Jill Soloway: Queen of the Amazon (dotcom)
It would be a terrible loss to American culture if Jill Soloway followed through with her 10-year plan to retire to Northern California, grow out her gray hair and spend her days gliding around in a caftan and “probably no bra.”
“I’ll be, like, in a small, wooden house, relaxed, not using a cellphone, building a fire,” the Emmy-winning creator of Amazon’s hit series “Transparent” told a room full of women at a recent Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles luncheon.
I could only hope Soloway was joking, because in the last several years she has done more to enrich, enliven — and upend — the culture she seeks to escape than many of her industry counterparts with less ingenuity but privileged anatomy. Besides, how many Hollywood talents would begin a public conversation about the Emmys and end up lecturing about the “heroic feminine”?
“Sorry,” Soloway told the group. “I get very excited, because I feel like I have these thoughts, I feel like I know these things, and I don’t know what to do with them. So I put them in ‘Transparent.’ ”
The award-winning series, inspired by her experience of learning that her father was a trans woman, has won not only most of TV’s most coveted awards (including five Emmys and two Golden Globes), it also has broadened the visibility of the transgender community and bolstered its fight for political inclusion. No one but Soloway could have imagined such an outcome might emanate from what was considered a risky, outlier show, rejected by networks but championed and produced by Amazon as its first streaming series for the Internet. But as this feisty feminist showrunner proves, it takes balls to be a woman in Hollywood.
“There’s this job called showrunner, which is what every TV writer wants,” Soloway told the crowd. “And I had written pilot after pilot after pilot — all of them with adorable and dark Jewish protagonists. But nobody wanted to do a show about an adorable and dark Jewish protagonist. So I was hitting my head against a ceiling … feeling like I might actually leave the TV business and … teach women’s studies and write poetry.”
Instead, she wrote the feature film “Afternoon Delight,” about a housewife who invites a stripper to become her live-in nanny, which she was determined to direct despite the fact that female directors are still as rare as a California rainstorm. According to a recent New York Times magazine article by Maureen Dowd, female directors have made only 1.9 percent of the 100 top-grossing films in the last two years. Women in TV fare only slightly better: The Directors Guild of America surveyed 277 television shows and found that women directed only 16 percent of the episodes. (How vengefully sweet then, that Soloway won her first Emmy not for writing but for directing.)
It was while shooting “Afternoon Delight” that, Soloway said, she discovered her voice, a “film language” that gave her the confidence to oversee an entire production. She was quickly validated when she won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival award for her effort. Around the same time, she received an unexpected phone call from her father, during which he revealed he felt he was actually a woman.
“I didn’t quite get it at the time,” Soloway told the crowd of mostly female Federation donors. “I didn’t really know what they were telling me,” she added, using the gender-neutral term to describe her trans parent, whom she now calls “Mapa.”
“So, besides sort of saying the wonderful things that anybody in the family would say to somebody who comes out — ‘I love you, I’ll always love you. Thank you for telling me’ — I also got this little voice in my head going … IIIIIII’ve got a TV show!” — she said in operatic crescendo.
Actually, Soloway had more than a TV show — she had found her cause. Storytelling became an opportunity to create politically engaged and message-driven content that transcended her previous work. She became more interested in meaningful entertainment, reminding us that watching isn’t always about escape and can be about wakefulness.
“In Hollywood, they now talk about ‘the Lena Dunham effect’ and ‘the Jill Soloway effect,’ ” Dowd wrote.
These two women do things their way, and male-dominated Hollywood has been forced to catch up. What distinguishes them, aside from their gifts, is that both Soloway and Dunham have used their power to subvert the status quo, to bring attention to issues they care about, and to nurture other women still trying to make it. (According to Dowd, Soloway has a “100 percent” track record of hiring female directors on ‘‘Transparent.”)
The second season, which begins streaming Dec. 11 on Amazon, digs deeper into the history of the trans community. And here’s a big surprise: When trying to invent a plausible immigration story for her Jewish protagonists, the Pfeffermans, Soloway looked to pre-World War II Germany and discovered that the trans community had flourished within the Jewish community — in 1930s Berlin.
“Right before the Holocaust, it turns out, there was a place called the Institute for Sexual Research, and there was a Jewish man there named Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who was gay, and he had a place in Berlin where people were doing trans medicine,” Soloway said. The discovery launched Soloway into a study of epigenetic memory, the scientific idea that trauma is experienced on a cellular level and that those cells are passed on to future generations.
“And this is true of the Jewish people!” she said. “I mean, this explains why we get so anxious in airports. This is true of all people who experience trauma — we carry with us the anxiety, the fear, the depression, the soul murder of our parents and grandparents and our great grandparents, who have been targeted for hundreds and thousands of years … ”
I wonder what stars had to align for a Jewish doctor practicing trans medicine in pre-Holocaust Berlin to get the attention of an ambitious woman in 21st-century Hollywood, who would then tell his story on the world’s largest shopping website? “Transparent” was so not apparent; Soloway must have tapped into this fate with her epigenetic memory.
“I have been waiting my whole life for this moment,” she said of when she realized “Transparent” was the story that would change her career. “My entire life is going to be divided between ‘before this’ and ‘after this.’ I’m going to make something [that will] be leaving an artistic and social legacy that will change things.”
Retirement plan, be damned.