Jill Soloway has changed the game many times over, since creating their Emmy Award-winning series Transparent, and this year’s incredible I Love Dick. What’s exciting about watching their work continuously evolve into more politically radical spheres is the knowledge that Soloway is only just getting started. Their latest campaign is not just about nabbing some well-deserved Emmy nominations for the talented trans people involved with I Love Dick and Transparent—as well as music supervisor Bruce Gilbert and cinematographer Jim Frohna, whose respective categories have been established for the first time this year—it’s about reshaping the conversation about the awards themselves, including the acknowledgement that economic justice can come from the celebration of work by people who are not white, male and cis.
“Is it too much to ask that Alexandra Grey, Trace Lysette, and Sophia Grace all get nominated?” Jill queries. “Would that be weird, for like three of the five actress nominees to be trans women?”
Grey plays Elizah in Transparent’s powerful Season Three opener, titled after her character; Lysette gives an incredible turn as Shea over the course of the season and Grace is the young trans girl who blew us all away in the flashback episode “If I Were a Bell” (and made history as the first young trans actor on TV in the process). “If I Were a Bell” was also written by a trans woman, Our Lady J—and Soloway, decidedly tired of pretending they don’t want awards for their colleagues—is campaigning for her too.
“A nomination is a life-transformer. They give you economic security. They give you respect.”
For Soloway, it’s time to acknowledge that an award for a trans person, a black person or a person of color is not the same thing as an award for a white man (for that matter, it’s also not the same as awards for straight white women).
“When I look at someone like [the director of Transparent’s Season Three finale] Marta Cunningham, or Alexandra Grey, and I think a woman of color director and a trans woman of color actor—is it really about desire, or desire to win?” Soloway asks. “I’m willing to be competitive, because it means economic justice and social justice, and it means winning financially for the people that deserve it. The problem of the self-congratulation party applies to men, and white men who’ve been in the business forever. So awards got this sheen on them, of these people congratulating themselves. Well, not really—not when Moonlight wins! It’s not people congratulating themselves. It’s actually re-shaping and re-shifting an economic scenario, and opening up avenues of power to people who haven’t had it.”
Whether the Emmys choose to celebrate the work of the trans artists and people of color Soloway continues to employ or not, the writer/producer says they are forever moved by the experience of working on both shows.
“I feel mostly, incredibly grateful all the time. I can’t believe my luck, and I can’t believe the creative freedom that Amazon has given me.”
When we discuss “If I Were a Bell,” Soloway calls the work revolutionary, because, “normally men or cis people are writing what they think trans people are.” Such material at best lacks authenticity, and at worst becomes objectifying. Soloway mentions a concept they heard from director Ava DuVernay about the importance of going beyond mere depiction and moving towards reflection—having trans people tell their stories, in the same way that black people must be able to tell theirs.
“Our Lady J pulled on her childhood experiences. The kid on the baseball field who everyone thinks is a boy and fantasizes—that’s straight from her.” Soloway also cites the Red Rover game in the episode, with girls on one side and boys on the other, where young Maura (as Mort) knows she’s on the wrong side. Soloway’s own Moppa’s experiences growing up in London and having to spend time in a bomb shelter also informed several of the episode’s powerful moments.
In addition to providing the material for one of the series’ most poignant installments, Soloway says that having Our Lady J resulted in some unforgettable on-set experiences—specifically, watching young Sophia Grace interact with Lady J and the other trans people on the show.
“I’d find her in a huddle with all of the trans women on the set,” Soloway remembers. “Not just Our Lady J, but Zackary [Drucker] and Rain [Valdez]. She was getting advice from cool, older women, and asking bathing suit questions. It was so fucking cute. I literally just cried.”
Anyone watching I Love Dick, which Soloway co-created with Sarah Gubbins, can sense that same passion and emotional connection with the material and the experience of TV-making that comes with it. But it turns out there’s a fascinating connection between the two shows—one that partly exists because of the great Kathryn Hahn.
I posit a scenario in which a fantasy, non-existent TV show that Soloway has discussed before (called “Feminists Arguing”) has an episode featuring Kathryn Hahn’s Transparent character, Rabbi Raquel, and Hahn’s I Love Dick protagonist, Chris Kraus. What happens, I wonder, in a world where these two meet, and speak on feminist thought?
“I love that! The Rabbi Raquel/Chris Kraus smackdown,” Soloway laughs. “I actually feel like I Love Dick and Transparent are connected, and that I Love Dick is sort of Transparent’s id. And the id idea is personified by these two characters.
“Rabbi Raquel kind of existed at the very top of Transparent. She was like the star at the top of the Christmas tree. She was God, she was the moral clarity, the person who told America: This is how to feel about the Pfeffermans. She sort of shook her head at them, with America. Then she left—and it’s like she emerged in a cistern in Marfa as Chris Kraus. She went down, and came up through the cistern [laughs]. She’s traveling this trajectory, from being this on-high, beautiful God character, to [someone] on bottom, dark, in pain and doesn’t give a shit. Rabbi Raquel wants to be a good person. Chris Kraus hopes to set everything on fire.”
I think of Chris in I Love Dick—refusing to just be “Dick’s new fellow’s wife,” refusing to stop writing the letters, and those final shots of her, walking away from Dick’s ranch (to the tune of Lhasa De Sela’s “Small Song”), thighs bloodied from her period. Her not-giving-a-fuck-ness (or giving a lot of fucks, about setting everything on fire) truly is something of legend.
“They’re really well matched,” Soloway adds, of Raquel and Chris. “They’d have to fight to the death.”
Speaking of Lhasa De Sela, there’s yet another reason the shows feel like they’re in conversation with each other: Music suprvisor Bruce Gilbert, who began diving back into the singer’s music when a song of hers came to him in a dream, works to create the souls of both series. And Soloway, who was previously married to Gilbert, couldn’t be more excited that he could finally be nominated this year.
“Bruce’s ability to express the un-expressable in song, and choosing the right song, is one of the reasons I fell in love with him.” They go on to describe an early “falling in love moment,” that involved a mixtape he made for them. When Soloway’s own parent came out as trans, it created a “tsunami of questioning”—one that ultimately led to their own coming out as queer and, later, gender non-conforming.
“My marriage with Bruce was one of the first casualties, but luckily, even though our marriage ended, our relationship continued. We were still always working together in this beautiful way, around music—which is soul, which is the soul. The music is always another character on the show, and it always has a connection to the divine. So we get to continue to be in this conversation about love.”
“Conversation” is a word that holds so much value for Soloway as a creator. Raquel is in conversation with Chris, as Transparent is in conversation with I Love Dick, and Soloway insists that their work is also in constant conversation with that of other creators. What they want, most of all, is for that conversation to feel more like a sport. Soloway uses pickup basketball as a metaphor for what this utopia of creative, socially conscious and politically inspired work might look like.
“There’s a court, and all the guys go down there, and you don’t have to know anybody,” Soloway says, describing the experience of recently watching one such game. “You just come in any neighborhood and before you know it, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers, really, vigorously competing. And just loving the feeling of competition—of a good-natured sport.
“And we start to tell our own truths, and we create space for other women. When I think of Lena Dunham, Lady Dynamite [Maria Bamford], Issa Rae, Abbi Jacobson, I think ‘I wanna be on that basketball court with you guys. I wanna inspire each other, like, ‘Oh my God, I just saw your season, and now I wanna do this.’”
That is, of course, one of the most exciting parts about their work. Soloway has this intense desire to constantly build and open up, and not only keep the conversation going, but to turn it into a game, where everyone works from their own body, and has their own style, but the goal of toppling the patriarchy is ultimately what they have in common.
And any awards that support such a goal are, as Soloway says, a move towards a future far less white, male, straight and cis. Such a future is the only way to make the TV world—and America—great again, for the very first time.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.