Jill Soloway is an award-winning director, comedian and scriptwriter for film and TV. She’s received critical acclaim for Transparent, a sitcom about a transgender politics professor and his self-obsessed family. In January 2015, the show was awarded a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical series – the first online show ever to have done so.
We spoke to Jill about gender politics, on screen and off.
Why did you start Wifey.tv?
There is a sense that something important is brewing in the world of media for women. But, as excited as everyone is about this revolution in content, it’s still a marginal part of mainstream media distribution. We wanted to create a place where women can always go to find something relevant, something that assumes its audience is both intelligent and female as the rule instead of exception.
What drew you to comedy?
My favourite thing about comedy is that it’s undeniable. If someone is watching drama, you can never be sure if it’s working. You know comedy is working when people are laughing. When people are laughing, they’re open. If you’re working with new or unpopular or disruptive ideas, comedy is a great path into peoples’ ways of seeing.
You’ve talked about how Hollywood stories tend to follow the ‘Hero’s Journey’ – where women are presented as threatening challenges to vanquish or feeble-minded prizes to be won. How do women’s stories differ from that?
When Joseph Campbell was asked about the ‘Heroine’s Journey’, apparently his reply was: “Women don’t need to make the journey ‒ all they have to do is realise that she’s the place people are trying to get to.” Oh, Joseph. I’m still not quite sure about the specifics of this ‒ every day I do a bit more emotional archaeology, but I sense that there is a cyclical nature to the female experience. Circles of all kinds can be found in many of the best stories by and about [women] ‒ or maybe they can be described better as coiled springs.
You also describe some of your work as being like a Trojan horse ‒ entertaining on the outside but with a hidden power within. Do you think that women have to work that way to be heard?
Well, it helps. Both men and women are used to understanding things through male protagonists, but only women are used to sitting in the drivers’ seat of a female hero. That’s why, when some people experience a female main character, it can feel off-putting. Men have enjoyed the privilege over thousands of years of “seeing” women ‒ deciding who’s hot or young or old or desired or useless.
By creating female protagonists, we’re literally “privileging” the woman in the story with something women don’t usually get; we’re imbuing them with subject-ness as opposed to object-ness. That’s the part that can feel weird to some men ‒ they sense the discomfort of being consumed (something we’ve been used to for aeons).
So yes, one has to be careful of straight up, loudly proclaiming, ‘this is how it feels to be me’ if they’re a woman (or any kind of other, for that matter ‒ black, brown, queer ‒ anyone not usually given a megaphone). The people who have had the megaphone are loath to give it away. If you couch your notions in these more likable ‘Trojan horses’, you’re more likely to get close to the megaphone when no-one’s looking.
There’s a great video on your site about how to tell the difference between misogyny and feminism. Do you think there is ever confusion between empowerment and exploitation – and, if so, what do we do about it?
Women want to come together but we can’t seem to agree on what power means, particularly when it regards sexuality, which is so personal to most women. We want to draw a line around what is and isn’t OK. For some women that’s dressing sexy or sleeping around. Other women draw the line at paid sex work.
Follow this continuum and see where you stop:
I like to dress up and look attractive. I like to dress in revealing clothes. I like to dress in revealing clothes and go out dancing. I like to attract men and power by dressing and dancing that way. I enjoy pole dancing classes where I learn to strip for fun. I sometimes have sex when I don’t want to for reasons other than desire. I monetise the power of my body by dancing in a strip club as my job. I get paid to perform physical intimacy with people, one on one. I perform intimacy and record it and then sell that recording to the public to better support myself. Sometimes I am filmed performing intimacy with multiple people at once and sometimes that imitates masochistic elements of power.
That little thought exercise takes you more or less through every single kind of woman out there, describing the path from regular old housewife to hardest-core, gang-banging porn star. We are all women, but depending on where you draw that line, you almost always necessarily separate yourself from the concerns of women on the other side of the line.
There’s so much yet to do in feminism, so starting with that chatty video about how confusing it is to understand the differences between things that can at once feel like feminism and misogyny is a fun way to start. The confusion at the centre is filled with possibility; the questions are our favourite places.
Tell us a joke.
Q: What’s the worst thing you can hear after giving Willie Nelson a blow job?
A: I’m not Willie Nelson.