September 16, 2019

Jill Soloway’s pitch for matriarchy

When “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway ascended to the stage at the Emmys last Sunday to accept her award for directing, she seized the opportunity to make a statement.

“People ask me if it’s hard to be a director, and I tell them ‘no,’ ” she said to the audience. “Life is very hard; being a good partner, being a good mother. Being a good person is hard. Being a director is so f—— easy.”

Her words reminded me of something Soloway told The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy last December, when she was interviewed about the award-winning series that tells the story of a Jewish family patriarch who chooses to transition to become a matriarch. Soloway was explaining why she felt women are well-suited to the profession of directing, even though so few of them are given the opportunity.

“We all know how to do it,” she said. “We f—— grew up doing it! It’s dolls. How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the f— happened?”

Soloway is known for delivering feminist messages from the microphone. In fact, the more successful she becomes, it seems, the more outspoken she is. At the Emmys, she concluded her speech with an exuberant and audacious call to “topple the patriarchy” as she waved her golden statuette like a sword before battle — in front of an industry notorious for its leadership of middle-aged, white men. “Top-ple the pat-ri-ar-chy!” she cried. 

What’s interesting about Soloway’s statement-making is not simply that it reflects her gendered point of view, but a more meaningful, deep-seated belief that her success as a director emanates directly from her lived experience as a caretaker. Being a director, she tells us, is just like playing house. It’s pretend; it’s fun. But what makes her good at it is that she’s had real preparation stemming from the inbuilt qualities of being a woman. It is not motherhood itself, but, rather, the facility for motherhood that equips women with skills for leadership.

I was especially struck by this thought, because earlier on the day of the Emmys, I had attended a friend’s baby shower, where for several hours I was thoroughly immersed in the world of womanhood, motherhood, the Divine Feminine and the Shekhinah. A handful of the women who attended were pregnant, and several others were nursing. More than one spoke of her love for her child as something so transcendent and overwhelming, no other love could compare. “You think you know what love is before you have a baby?” one woman said. “You don’t.”

While I am sure I will feel that way should I be blessed to have a child of my own, I refrain from the assumption that those who choose not to have children, or who cannot have children, are not capable of real and deep love in their lives. But it is interesting that so many of the women at the shower felt the need to proclaim the greatness of motherhood. I suspect this is because it was important for them to affirm what society does not sufficiently acknowledge — that the role of a parent (a good parent) is of enormous value. Instead, we often hear people boast of professional and public achievements, rather than that they are good parents.

Enter Soloway, whose words later that same day affirmed the skills of women whose “professions” as parents have no economic value. She reminded us that we are still a society that values professional accomplishment more than personal accomplishment, and which celebrates the acquisition of capital more than the art of caregiving. And yet, she is also saying that it is precisely the feminine penchant for care over control that has made her a successful professional. “It’s dolls and feelings.”

Because I am not yet a parent, I offered my expectant friend the wisdom of my mother, who parented as capably and lovingly as is possible in that role. My mother was also a professional, a woman who built and ran her own business, and who went on to a second career, counseling high school students from low-income and inner-city neighborhoods. 

Even though my mother could be admired for building her own business, what most impacted my life, and the lives of my siblings, is the way she parented. When I remember her, I think less of what she accomplished or what she materially provided and more about the sensitivity and skill with which she raised us. Recently, a friend of my mother’s visited me in Los Angeles, and after a long conversation, took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “Your mother prepared you so well for life.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.