Life Imitating Art Imitating Life: Jill Soloway’s 'Transparent'

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life: Jill Soloway’s 'Transparent'

Kristen Field

About three years ago, Jill Soloway was at an all-time low, having almost landed a job writing for Glee – and desperately needing the money to support herself and her son – but later being told by her agent that Ryan Murphy wasn’t willing to hire such a ‘difficult’ writer (read: self-declared feminist). Instead of giving up on her writing career, though, she decided to throw everything she had into making a film, hoping that garnering success through that might give her the opportunity to get a pilot picked up.

Thank goodness she did, because Afternoon Delight is one of the most delicate, piercing films I have ever seen, exploring notions of family and femininity and survival in a more nuanced way than I would have ever thought possible had I not seen it for myself. However, that movie, in the end, wasn’t what led Soloway to create her award-winning television series Transparent.

It is only because one of Soloway’s parents came out as transgender that the show exists, and the twists of fate that have given us these gems of storytelling make me seriously consider the existence of a higher power somewhere, making sure that we receive the right works of art at the right time, giving us the chance to be the people we would like to be.

So, Soloway’s father (now her Moppa – a name I just adore) comes out as transgender, and Soloway decides that this is what her career has been building towards, and what all the rejection she has experienced has prepared her for. She creates this television series about a 68-year-old coming out to her family and the rest of the world as a transgender woman, Maura, and it’s heartbreaking and hilarious and deceptively simple (watching it, there seem to be an infinite number of layers to pull back and discover new meaning beneath).

Soloway’s sister, Faith, is part of the writing team, too, and knowing that she’s an out lesbian it isn’t surprising to have so many queer female characters in the show (both of Maura’s daughters end up questioning their sexuality during the first season).

I assumed, with Soloway having two sons at this point and being married to the music supervisor for Transparent, Bruce Gilbert, that the show’s creator was merely the product of growing up in an uber-liberal household (her parents sent her and her sister to a school with predominantly black students because they wanted them to develop more than just tolerance and acceptance of those different from them) and working in such a liberal industry.

It came as a complete shock to me, albeit an exhilarating one, to discover that a storyline in the second season of Transparent became a catalyst for a major shift in Soloway’s life, going from being a quietly queer woman to an incredibly public one (she’s traded in her perfectly quaffed auburn bob for a super-short and naturally grey cut, for one).

This season portrays the budding relationship between Maura’s youngest daughter and a much older female poet and academic, Leslie Macanaugh, whom Maura (along with many other white, male academics she worked with decades prior) prevented from joining the editorial board of a journal, time and again, presumably because of her gender (they blocked many other female candidates at the same time, too).

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Soloway revealed that she is currently dating Eileen Myles, the revered lesbian poet that Leslie is based on, and, according to Soloway herself, it was the research her writing team embarked on before the second season, somehow securing Myles’ private journal from years before, that led to Soloway falling in love with the poet. It was again, seemingly, an act of fate.

...the twists of fate that have given us these gems of storytelling make me seriously consider the existence of a higher power somewhere, making sure that we receive the right works of art at the right time, giving us the chance to be the people we would like to be.

This puts Afternoon Delight, a story of a suburban mother from Los Angeles, Rachel, who gets a lap dance from an incredibly young stripper (courtesy of her husband) and then takes said stripper into her home (after stalking her for some time) because she believes she’ll be able to help her, in a whole new light.

I always imagined Rachel’s tearful apology to her husband at the end of the film (after the stripper, McKenna, sleeps with one of his married friends) as a realisation that she hadn’t fully appreciated her family – everything she had in her life – before she toppled it to the ground. Given what we now know of Soloway’s life, though, the ending of the movie now seems far more devastating, a portrait of potential realities – and potential selves – pushed aside in order to make room for what is known, and what is safe.

Watching Rachel – played by the inimitable Kathryn Hahn, who also has a supporting role in Transparent and can break your heart with a single look – drive past McKenna (still hanging around a strip club) one final time, not stopping, but watching her in the rear-view mirror until she disappears from sight, seems to suggest not only a rejection of what their relationship could have been, but a rejection of another woman that Rachel might have been, too. There is no room for McKenna in this narrative, and no room for that different, shadowy Rachel, either.

Transparent, on the other hand, is rife with selfish characters, according to reviews across the board (Victor Beigelman’s article 'The Selfish Tribe of Transparent' is just one example). Watching the second season, though, which involves the oldest Pfefferman sibling leaving her new – but not yet official – wife at her wedding reception, the middle Pfefferman sibling insisting that his grown son (whom he only found out about at the end of the show’s first season) come live with him and his fiancé and their not-yet-born child, and the youngest Pfefferman sibling explaining to her Moppa (at a women’s festival that she is not quite welcome at) that she benefitted from male privilege for most of her life, I can’t help but feel empathy for them all, in all their human frailty.

Some people may watch this show and refuse to keep going with it because of the hurt they see these characters inflict – both on themselves and the people around them – but I see a reflection that makes my heart ache, while at the same time quietly urging me to do better in whatever way I can.

Learning from the past – or our inability to do so – seems to be a common thread throughout this season of Transparent. The first episode ends with a beautiful song by Alice Boman as the camera pans across multiple hotel rooms filled with Pfeffermans, and the final image we are left with is both a disquieting and moving one: Ali, the one Pfefferman who is completely alone, walks out onto the balcony of her hotel room and is suddenly joined by a young transgender woman from pre-WWII Berlin, who we (at this point) know nothing else about.

At first, this seems like a superfluous turn towards the surreal, but the flashbacks we’re given in subsequent episodes all build to a moment in which Boman’s song returns, this time at the women’s festival, while Ali runs after Maura in an attempt to stop her leaving after she both receives and doles out some not-so-friendly words with older feminists Ali has befriended. On her way through the woods, though, Ali somehow runs into 1930s Berlin and witnesses the young transgender woman who has been haunting her – and who we now know is her grandmother’s sibling – being taken away by Nazi soldiers.

All of this is juxtaposed with Maura, tearing apart her tent and shouting into the night, seemingly at a loss of what to do, having been all but convinced that there is no place for her now that she has decided to be honest with the people around her. Putting the moment into words might make it seem far too heavy-handed, but trust me when I say that watching it will shatter you, and possibly your view of the world, too.

Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.