Interview: writer-director Jill Soloway

During my interview with Jill Soloway, I start to feel a little sorry for the two photographers perched quietly behind us in a corner of the room in New York’s East Village. Having taken a few shots earlier, they’ve stuck around to listen to what I’d told them would largely be a discussion of Transparent, the Amazon Studios TV series created by Soloway. But the conversation has veered dramatically off her Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedy, which centres on an elderly man, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who comes out as transgender to his grown-up kids, and into what she really wants to talk about: modern-day gender politics. Men aren’t coming off well.

Soloway, 50, is seated before me in a sharp military-style blazer and a disarming pair of luminous orange-splattered trousers. Maintaining a friendly but rather intimidating level of eye contact from beneath tight, lacquered curls, she’s so far covered the oppressive symbolism of the urinal, the “othering” of minority groups in society by men, their continued dominance on screen (“All different kinds of men are allowed to be newscasters but only one kind of woman is allowed to be a newscaster”), and the men at the top of the movie business. “Most of the people in the world of distribution are straight white men,” she says, “and they’re distributing messages that make them the heroes, that make people empathise with them, and allow them to ‘otherise’ women, people of colour and queer people.”

By this point, the photographers, who are both white and male, are squirming palpably. “Sorry, guys,” she says, swivelling in her chair towards them. “You will survive. You will get through this, I promise.” The men laugh. Looking back at me, she continues unperturbed: “But we were raised to be objects and trophies in their storylines.”

Since Transparent debuted on Amazon’s streaming service last autumn, Soloway has become known as a vocal advocate for the trans movement and, by extension, for gender equality in general. In September, collecting her Emmy award for best comedy director in a ceremony notable for its politically charged speeches — Tambor, who won a lead actor award for his role in Transparent, also used the platform to draw attention to issues of social justice — Soloway proclaimed that “we have a trans civil rights problem”. (She also took the opportunity to attribute her success not to God but to “the Goddess. And Amazon. The Goddess first and Amazon second.”)

Today she grabs even my most innocuous questions and runs off with them into articulate, fervent monologues, navigating terminology I stumble over (“gender-queer”; “the binary”).

She’s been doing it for years. Born in Chicago in 1965, Soloway started out as a playwright with a decidedly feminist bent (an early production was called The Miss Vagina Pageant) before moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in television. “Courteney Cox’s Asshole”, a faux-memoir of a fictional assistant to the Friends star she wrote more than 10 years ago, got into the hands of Alan Ball, creator of the HBO drama Six Feet Under, who subsequently hired her as a writer.

Writer-director Jill Soloway

Transparent is largely autobiographical, based on the transition of her own father, who “totally shocked” Soloway by coming out in 2011 at the age of 75. She now meticulously refers to “my parent” or, occasionally, “my moppa”.

The first season of Transparent was widely lauded for its intimate telling of the fictional Mort’s transition into Maura. The second is more ambitious. Soloway’s gaze has swivelled on to the family, friends and secondary characters, exploring the impact of Maura’s arrival on their conception of themselves. “Everybody’s relationship to who they are gets refracted through this gender lens,” she says. Feminism, inevitably, gets a good airing. “I’m trying to really help invent what the female gaze looks like,” she says. “What it means not just to see as a woman but to portray how it feels to be seen as a woman.”

The “female gaze”, or Soloway’s interpretation of it, is eye-wateringly candid. The second season is replete with profanity, full-frontal nudity and all manner of physiques and orientations. In one scene, one of Maura’s daughters, Ali, flosses her teeth while nonchalantly wearing a sex toy: “I’m gonna do everything with this on.” In another, Ali and her sister discuss love in a nude spa: “You know what I just realised? I can’t have real emotional intimacy with someone who hasn’t suffered under patriarchy.”

“There are many moments,” says Soloway, “where I’m like, this is so feminist I can’t believe it’s on television.”

What’s on television, though, is starting to change. In general, she says, “only one kind of woman usually gets cast, and she usually has to be thin, white and whatever would be considered traditionally beautiful to the typical straight white male gaze.” But shows such as Lena Dunham’s Girls, one of the first to celebrate women who deviate physically (and morally) from Hollywood’s ideals, have paved the way for others, including Orange is the New Black and Broad City.

Soloway says she is conscious of being part of a movement. “To simply say, OK, we’re going to move women into the subject seat, we’re gonna allow women to be subjects instead of objects, it’s revolutionary.” Equally radical has been the change in the public’s perception of trans people. Transparent arrived a year ago into a world in which trans issues were, generally, poorly understood — and in which Caitlyn Jenner was still Bruce. (The Olympian turned TV personality has called Soloway to express her appreciation of the show.) What’s going to happen next, she says, is that “People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn’t mean they have a penis. Just because somebody’s feminine, it doesn’t mean they have a vagina. That’s going to be the evolution over the next five years.”

I suggest that, even today, that’s a fairly radical thing to say. She agrees, recalling that just a year ago she’d made the same claim to a journalist and then changed her mind the following day. She asked them not to print it, deeming it to be “too transgressive a statement. People can’t handle it.”

And now? “I say it all the time now.”

Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light in ‘Transparent’

I ask how close she thinks we are to reaching trans equality, noting that Time ran a cover story last year that hailed the arrival of a “transgender tipping point”. “I don’t think we’re at a tipping point yet,” she says. “I think if it’s like 100 per cent, so that trans people have the same access as cis [non-trans] people, I think we’re at 1 per cent.” Referring to US laws on the rights of people to rent property, she points out that there are “still 32 states in which it’s legal to discriminate against people for being transgender”.

“People are going to have to really re-understand their relationship to the binary,” she says.

As I start to wonder about my own relationship to the binary, one of the photographers indicates our time is running out. I ask Soloway if she’d ever anticipated becoming a political figure through writing a TV show. “I’ve always imagined that I could have some sort of position of feminist leadership,” she says. “When I was little, I did plan to be the first female president of the US.”

She may be getting closer. As we leave, she tells me that the following week she has an appointment at the White House — to screen her show for the Obamas.

The second season of ‘Transparent’ premieres on December 11, amazon.com

Photograph: Andrew Rowat

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