The New York Times Magazine has a long look this weekend at Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” which will premiere its first season on Amazon Prime (disclosure: Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns this paper) on Sept. 26.
The series is a fascinating exploration at a very particular period in transgender life: the time transgender people transition to living publicly in the gender that feels right to them, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth. This obviously means a major social adjustment, and it can be a precursor to surgery. “Transparent” is also the rare show that does not simply capture a world in which there is apparently one transgender (or for that matter, one lesbian, gay or bisexual) person who exists mostly to educate the people in his or her life about the meaning of tolerance.
I will have more thoughts on the content of the show when it comes to air, but I wanted to highlight one part of the Times piece, which describes how Soloway put the show together:
To accomplish that, Soloway enacted a “transfirmative action program,” favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones. It wasn’t just a corrective to the trans community’s high rates of unemployment. Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day. “I really want it so that there’s no moment, on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.” As of this writing, 20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.
Soloway built her writers’ room to favor people who didn’t have too much TV experience. She didn’t want people who had to unlearn the traditional way that shows were run, which she describes as “militaristic” (filled with commands like “Shoot!” “Cut!” “Action!” she explained, plus all that yelling). She wanted to replace it with what she called “a more feminine approach” to direction. She hired a novelist she liked and met at a retreat (who had been working at a grocery store), and a few screenwriters too, including her former assistant. She hired her sister, Faith. She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.
I highlight this not because of any particular choice Soloway made, though many of them are interesting, but simply because it is a perfect illustration of the number of choices that go into making a television show or a movie. Changing the balance of representation in the media industry requires thinking about diversity every time you make every one of these choices on every single project. And given that this is a project-based industry, you can make all of these choices one year, only for the movie to be over or the TV show canceled the next.
If you want to know why it is hard, these paragraphs are a pretty good illustration of the challenge. But they are also a strong illustration of the kind of comprehensive thinking that can make a difference.