She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy

by Jill Soloway

This funny, riveting memoir promises to tell the story of how Jill Soloway’s hit TV series Transparent came to be. It begins with a phone call during which Soloway’s 70-something father comes out as trans, and with Soloway’s immediate instinct to turn it into art. But it’s also the story of how making Transparent changed Soloway from being a woman married with two sons (“the picture of the good Jewish family”) to dating women and identifying as non-binary, preferring the pronoun “they”. It’s a rollicking, bumpy ride, and it’s refreshing to see Soloway admit to making many mistakes along the way – and trying to learn from them, to grow and, yes, to change. 

If this sounds a bit like LA therapist-speak, well, there is a fair amount of that, including a laugh-out-loud scene (one of many) where Soloway races to their therapist the day after the fateful phone call and asks, “Does this mean I need to start all over?”. At first, Soloway writes, “I thought my dad was telling me about his odd hobby, but now I know that he was introducing me to a woman who had been living in our house my entire childhood. I had the wrong pronouns then and have only some of the right pronouns now but will use the wrong ones so you can see how wrong I had it.” This willingness to be wrong, but to keep trying anyway, is thrilling. It’s clear that Soloway hurtled recklessly into making Transparent, inhaling feminist and queer theory along the way, making mistakes and trying to fix them at breakneck speed, writing “powered by a huge gust of yes” so that “the script came out so easily, like a slippery baby”.  

While Transparent was the first series to put a trans character at its centre, it was also “the most Jewish show on TV”, according to journalist after journalist. The noisy, neurotic Pfeffermans (not entirely unlike the Soloways, as this memoir shows) are thrown into chaos by their father’s transition from being Mort to being Maura. They adventure through sexuality but also through spirituality; the biggest non-Pfefferman character is a female rabbi who, Soloway writes, “changes everything, with her outsider, spiritual gaze”. It’s hard to pick the most intensely Jewish moment of the show, but I was exhilarated to see Maura Pfefferman being told not to sledgehammer a glass wall because “Jewish men don’t demo” and replying “I am a Jewish woman and Jewish women do whatever the fuck they want.” There are also flashbacks to Weimar Berlin where the Pfeffermans’ Tante Gittel (played with audacious glee by the trans actress Hari Nef) hangs out with Magnus Hirschfield, the Jewish sexologist who advocated for gay and transgender rights and whose Institute for Sexual Science was part library, part carnival, a place for dreaming and dancing – and one of Hitler’s first targets. In She Wants It, Soloway describes the realisation that “queer Jewish intellectualism” has deep roots; that Jews, like trans people, have always been shape-shifters. 

Soloway had been frustrated in the past by writing dorky misfit characters, only for the studio to cast “a super-hot miniscule blonde”. With Transparent, Soloway writes, “I finally had a successful script about an unlikable Jewish chick – but it turned out I needed a man to play her to get it there.” Yet Soloway faced criticism from the start for casting Jeffrey Tambor, who is not trans, as Maura. But what is fascinating is how, accused of making “transface” and of “profiting off trans experience and trans pain”, Soloway learned and changed, hiring trans people right across the production company, running screenwriting workshops to attract trans writers new to TV, working to a set of guidelines that begin, “Our revolution must be intersectional”, and include a vow to “honour vulnerability”. Transparent is better for it; its fluid aesthetic, its willingness to shift perspective and to exult in many voices, is dazzling. Reading She Wants It, it seems that this is also the way Soloway tries to live; from the beginning, right from the Author’s Note, Soloway warns that the book will “stay loose with the pronouns. A few of us have been multiple genders… I boldly use the gender most suited to what I experienced at the time.” Soloway recognises that this may be uncomfortable but “it is this discomfort that I hope will guide us into our non-binary future”. Perhaps this commitment to dissent, to uncertainty and to discomfort is the most Jewish thing about She Wants It, and while the writing is sometimes a little gauche, a little treacly, the book ripples with hope. 

It is devastating to read about what happened when, as the #MeToo movement gathered steam, Tambor was accused of sexually harassing two trans women on the show. Soloway reacted badly, questioning the truth of the claims, wishing they would go away and weeping in front one of the victims about how the show would be “tarnished”. But there was a very real concern that revealing Tambor as a predator would undo the work he had done in making Maura a “beautiful symbol of transness”.  

For some of Soloway’s critics this was the last straw. In a sour, pedantic takedown of She Wants It on the website Affidavit, Andrea Long Chu seems to find this poor response (which at least Soloway is honest about, and which was temporary – Tambor has been fired) symptomatic of something else. Chu calls it “suspect” that “the cisgender creator of a television show about trans issues, long criticized for presuming to speak for trans people, comes out as trans herself”. It seems a shame that having tried so hard to “stay loose” as an artist, to make a show that is restless, questioning and questing, Soloway is now being told that they don’t have the right to make Transparent. It is unfortunate that Soloway has also come under fire from many critics and fans for setting part of season four in Israel. (Chu calls Soloway’s desire to film in Israel “a Ziony itch”, which feels, at best, awkward.) Soloway writes that trans activists connected to the BDS movement argued against filming in Israel so they reached a compromise, recreating the Dead Sea in a tank at Universal Studios, and making a fake Wailing Wall on the Paramount lot, then shooting in Israel without the actors. It doesn’t sound like the perfect way out of the impasse but it was, at least, another valiant attempt to “stay loose”. This memoir feels like a love letter to valiant attempts, to making mistakes and trying, as Samuel Beckett said, to “fail better”, to the “giant experiment in inclusion, art making and love” that is Soloway’s show, and to the idea that if you try to make art that changes the world you might have to let it change you first.

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