This morning, Amazon released the entire first season of “Transparent,” a great new dramedy starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman coming out to her family and beginning her full gender transition at an advanced age. I already published my review, as well as an interview with Tambor, and now I have an interview with the show”s creator, “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” veteran Jill Soloway. It”s a deep dive into the world of trans politics – including the question of whether it”s ideal to have a cis male (aka someone born a man) like Tambor playing this role – how Soloway”s professional past and family history shaped the series, the prospect of people watching all 10 episodes at once, and more.
As I said in my review, it may take me a little time to finish the rest of the season, given what a busy time of the TV year this is, but I”ll eventually have a follow-up review looking at all 10 episodes as a unit. Please save plot-specific comments for that post, though if some of you have already started watching the show, feel free to share general opinions here.
What sort of experience, if any, did you really have with the trans community before you started writing this?
Jill Soloway: Not a ton, honestly. So much so that I think I was probably helpfully naive in going into it, including having this very strong vision for Jeffrey Tambor as Maura. Had I known more at the time I conceived of the show, I would have been much more suspicious of that impulse. But Jeffrey Tambor is the perfect person. So as I started working on the show, I realized how much I didn't know and I started to bring in trans consultants in all areas.
Why would you have maybe, after the benefit of research, been averse to having Jeffrey do it?
Jill Soloway: Well, there is this like gigantic problem with representation of trans women. So if it was ten years from now and there had been a whole bunch of trans women already on television and trans women played by trans women, then I think people would go, “Okay, now it's okay for a trans woman to be played by a cis male.” But because trans women have only been played by cis males – or cis females actually, like Felicity Huffman; they've only been played by cis people – it's a big leap to do a show that has the word “trans” in the title, a show that purports to be the voice of the trans movement and have a cis male in the leading role. Luckily, Jeffrey's performance, I think, puts all of that to rest. I think it's almost happening a decade sooner than trans people would have liked. I don't think that anybody is ready to put to rest the question of whether or not cis people can play trans roles because, really, the civil rights movement needs for so many trans people to start acting, getting the job, having the training and then having the kinds of careers where you would point to so-and-so and go, “They deserve this role.” I mean I can't even name the person because the person doesn't exist (now).
There are a handful of notable trans actors at this point, but one of the things I thought about when pondering this question is, given the stage that Maura is at in her transition and how tentative and relatively ignorant she is about a lot of this, could a woman who has been through the full transition easily play that?
Jill Soloway: Right. And I think that's one of the things that even trans people say, “Okay, we have to give you that.” This is a late-transitioning, older person who has not had the benefit of hormones, has not had the benefit of any kind of surgery, who doesn't pass easily and who really doesn't even know how and where they want to express their femininity. They're learning how they want to look and they're clumsy at it. And I'm sure it would have been doable by a trans actress, but the other thing that's so interesting about this show that it is such a subtle sort of part of it is that nobody ever talks about is the difference and the connection between cross-dressers and trans women. And there are so many “heterosexual cis males” who are part of secret cross-dressing communities. There's an organization called Tri-Ess that was founded by a woman named Virginia Prince. These organizations, they're kind of like Shriners, they have them in Orange County, they're all over the country, if not the world, and these are like very conservative family man who cross-dress as a hobby, for pleasure, with their friends, sometimes with their wives. And nobody addresses what these folks have in common with trans women. And if we're telling the story of somebody who moved from identifying as a cross-dresser to identifying as a trans woman, I do think that within that story telling there's a mandate for a cis male to play the role.