TV shows had dried up; a promised writing gig on Glee fell through, and Soloway — then married to music supervisor Bruce Gilbert, with a son from a previous marriage and a second son on the way — was drained of both money and hope.
Then came The Call. As described in She Wants It, Soloway’s father asked if Jill was sitting down, then told his daughter, “I’m coming out to you. I’m trans.”
“Even though my brain was trying to jump out of my skull through the back of my neck,” Soloway writes, “I knew to listen and be present, to speak with reassuring words […] there was also some part of me that knew I would be making this into something.”
We all know what that “something” turned out to be. But before Transparent, there was an epiphany to have, and a long-unfinished movie script to complete.
“Once my parent came out,” Soloway writes,
I was suddenly powered by a huge gust of yes. […] I stopped believing what I had believed about myself — that I probably wasn’t a real artist […] Something about my parent coming out immediately shattered a wall; she was being her true self, a woman. Now I could be my true self, a director.
The result was Soloway’s first feature film, about a frustrated stay-at-home mom who brings home a sex worker to poignantly comedic results. Although its reviews were mixed, Afternoon Delight yielded proof that Soloway was, in fact a director. Quentin Tarantino included the film on his list of top 10 films of 2013, and it won the 2013 Sundance Directing Award.
Soloway describes the writing of the Transparent as coming out “so easily, like a slippery baby.” The selling of the show? Not so much.
After a half-dozen studios turned Transparent down, “Finally, [agent] Larry called to let me know there was one more option.” Soloway writes,
Amazon wanted to hear the pitch. The place I did my online shopping for banana slicers and replacement phone chargers wants to make my show into a web series? No. Thank. You.
I went to the meeting anyway. […] They explained to me that no, it wouldn’t be a web series, that their budgets would be the same as any TV network.
Okay, really? And what channel would it be on?
It would be on Amazon.
If nothing else, by trying this version of whatever they were calling TV with Amazon I’d at least have the funding to get started on something.
So, Soloway’s “no” turned into “yes,” and Transparent turned into a five-season, multiple-award-winning series — the first Amazon Studios production to win a major award, and the first streaming series to win a Golden Globe for Best Series.
And then, in November 2017, right in the middle of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that its creator had helped propel, Transparent turned into an object lesson in humility, as in, “Yes, it can happen here.”
When the Jeffrey Tambor crisis broke, Soloway was more ascendant, as an artist and an activist, than they’d ever been. Topple had just moved into new, lofty offices on the Paramount lot. Season five of Transparent was underway, with a new showrunner, new trans writers, and a writer’s room that was “more queer than ever.” Soloway had just attended a meeting with Reese Witherspoon, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Natalie Portman, and, um, Oprah that yielded a new movement called #TimesUp.
On their way to work the next day, Soloway learned that two trans women affiliated with the show were accusing its star of sexual assault.
“I felt myself splitting in two,” Soloway writes.
On the outside, I was part of a cultural explosion. On the inside, I hated myself for questioning the validity of the claims. Yes, believe all victims but—damn it—how could this happen on my show, too. […] I could see the whole future of the show, everything I had worked for, all of it spinning out.
An investigation into the abuse claims was undertaken. Its outcome: Tambor was fired. If Transparent was to continue, it would do so without the character around whom the series revolved.
“Post-reckoning, everyone was writing, but none of the beauty or joy was there,” Soloway writes. “The folks at Amazon were unsure if there was a version of the show we could all still imagine. I wanted to imagine it. I kept feeling around for inspiration. […] But as the accusations flooded social media, I felt someone wagging a finger at me: Look, it all came tumbling down.”
So who is Jill Soloway, really? What will be their place in the herstory of the entertainment business? The feminist movement? The world?
What can the reader of She Wants It take away from the much-plumbed depths of Soloway’s life? If the reader is a fan of Six Feet Under, Afternoon Delight, Transparent, or I Love Dick; a seeker and/or a teller of modern truth; a proponent and/or a student of feminism; an aspiring artist/activist struggling to find the light — the answer is, a lot.
“On most shows, they act like they’re running out of money, they’re running out of time, they’re running out of light,” Soloway writes of establishing the culture of Transparent. “On this show, let’s try saying we have plenty of money, we have plenty of time, and we are the light.”
As does any good memoirist, Soloway mines their own experience for universal tips. As work on Transparent began, Soloway writes,
I began to realize that my perceptions about needing to bring something great to my work were wrong. There was nothing I needed to get or know or bring with me. Artists synthesize their experiences onto the canvas, the page, or the screen. Everywhere we’d all been, all the people we’d met and the inside jokes we have, we sculpt them into what we make.
Which brings us to the most obvious question raised by, and often asked about, Jill Soloway’s work. Is the very personal not only political, but worthy of the label “art”? Are the gains yielded by the intimate revelations upon which Soloway’s oeuvre is built worth the collateral damage?
“Was it unfair to transform my real life into a product?” Soloway asks in She Wants It. Soloway’s mom, with her red-arrow Post-its, might have her own opinion. But fair or unfair, the ends — TV shows and movies, past and future, that probe and illuminate the human condition with Soloway’s signature depth and wit — justify the means.
Of this, Soloway themself remains unconvinced.
“I am still compelled by the idea that I have to hurry and change the world before I die,” Soloway writes in the book’s conclusion. “Post reckoning, what am I doing to get what I want? What am I doing to topple the patriarchy? It never feels like enough.”
Meredith Maran is a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, theLos Angeles Times, among other publications. The author of the memoir The New Old Me and a dozen other books, she lives in one of Silver Lake’s finest bungalow courts, and on Twitter @meredithmaran.
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