“It couldn’t be sillier, it couldn’t be more insane”: “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway on Season 2 in the era of “I Am Cait”

What to expect from "Transparent" in a world where trans awareness is suddenly part of the national conversation

Published August 1, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

Jill Soloway     (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Jill Soloway (AP/Richard Shotwell)

In the year since Jill Soloway’s series “Transparent” debuted on Amazon Prime, the conversation around trans rights and the representation of trans people in culture has radically shifted. “Transparent’s" pilot was released just last February, offering the series’ premise as a twist in the final act—the unveiling of Maura, the woman that the person called Morty has always truly been. Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is a character in the process of gender transitioning in her 70s—an age fraught with other concerns, like mortality, retirement and parenting children who have grown into adults. “Transparent” unconsciously anticipated the most high-profile public gender transition in history—that of Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian and parent to an unruly clan of reality television stars who is now emerging as a considerable star in her own right.

Now Amazon Prime’s award-winning flagship show is filming Season 2, and it’s returning this fall to a cultural landscape that knows a whole lot more about the transgender experience. I spoke with creator and showrunner Jill Soloway about making season 2 of “Transparent” in a world where Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and, of course, Caitlyn Jenner have made trans awareness a national topic of conversation.

What can viewers expect to see in Season 2?

Well, it’s wild! Season 2 is kind of like really, really wild. We doubled down—there’s double the soapy family drama, and double the “Oh my God” moments. I think the world has caught up a little bit with some of the basic trans-101 politics, so we get to make Maura a little more human and a little less of a heroine. She gets to screw up.

What else? Instead of going back in time to that cross-dressing camp with Maura, we have a different historical journey where we go back in time. It’s so special I can’t even tell you. It’s too special to share.

Is it by any chance related to the Holocaust? Because I remember reading that you wanted to do that for Season 1…

It’s definitely Holocausty. It has a Holocausty vibe.

Something that I think is incredible about “Transparent,” based just on the last few months in the news, is how the show anticipated Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as trans. How has that affected you?

It’s similar to the Maura/trans-101 coming out story. Who are we going to tell? How are they going to respond when they find out? I think we’re all past that. I’m past that. And it’s so nice that the culture can be past that — that we can go beyond whatever was the spectacle aspect, the kinds of things that the culture would respond to, which is like, “Let me look at the before-and-after pics!” We can say as a culture that trans people are people. They’re fighting for civil rights. Let’s remove the sensational aspect of this and talk about the human rights crisis. I’ve evolved from that as well, beyond specifically counting trans folk on our set and crew and knowing that there are trans folk everywhere. The idea of the specialty issue or the tokenism or the fascination has given way to just living in a world where many good people are trans. That’s normal, comfortable and wonderful.

There’s something psychic about “Transparent,” in terms of anticipating how this would be a conversation that a lot of people would never have expected themselves to be having. I feel like the awareness is so much greater. And it’s interesting with “Transparent” and “I Am Cait,” which just debuted, that so much of the focus is on the family, on how this trans parent is going to communicate this to their children who have seen them in a very specific way for their whole lives.

It’s almost too absurd to even contemplate. The most comical thing for the Soloway daughters as well as the Pfefferman daughters is that, as recently as a year ago, probably, they felt like they were dealing with this niche problem. Not “problem,” but niche family issue. How do we explain this to ourselves, to our relatives? How do we explain this to our friends, to our neighborhood? And yeah, the absurdism of the most famous family on the planet experiencing the same thing and, instead of so-and-so’s husband’s boyfriend, how does Kanye West react? It couldn’t be sillier, it couldn’t be more insane.

I appreciate the word “psychic,” because I haven’t heard that one before, but it helps me understand when I go, “What in the world is happening?” The entire planet is watching. Somebody’s stepdaughter’s husband is the first person who can help his wife get the bravery of her parent. And that person’s Kanye! That person’s a mythological figure. And he’s a superstar, a musician-poet, and he’s changing the culture in a huge way, and he’s the stepdaughter’s boyfriend. It’s crazy! I would not have believed it, if I said this to myself a few years ago—Yeah this is going to happen, the show’s going to happen, it’s all going to be fine, it’s all going to be OK. Your story’s going to be one of the less globally known stories about transition.

It’s fascinating that Caitlyn Jenner watched “Transparent.”

She did, yeah. I spoke to her as well as Kim [Kardashian] about all this stuff. They’ve been nothing but supportive. A lot of the people on our show have been spending time with her and our world. I think we’re going to meet on Saturday, and yeah, there’s a lot of crossover. A lot of people in the trans community connecting through both productions.

I know you have a trans parent yourself, and you’re writing about this trans parent, and now you’re meeting with Caitlyn Jenner who’s also this trans parent. These are people who have chosen this process late in life, where there are a lot of family members that are affected—in a world where, until very recently, it was a very niche phenomenon. What do you think is the takeaway there, from seeing this evolve from an isolated incident to what many people are going through?

Trans folk have been around for thousands of years. A lot of people have been around trans people, this is not a new thing. Trans people being able to live their lives and have protections and have rights, that’s new. One of the things we’re learning when we’re doing our historical research was that in 1930 in Germany, there were a whole bunch of queer folk and trans folk, gender non-conforming people.

There’s this kind of worship of the binary that trans people challenge. This is/or, black/white, Jewish/not-Jewish, this idea that race or blood can affirmatively draw a line that keeps people quote-unquote “safe” on one side or another. Our culture is dependent on this. The same issue is happening right now around race. It’s not an accident. This is about people challenging the binary.

What trans people are doing isn’t that interesting or weird. They’re simply saying, “Look, I know you thought I was a boy for however many years. But I’m a girl.” It’s not that crazy. What’s crazy and weird is how our culture has a tough time with it and gives people such a hard time. It’s about transitioning. When a parent transitions or anybody in the family transitions, it’s about the whole family transitioning from a way of seeing the world, which is through this binary lens, into this next version of, not only their trans family members but themselves, everyone in the family, transitioning. Everybody must transition. They go, “If my family member is willing to be this, then who do I become?” That’s what kids of trans parents are thinking about, that’s what I’m thinking about as the child of a trans person, and all family members think about anyone who is transitioning in any number of ways. It happens when people get sober. It happens when people get divorced. People look around and they look at their families and ask, “Will you still love me if…?” Within the family, the answer is hopefully yes. Sometimes it’s not. Now, the trans community is facing the culture and saying, “Will you still love me? Will you protect me so that I can walk into a leasing office and ask to look at an apartment and not have somebody say, ‘No, you can’t come in here’?” That’s legal. It’s legal to discriminate against trans people in most states. We’re talking about the entertainment factor and the Kardashian factor, but on the real civil rights issue, I think any day now they’re going to lift the ban on trans people serving in the military. That’s going to be exciting, that’s going to be a huge change.

It’s very apparent in the show, in the children’s journeys. For me as a viewer, Aly seemed most strongly affected, as she wonders if being transgender is something that she can inherit, and if that’s something that’s part of her.

I think that being trans is potentially genetic or partially genetic and that it runs in families, for sure. There’s the physiological legacy, and there’s the spiritual-social legacy of going, “I come from a queer family.” I have queer parents, which really affected me and my sister. My sister and I probably thought we came from a quote-unquote “upper-middle-class Jewish, somewhat-regular family.” To go at a certain age, No, we come from a queer family. We have a queer parent. We have a queer legacy. That definitely changes how we live through the world.

Something that really interests me is that so much of what we associate with family can, for the queer community, be constricting. Culture and tradition and your biological family are such a strong part of “Transparent,” and I think it’s advanced as a survival unit: If they can stay together, they’ll be OK. If they don’t, they won’t be OK. But I wonder if you’ve thought about people who don’t have that with their families and have to find that in other units. What makes a family a family?

The trans community has a long tradition of creating their own families. It started with the drag balls. I know that down in Los Angeles, they have people that they call their mom and their grandma and their daughter and their sister, all people who are part of their chosen family. It’s pretty cool.

By Sonia Saraiya

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