I’m late. I’m sorry. I’m late.
I came to Transparent, Amazon’s series starring Jeffrey Tambor as trans woman Maura Pfefferman, late.
And I came to Jill Solway, the creator of the show, and one of the most interesting feminist voices in popular culture, late too, discovering her around Christmas, when I read her book of essays, Tiny Ladies In Shiny Pants, in a single sitting.
But that’s OK, isn’t it? We can’t always be expected to keep up with the constant content spewed out by the internet, some of it brilliant, some of it useless brain-clutter, can we? And I have found her now, and that’s what counts.
If you, like me, are a little late with Jill Soloway, then please, I urge you to acquaint yourself. Not because it’s essential to keep up with the hippest TV shows and the subsequent thinkpieces (although that is a fun way to spend your time). But because this woman and her cultural output will change your thinking and your views and your relationships. OK – let’s embrace the hyperbole – she will change your life.
She will entertain you, and make you LOL, turning your evenings in front of the TV into a delight. But she will also introduce you to concepts and ideas about gender and sexuality that will rattle around in your brain and subsequent conversations for days and weeks afterwards.
In Soloway's Afternoon Delight, a character shouts, 'Has anybody here wondered what their aborted children would be like?'
To be fair to us late adopters, the whole world was actually a little late to Jill Soloway. Since the release of Transparent, she has often been compared to Lena Dunham, but Soloway wasn’t a wunderkind, who spent her twenties creating hugely successful shows and appearing in Vogue; instead, throughout her twenties, thirties and forties, she was a jobbing writer and producer, working on shows including Six Feet Under (the show’s creator Alan Ball hired her after he read a short story she wrote called Courteney Cox’s Asshole). She also worked with Diablo Cody on United States Of Tara, but, according to this comprehensive Soloway profile in the New Yorker, her vision didn’t fit with the men in suits. “I got fired, and they brought some dudes in,” she has said of that experience.
She’s now 50, and the agenda-setting, tear-jerking, hilarious, brilliant Transparent is around a year-and-a-half old. It centres on Maura (formerly Mort) Pfefferman, who, very much a latecomer, becomes a trans woman in her seventies. The premise is famously based on Soloway’s real life; her father came out as transgender in 2011 and, always a writer who reflected honestly on her own personal experiences, Soloway decided to make a TV show about it. She created a whole family of Pfeffermans for Transparent, with the coming out of Maura acting as a catalyst for the entire brood to reflect on their own place in the world, on their secrets and desires and ambitions and pasts.
In case you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil the experience of discovering the twists and turns of the Pfeffermans for yourself, but the superb cast allow the scenes – written by Soloway, her sister, Faith, and a team of writers that Soloway has recruited from academia, fiction, theatre and queer activism – to become wonderfully truthful and brilliantly poignant.
There’s a moment in season two when Jay Duplass as Josh, the son of the Pfefferman family, allows himself to feel sad over the fact that Mort is now Maura, an emotional response that he has thus far deemed “politically incorrect”. He curls up in the arms of a burly father figure, an ersatz dad and crumples. Watching it, I couldn’t quite cry – that would have been too easy a release – but instead felt this sad wretchedness opening up inside me, a kind of visceral empathy for Josh (who has been through a lot over 20 episodes, although Maura being trans is never presented as a problem) that wouldn’t go away as easily as you’d expect. “I suppose I just feel bad about Josh,” I said several hours later, when my boyfriend asked me why I seemed a little blue. So, yeah, like I’ve been saying, this show is good.
Yesterday, a woman slightly older than me asked me about trans rights, explaining that she, of course, supports people who are trans, but struggles to know what is the best language to use, or to understand all the different terms. Or to understand the concept all the time, if she’s honest.
I am a straight cisgender woman, learning too, but I told her about my friend who identifies as non-binary or genderqueer. Then I said, “You really need to watch Transparent.” Not because it’s some educational tract laying it all out, or because it gets absolutely everything right all the time, but because I haven’t seen anything else that seems to relate so honestly and so sensitively the experience of being trans.
Transparent isn’t the first time Soloway has used her stories to explore gender politics. There is an essay in 2005’s Tiny Ladies In Shiny Pants that discusses consent with honesty and sad, inevitable insight
These characters aren’t perfect (yes, some people will struggle to find a “likeable” character in there), and they are portrayed as real people in the world (yes, liberal and from LA, but real and flawed and selfish and struggling) coming to terms with trans rights as the issue finally becomes visible in our mainstream.
In one episode, the show addresses the row that has divided feminism, with a group of TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) explaining to Maura why she isn’t welcome at their feminist festival, which is for “women born women”. She has used and relied on male privilege for too long, they argue. It has been hard to engage with that row on the internet without feeling shouted at by somebody, even if you believe that you are firmly on the right side, but watching the argument play out here – and the hurt Maura experiences – is enlightening and powerful, whatever it is you may believe.
Transparent isn’t the first time Soloway has used her stories to explore gender politics. There is an essay in 2005’s Tiny Ladies In Shiny Pants called Lotion Bag, which discusses consent with honesty and sad, inevitable insight. “He didn’t do anything mean or against my will,” Soloway recalls of the man she lost her virginity to, when she was 17 and he was 36. “It was just strange and unfamiliar the way a lot of sex is.”
In Afternoon Delight, the feature film she wrote and directed before making Transparent, a bunch of rich LA characters struggle with the concept of why you should say “sex worker” rather than “prostitute”. Also in that film is a scene, where the drunk protagonist (the brilliant Kathryn Hahn) responds to the news that another one of her privileged thirtysomething friends is having a baby by shouting about the abortion she had in college. “Has anybody here wondered what their aborted children would be like?” she asks, her lips stained with red wine, before canvassing the assembled women about what it is they *actually* think of when they orgasm. It is sad. And funny. Then sad again.
Meanwhile, Soloway’s Twitter bio reads simply: “topple the patriarchy please”.
The other day, my editor said, when I mentioned Soloway again, “Ooh, you really have a girl crush, don’t you?” Together we throw around the term half-jokingly. We know it’s a stupid term… But yes, I have a girl crush on Jill Soloway. Because she is a woman who stands up for and represents all the girls, everywhere, and what could be more crush-worthy and impressive than that?
Transparent is on Amazon Prime