A Conversation with Joey Soloway

The author, activist, and creator of Transparent speaks out on toxic masculinity and our age of reckoning.

Jill Soloway

In She Wants It, a poignant memoir of personal transformation, Joey Soloway takes us on a patriarchy-toppling emotional and professional journey. When Joey’s parent came out as transgender, Joey pushed through the male-dominated landscape of Hollywood to create the groundbreaking, award-winning Amazon TV series Transparent, an inception that in turn gave birth to a new cultural consciousness. While working on the show and exploding mainstream ideas about gender, Joey began to erase the lines on their own map, finding their voice as a director, show creator, and activist.

Recently, Joey spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, delving into the inherent power of being non-binary, the Times Up and #MeToo movements, and what it’s like to look back on their groundbreaking series five years later.

Read It Forward: Joey, congratulations on your memoir, She Wants It. Why did you feel it was the right time to tell your story?

Joey Soloway: I’ve been working on it for a few years. As I was working on it, I didn’t feel like it was the right time to tell my story. I thought, “Does this matter? Why now?” And when the reckoning happened, I started to feel like I finally have a reason to be able to talk about these things that I’ve been thinking about for years. The connection between protagonism, creativity, desire, power, and consent.

RIF: So tell me a little bit about what the title means to you.

JS: I noticed when I was working on the book that I’d written a proposal for a documentary in my early 20s called She Wants It, and it was about exactly this: consent, desire, what it really means for women to want things, and how different that is from what it means for a man to want something. I thought about the way a group of high school boys might say to a woman “she wants it,” as an insult, or “she wanted it” as an excuse to explain why somebody was raped. And the idea that wanting something would intrinsically be equivalent to a way to shame a woman is such a shocking realization—that wanting sex makes you incapable of consenting. That if a woman wants something, then men can decide they can take whatever they want, because she wanted it.

It’s such an absurd realization when you realize what that means about sex and consent, but when you extrapolate it over to creativity and desire, and what it means to want to see something, and want to make something. People ask, “Why are there so few women directors, why are there so few female content creators?” We start to realize that our whole lives, we’re told that wanting something is dangerous.

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RIF: You’re the creator of Transparent, and in speaking about consent, I thought it was so interesting that in the book, you discuss how, in your exuberance to pitch this story of your parent coming out as trans, you essentially outed your parent without asking them first. Have you been reckoning with this for a long time?

JS: I really have been reckoning with it. In terms of being a writer, anybody who has a project, you learn over the years not to tell people you’re pitching something, ’cause it’s never going to happen anyway. I had always written pitches or TV shows or movies about people I knew, and I learned very early on, don’t even tell them because then you’re going to tell them it didn’t happen. When I first started realizing that I wanted to tell this story, I was talking to my parent about how it was going to be a story about our family, and my parent heard that.

A part of me knew that the world wouldn’t really be safe for my parent to be out as trans until the show had come out. The show would change the world enough that it would be okay for me to make a show like this. I think it’s been a learning curve for everybody in the family about how we use our own life for art, and for me, a huge learning curve about issues of consent around gender identity and outing people. The learning curve of casting a cis man as Maura is another one I often find myself apologizing for, because I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I was ignorant,” but having these huge lessons happen in public, and having to confront your own ignorance in the public eye, is problematic.

RIF: And now upon reflection, your parent, having been essentially the seed for this idea, how do they reflect on the show now?

JS: Well, my parent loves the show; both my parents do. We all feel like the show has given our family a kind of living, breathing photo album of a lot of our experiences, and our extended family. Both of my parents have a little bit of local celebrity in Chicago for being the inspiration for Transparent. To be able to reflect on some of the dynamics in our family with the comedy, with great actors, with amazing production design, and to retell stories using the medium of filmmaking has been a huge gift that I’m always really grateful for.

RIF: What are you proudest of in the creation of Transparent?

JS: It’s interesting to look at it five years after. It’s gone by so quickly. Early on, I was really proud of the ways the show broke through into popular culture and being seen by critics, getting a vernacular out there, normalizing transness, creating protagonists for trans and non-binary people where trans people weren’t the butt of the joke. Finding as many jobs as possible on and around the set for trans people was also something I was really proud of. Then, as we started to face the reality of what it felt like for trans people to have a cis man in the role, we had to really confront the danger of portraying trans people as people who dress up.

I’m involved in this movement called 50/50 by 2020, which is a strategic initiative of Times Up, and we’re helping trans people demand that only trans people should play trans people on TV, for example. One of the problems with personal safety for trans people is that a lot of cis people think they’re dressing up as another gender to trick people, as opposed to recognizing it as true—that somebody is trans the same way somebody would have any other identity. The dressing up part is really dangerous when it comes to acting, and Jeffrey Tambor was a cis man playing a trans woman, but trans women aren’t men. I’ve heard trans women tell me they love the show so much, but it was also really hard to love something so much that had at its center a kind of misrepresentation of who they were. So, I’ve had to really rethink what Transparent’s legacy is, and I don’t think it’s as simple as one parent’s journey to becoming themselves. I think that’s definitely part of it, but what the show has become for me has been this opportunity to help not only create, but continue to foster the idea of the non-binary gaze.

RIF: There’s such a disparity between the stories that are told and written and directed by women and people of color and queer people and non-binary people that are actually funded and produced. So, tell me in your words, why is it vital that these need to be made and need to be seen? Do you have any wishes for the average media consumer on how they can be more inclusionary in their consumption?

JS: I think a lot about what white cis men should do right now, and cis men should do for women the same thing that white people should do for people of color. As a white person, I try to make sure that 75 or 80% of the things I consume are by people of color, or queer people of color, because I understand that so much of my mind is already colonized by white supremacy and patriarchy. I have to reset what is normal for me. So, it’s really disappointing that I don’t see men out there tweeting about women’s books. I don’t see white men saying I love Roxane Gay. Read Bad Feminist. Read Hunger.

I saw Dwight Garner say, “I’m only going to listen to music by women for a year,” and he wrote about what that felt like to only listen to female voices. I really appreciated that he was willing to start to think about race in the same way that people think about gender, which is our minds are colonized by white supremacy and patriarchy. You have to reset it. I really would love it if straight, cis men would not only consume the work of women, people of color, queer people, non-binary people, disabled people, but publicize it and tell their friends, and be proud of it.

RIF: Shout it from the rooftops.

JS: Shout it from the rooftops! The other thing I think straight cis men can do is expose toxic masculinity. One of the secrets I think of maleness is we don’t tell, so men don’t tell the stories about their own assault.

RIF: And we protect one another.

JS: And we protect one another, right. We have a secret world. Men understand what men know, and that is if you’ve been victimized by toxic masculinity and you’re a man, don’t tell your story, or whatever it is that men do to keep other men from feeling like they can’t tell the truth about the ways toxic masculinity harms them. I totally understand, from personal conversations with so many men, that they don’t like the feeling of macho-ness. Men feel like they can’t speak up about something like violence. They can’t stand for peace. They can’t be openly bisexual without being taunted or pushed out of the club. And when men ask “Well, what do you want us to do?” I’m like, “Tell the truth about what you experience, the same way women are telling the truth.” Tell the truth. And it’s being able to talk about what it means for women, people of color, queer people, non-binary people, trans people, disabled people, and other people. I memorized that long list because there is no simple word that says “all of the rest of us.”

It’s so fucking frightening. I think because there hasn’t been this opportunity to really interrogate masculinity and maleness, nobody is willing to say that this is about toxic masculinity. This is about a macho culture that rewards power. So, I’m constantly looking for ways to create a really solid other—women, people of color, queer people, non-binary people, trans people, disabled people, and other people—to create this voice that returns the gaze. We see what you’re doing. You’re centering yourself. You’re centering maleness. You’re centering power as a means of keeping control, and we’re done.

RIF: In terms of the Times Up Movement, it’s so incredibly powerful, and you’re really involved, but we need to make sure that it is inclusive for other people to feel safe to tell their stories.

JS: I think the Times Up Movement was so exciting because it felt so powerful to be in the room with all of these women who I worship, and to feel like we could do anything. We’re asking ourselves these questions, “What kind of power do we have, and what can we actually do? What can we get done?” The strategic initiative within Times Up, 50/50 by 2020, we’re organizing people on allyship and asking these questions about how to connect people of color, queer people, other people, disabled people, into one army of voices that says we want equal representation—not just in plain characters, not just as directors and writers, but on the boards, and the people who are making the biggest decisions about what content gets created. I even think about She Wants It and how badly I want to get this book into the world so that I can have these kinds of conversations, but a lot of the companies that would promote this book, these decisions are made by men who don’t really have any interest in being looked at, or being interrogated, or being the object of a gaze that says “I see you.”

That’s something men, I think, just grow up believing: they must have a voice, they must talk, they must distribute their voice. Women have to fight so hard to go beyond these questions. First, I have to make sure I’m hot, I have to make sure I’m skinny, then I have to make sure I’m a good mom, and I’m thought of as cute, or nice. I personally went through so many of those decades of waiting to say, “I’m allowed to talk. I’m allowed to say what I think. I’m allowed to think out loud. I don’t have to stop at those signposts and say I’m not cute enough, I’m not hot enough, I’m not young enough, I’m not whatever enough that stops women from thinking that their minds matter.”

RIF: One of the most moving parts of this memoir was your vulnerability about your nervousness of coming out to your community as non-binary. How have people around you accepted that, and are they using your pronouns correctly?

JS: I’m super chill about my pronouns. I feel like I tell people that if they can gender me correctly, it’s like frosting. So, when people say “they,” I go, “Oh, that’s right, I’m non-binary.” I mostly forget. But then when people say “they,” I remember that they see me as I want to be seen, which is neither male nor female, and both, either or both, constantly changing in any moment. I love the idea that some people might see me as, “Wow, [Joey] really seems like a guy. [Joey] really seems like a woman. Wait, [Joey] really seems like neither. [Joey] seems like both.” And the idea that what might be seen in that space, which is ungendered, might be a closer version of me, or maybe a real soul connection, is such an exciting thought.

I think of being non-binary as a thought exercise and a life exercise, and a gift. When I’m around non-binary people who live in that place between genders, it’s always a gift to retrain my mind and say, “They, they, they. This person is not a man. This person is not a woman. They’re both and neither and either, and it’s always changing.” That’s a huge gift because it forces me to interact directly with the person’s soul, instead of the things you might layer on top of that.

And it’s a huge amount of privilege that I can be a little bit facile about it and have fun with it and say it’s my protest, you know? I like to joke and say as soon as I came out to myself as non-binary, I heard this story on the radio about swimsuit season and I was like, “I don’t have to listen to this. They are not talking to me when they say swimsuit season. This is not for me.” It made me feel so much better. The truth is that I also get this question from a lot of women who say, “Well, why don’t you just identify as a woman and be the kind of woman who doesn’t wear makeup or who’s very masculine?”

RIF: Stretch the boundaries of what it means to be a woman.

JS: I think that’s a great argument, and I really appreciate that argument, and I think feminism and women need all different kinds of women to identify as female to stretch those boundaries. For me, being able to be non-binary feels like a protest, feels like a living protest that I’m going to step outside of these labels until we get a little closer to understanding what it means to be a woman. I came to the conclusion that being femme or being feminine really inhibited my ability to consent. I didn’t really know if I was doing things that I wanted to do, because I wanted to make sure I was being a certain kind of woman, or a certain kind of girl, whatever that meant. And I want to feel safe as a woman, or respected as a woman. Whatever it was, this idea was getting in my way of being able to authentically consent.

Every few months, I would re-ask myself “Is this really right? Is this non-binary identity really who I am?” And then my answer is like, “Yeah, this feels more right, actually, than the word woman or girl. Being neither, being both, it feels more right.” It’s a living thing for me, this non-binary identification. Again, it’s like people get my pronouns wrong, I don’t notice. People get my pronouns right, I do notice, and it lights me up.

Author Photo: Jesse Chamberlin Marble

JOEY SOLOWAY is the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning creator of Transparent and I Love Dick. Their first feature film, Afternoon Delight, won the 2013 Directing Award at Sundance. Their work can also be seen in Six Feet Under, How to Make It in America, and United States of Tara. An activist and artist, Joey co-founded 5050by2020, East Side Jews, and the spoken word series Sit n’ Spin. Joey lives in Los Angeles.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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