“I’ve been writing about misogyny for 20 years and trying to understand what femininity means for my entire career,” Jill Soloway, who created Amazon’s new show “Transparent,” told me in Los Angeles in July. “On ‘Six Feet Under,’ [massage therapist] Brenda was palling around with a sex worker. And [teenager] Claire was trying to figure out if she was a lesbian. And same thing in ‘Afternoon Delight.’ ”
But it was “Transparent,” a series partially inspired by Soloway’s own father’s late-in-life coming-out as transgender, that helped Soloway unlock those two issues that have defined her work in film and television. The show, released today, follows Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) as she comes out as transgender to her children Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass), each of whom are grappling with their sexuality and relationships to their gender.
“Older transitioning people have a particular interesting time, because I don’t think it’s as simple as it is for younger people, where you can simply make the decision, move to the new gender, let everybody know,” Soloway explained of Maura’s transformation into her true self after seven decades presenting herself to the world as a man named Mort. “When you’re older, the letter needs to go out to everybody. Everybody in your office needs to get the letter or the e-mail, and then there’s that awkward time where you’re trying to gracefully become [yourself].”
That specific story, and the younger Pfeffermans’ self-discoveries, gave Soloway a vector into two crucial ideas she took away from Julia Serano’s 2007 manifesto “Whipping Girl,” a volume that Soloway said “really changed me and I think politicized around the connection between feminism and trans women’s issues.”
“One is that people treat trans women like they’re crazy, because you have to be crazy to give up your male privilege,” Soloway told me. “Just that, as an understanding of how it is that trans women get so much of the harder side of things when it comes to hatred and misogyny and violence. And then, I think a lot of people who would otherwise be gentle with women feel comfortable being horrible to men. And in their mind, they can be horrible to trans women because they don’t feel like they’re being horrible to women. There are these kinds of subtle, subtle ways that transphobia can express certain kinds of misanthropies and misogynies that I think I’ve been really kind of waiting to understand my entire life.”
That “Transparent” includes a transgender character (and that it is very good) has won it an unusual amount of critical attention for a freshman show. But Maura’s transition is just one of the ways Soloway tries to look at femininity.
“When I look at all of the different ways that femininity is explored in ‘Transparent,’ I find myself constantly thinking about the feminine in our culture, about being a child of the ‘Free to Be … You and Me’ generation, where we listened over and over again to a story where the girl who was really girly got eaten by the tiger,” Soloway argued.
Soloway sees this conflicted relationship as a core question for feminism.
“If you’re female and you want to express your femininity, you’re actually demonized in the ‘Free To Be …You And Me’ generation. Which to me represents a whole cultural dismissal of femininity that happened around our moms, and happened around the women’s movement, which of course I support,” she said. “But going to work and trying to compete was in and of itself a way that sort of questioned whether or not traditional notions of femininity, like motherhood, helped. Then it became using your sexuality for power. And now I think we’re in a place where feminism is asking, in particular, what use it has for femininity.”
And the victories of feminism and the gay rights movement have created similar conundrums for all of Soloway’s characters in “Transparent.” When we have more choices available to us than ever before, and when society is reluctant to sort those choices into right and wrong, how do we figure out what is best for us?
“If we have the show going for five years, everyone, at some point, is going to be bi. Or be a lesbian. Or be gay. I mean, Maura’s going to question whether or not she wants to identify as a lesbian, and probably whether she wants to identify as bi. Gaby’s character, Alison, is absolutely going to be struggling with questions of gender as well as identity and sexual identity,” Soloway explained. “The show is in some way about boundaries. If the secret was the boundary, now that the secret is gone, where are our boundaries? And now, over the course of the new season, you get to watch all of the boundaries fall away.”