As the creator of Amazon’s critically-lauded and Golden Globe winning series Transparent, (which, not for nothing, is also a major Emmy favorite, at least in the circles I run in), Jill Soloway has found herself at the forefront of the timely revolution in transgender issues, awareness and acceptance. Never forget, before there was Caitlyn Jenner (or at least, before we knew Caitlyn Jenner), there was Transparent‘s Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman played by Jeffrey Tambor whose every move reminds the audience that visibility is more than just starring in a glamorous Annie Lebowitz photo shoot for Vanity Fair; it’s about being acknowledged to be living your life, every day, surrounded by the people who have always been in it and don’t always appreciate you—just like anybody.
And Soloway is using her own massive visibility and new-found stardom to bend the conversation about gender equality to the issue of female filmmakers in general, urging them to set aside any inhibitions they may have internalized about how they should tailor their work to get ahead in the notoriously male-dominated industry. In a moving and passionate introductory speech at a recent Cinefamily showing of female-directed short films, which was sponsored by her own Wifey.tv, Soloway deftly dissected the way female filmmakers have been held back: not just by the overt sexism of powerful men tending to hire who makes them most “comfortable” (i.e., generally other white men), but by the way male directors (who still direct the overwhelming majority of films, studio or otherwise) tend to both emphasize and empathize with the male gaze. This, argues Soloway, leaves women—however sympathetically treated—to be little more than objects, or plot devices to be desired, or viewed as rejects by their male beholders.
Said Soloway: “The male gaze, because the men are subjects, necessarily divides us, divides women into either/or the Madonna or the whore; the slut or the good girl; or the many, many ways in which women are divided to be seen as objects when the male character is the subject. That divide is kind of a wound that’s really harming our entire planet right now… We repair the divided feminine by speaking and having voices and by picking up the camera.”
Culture is shaped by the people who make it. In order for women’s stories to be seen as valuable and relevant, we first have to tell them, which, as Soloway understands, requires a certain amount of chutzpah (to put it mildly) in a society that still carries an inherent sense—one not quite as faint as we might wish to believe—that women are here to be seen and not heard.
“We are ashamed for having desire in our culture,” she continued.” Women are shamed for having desire for anything—for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.’”
She’s right. And she’s especially right about the need for female filmmakers to tell themselves, over and over again, that their ideas are enough for simply being their own.
There’s a conventional wisdom in Hollywood that while women will see movies about men, men won’t see movies about women (unless they are injected with some sort of retroactive male sensibility that ultimately compromises their freshness and integrity. See Trainwreck.); therefore, movies about women are somehow less valuable. Soloway, for lack of a more genteel phrase, is telling us that’s all a bunch of crap.
Maybe the answer isn’t so much about trying to think of things that men will watch, as much as deciding not to care if they watch or not. Maybe it’s believing that the male audience is not the ultimate prize we have been taught to think it is and making whatever you want to anyway, And ultimately, having faith that eventually the audience will follow. In an industry that is constantly describing things by explaining how they are like other things, calling an actress “a young Reese Witherspoon-type” or describing a project as “The Godfather meets Clash of the Titans,” Jill Soloway is preaching the gospel of simply being more like yourself. She is telling us that we are enough—whether we are glamorous or not, confident or not, cisgendered or not. And in the entertainment business, that’s a revolutionary message indeed.
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