October 30, 2014
Guest: Jill Soloway
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new series "Transparent," Jeffrey Tambor stars as a 70-year-old father who comes out to his three adult children as a transgender woman and begins a new life transitioning from male to female, from Mort to Maura. This series also follows Maura's three self-absorbed adult children who are each dealing with their own issues relating to identity and sexuality while trying to process that their parent has had a secret life. Entertainment Weekly TV critic Melissa Maerz described the series as groundbreaking television.
My guest is the creator of "Transparent," Jill Soloway. The series is based in part on her experiences with her parent who came out as a trans-woman a few years ago. Soloway has also been a writer and producer on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's "United States Of Tara." "Transparent" is an Amazon original series. The entire first season was released last month.
Let's start with a scene from the second episode of "Transparent," where Jeffrey Tambor's character is forced to reveal the truth after coming home in women's clothes, not realizing that his oldest daughter, Sarah, would be there. Tambor's character is shocked to see Sarah, who has a husband and two children, kissing her old college girlfriend. Sarah is shocked by how her father looks. He tries to explain.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) So I have something to tell you.
MELORA HARDIN: (As Tammy Cashman) OK. So do you guys - do you want me to leave?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Yes, please.
AMY LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) No, please. OK. No, please stay.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) Stay. It's fine.
HARDIN: (As Tammy Cashman) OK. Yeah, sure.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) So if - when I was a kid, ever since I was 5, I felt that something was not right. And I couldn't tell anybody about my feminine side. It was a different time, you know? Very different time. And, pretty girl, I just - I had to keep all those feelings to myself.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) Dad.
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) No, let me do this. Please, God. Let me do this. People led secret lives, and people led very lonely lives. And of course the Internet wasn't invented...
HARDIN: (As Tammy Cashman) The Internet - can't hate on that Internet. It's magic.
LANDECKER: (As Sarah Pfefferman) I'm sorry. I'm sorry, dad. I'm sorry. I'm just trying - can you just help me out here? Are you saying that you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman, laughing) No, honey. All my life - my whole life I've been dressing up like a man. This is me.
GROSS: Jill Soloway, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want the main character in "Transparent" to be an older man in his 70s - or an older woman, I should say? But a trans-woman - but a trans-woman who isn't coming out until her 70s. So she's lived more than 69 years as a man.
JILL SOLOWAY: Right. Well, the story's personal. My own parent came out around the age of 75. And pretty shortly after they came out, I got a very strong feeling that this was going to be my creative destiny. I was going to create this show. Older transitioners are really, I think, the next group of people that we can get introduced to. I think people, you know - know Laverne Cox now and Janet Mock. There's also this younger generation of transfolk who are really political and who have access to great medical care from early on. Older transitioners are a whole different group of people because of the way that society has only recently begun to evolve, a lot of older transitioners had to live a life of secrecy. Many of them are cross-dressers - secret cross-dressers. It just felt like the most perfect opportunity to tell a story about secrets, about boundaries, legacy, gender, family, all the things I'm obsessed with.
GROSS: So let's talk about your family a little bit later, and let's focus a little bit more on your TV show. You cast Jeffrey Tambor, who's best known for comic roles on "Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development." This really isn't a comic role. I mean, it's - he plays somebody who - it's a very moving performance. I've never seen him - obviously, I've never seen him play a trans person before - but I've never seen him in a serious role like this, not that I can think of anyway. Why did you choose him?
SOLOWAY: Well, I didn't really know that he is a classically trained, gifted actor who really was born to do the deep and meaningful work of real drama. I just loved him. I loved him from "Larry Sanders," and I loved him on "Arrested." And he really reminded me so much of my own parent. I felt like I'd known him for generations, and we sometimes pretend when we're texting each other that we knew each other way back in some ancient shtetl and this was all foretold.
GROSS: Did you have him audition, or did you just know he was the one you wanted?
SOLOWAY: No, we just offered the role to him and crossed our fingers.
GROSS: Did you offer him training in how to be trans?
SOLOWAY: Not specifically. We have multiple trans consultants. So we had people around to help Jeffrey find Maura and of course all kinds of things about being trans. But really, Jeffrey, you know, being given access to Maura was something that I think was internal for him. I think Maura was inside of him, and that was his own journey to go on. That, you know - that there was really no way to give him tips on something that I think feels so soulful to him.
GROSS: It's been a little controversial in the trans community that you hired an actor who isn't trans. And I want to read a quote from Jennifer Finney Boylan who is a trans woman and a consultant on your show. She says basically in this op-ed that she wrote that she's often disappointed when somebody who isn't trans is playing the role of somebody who is, but that she could justify casting Jeffrey Tambor. And she wrote that "Transparent" depicts a shlumpy older person rather than a gorgeous fashion model is good, both for trans and cis folks alike. It captures the surprisingly universal problem of being defined only by our biology rather than our spirits. It should make us stop and think about what it means to be a man or a woman and the struggle that so many people face in trying to live our truth. This isn't a problem unique to transgender people. It's the same for all of us. And speaking of language, when you use the term cis male or cis female, that's the expression that you use when you're born in a certain gender body and feel comfortable in that body - you feel correct in that body. So your reaction?
SOLOWAY: That's beautifully, beautifully said about why Jeffrey is so perfect for this role. I mean, besides the fact that everybody knows Jeffrey as a sort of dad figure, it's kind of interesting that people can say, oh, the dad we've always known on "Arrested Development" is revealing themselves. You know, that familiarity with audiences as a man and, oh, we love them anyway. We still love them as a woman. We love them more as a woman. The way that the audience is relating to Maura through knowing Jeffrey, I think, can serve as a great way for America - for the whole world - to relate to the trans people in their life.
GROSS: When you use the word them to describe the character of Maura, or they, explain why you're using a plural pronoun.
SOLOWAY: Right. Well, it's not always plural. Them or they is used for the singular when you don't know the person who's coming. Like my friend is coming from the airport. What time are they going to get here? That would be singular. And then they would refer to the fact that you don't know the gender of the friend who's coming from the airport.
Similarly, there are some people who identify as male. There are some people who identify as female. And there are some people who don't want to identify and want to still be able to be spoken about in a sentence. And they and them is perfect for that. It sounds plural to people immediately, but I think as this country begins to get used to the sound of they and them - which I have, you know, it took me a while - it took me probably a year to have they or them role off the tongue. But it's just the way to speak about somebody where you don't want to gender them.
GROSS: So in your series, the Jeffrey Tambor character Maura, after keeping her real self-identity as a woman secret for so many years, decides it's time to come out as trans and to tell her children. So in your mind, why has this character now decided to come out?
SOLOWAY: Well, this is something Jeffrey says. He says Maura's making a break for freedom. I think it's a real matter of life or death at this point for Maura, where I would imagine that she's lived a life of carrying a really, really, really heavy burden - depression and anxiety that comes from not being able to be yourself. The space between who you are and what the world sees is probably no longer tolerable for Maura. But we imagined that there was a do-or-die moment for Maura where she thought, if I don't do this, I will die. And hopefully that's something that we can reveal in flashbacks in season two because we never really got to it in season one.
GROSS: My guest is Jill Soloway, the creator of the Amazon original series "Transparent." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Soloway, and she's the creator and show-runner of the Amazon TV series "Transparent," which is about a parent who, at the age of about 70, comes out to her children as a trans-woman after having lived as a man all her life.
Let's hear another scene, and this is from the first episode of "Transparent." And the parent who has been known as a father until now is at a transgender support group. He - she hasn't yet come out to her children, and she knows she needs to. She knows she wants to. She was going to. She had all three adult children over to dinner and was preparing to tell them, and said I have something to tell you. And they all assumed that, oh, no, dad has cancer, dad's going to tell us - and they got off onto such a sidetrack, he just gave up. And he didn't tell them, and he got very frustrated - she didn't tell them and got very frustrated.
SOLOWAY: There you go. I was going to correct you.
GROSS: So after trying and failing to come out to her children, Maura, played Jeffrey Tambor, is speaking to a transgender support group about how frustrating it's been to not be able to go through with it and actually tell her children.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")
TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) One more thing. I made a commitment here last week that I was going to come out to my kids, and I didn't do it because it just wasn't time, you know? But I will, and it will be soon. I promise you. I promise you. I promise you. They are so selfish. I don't know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.
GROSS: And at that point in the series, episode one, I thought he is so right. These children are so selfish.
SOLOWAY: That, she is so right (laughter).
GROSS: That she is so right, yes. You know, these children are so selfish, and you know, you learn more about them and how they got that way as the episodes go on. But speaking for myself, I was so disappointed that they didn't have more empathy for him and what he was trying to tell them. Why did you make the children that way?
SOLOWAY: Well, I didn't - I've never really felt like I've made the children a certain way. I don't really write these characters or do things with them. I feel more when I'm writing sort of like I'm a court stenographer and I'm listening to these characters. I feel like the kids, like Sarah, Josh and Ali, exist out in the world as these souls. And when I write, I kind of just listen to them. So it's not my fault that they're jerks.
SOLOWAY: They just - that's, you know - there are certain large shapes to the show that came to me very quickly. You know, what you're seeing in that first scene is them at their worst. And, you know, as things evolve over five seasons, hopefully this will be a journey of healing and of becoming and of learning and growing and experimenting and loving. And, yeah, we had to start with people who had a lot to learn.
GROSS: So we just heard the Jeffrey Tambor character talking about how difficult it's been to come out to her children as trans. You actually experienced this from the point of view of being a child whose father it turned out was trans. You'd always of...
SOLOWAY: Whose parent.
GROSS: No, I'm saying this intentionally.
SOLOWAY: OK (laughter).
GROSS: You thought of him as your father. He was your father in your mind, and then you found out that in his mind, he's been a woman. And he's been posing a man but he's felt - but she's felt like a woman. How old were you when you learned the truth about your parent?
SOLOWAY: I think I was maybe 46.
GROSS: So what was your first reaction when you were told?
SOLOWAY: Honestly, you know, I've been so obsessed with things like gender, sexuality, feminism, the feminine. And I think for a while there I used to sort of ask myself, either what am I running for, or what am I running from? I wasn't sure (laughter). I really was in some ways relieved that I thought, oh, this is what - this is what I have not known. This is what - there were just so many missing pieces to a journey that felt like a relief.
One of the first things that, you know, of course I communicated to my parent were love, and I love you unconditionally, and I'm so proud of you, and this is so brave of you and tell me more. But it's sort of like, yeah - it was interesting, I think, to grow up in a family with this really huge missing piece and not know what that piece is. It's sort like you're feeling around in a dark room. It's like the elephant in the room, but all the lights are off. So you're feeling around, and you're feeling this quite huge thing. And it was just - it was an amazing relief for the lights to go on.
GROSS: So when your parent came out as trans, it immediately helped explain something about who you were and why you were that way. So on some level, it made immediate sense to you. At the same time, were you shocked?
SOLOWAY: I would say, yes. I was shocked, sure. Yeah, it didn't make immediate sense. I mean, in the initial couple of months, I was really struggling to understand and not understand transness because, you know, transness was something that was familiar to me. I was really trying to understand my parent's journey of their entire life and in particular I think the emotional details of what it meant to be in a family where you weren't yourself. It was less about transness and more about, who were we then? And what is our relationship, and how do - there's four of us. There's me. There's my sister, Faith. There's my mom, Elaine Soloway. Shelly's whole story of Ed who lost the ability to speak and passed away is my mother's real story. And...
GROSS: That's her second husband.
SOLOWAY: That's her second husband, right. So much of Shelly's story and Ed's story is - was my mom's story over the past few years. And my parent, formally known as my father, currently known as the inspiration for Maura, yeah, the four of us I think are now beginning a new way of really getting to know each other and finding out, you know, what it means to be a Soloway, what it means to be from this family. We're all, you know - it's like we've taken a left turn, and there's a whole new road in front of us.
GROSS: So when your parent came out as a trans-woman, did she want to take hormones? Was she interested in surgery? Or was just being able to dress and behave like she wanted to sufficient in terms of expressing her true self?
SOLOWAY: Yeah, my parent is on their own journey, and I think I'd rather just, you know, let them speak to their journey. You know, they're a private person. I think this has already been an incredibly exposing journey that...
GROSS: What - your show has been an incredibly exposing journey?
SOLOWAY: I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine coming out?
GROSS: No, no, it's like you finally come out to your kid after, like, decades, you come out as trans and it's like, you immediately turn around and do a show about it.
SOLOWAY: It's horrible, honestly. I mean...
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you ask your parent for approval?
SOLOWAY: I did tell my parent I was writing a show about a family and that there was going to be a trans parent. But when you work in Hollywood, as I have, you never think anything's going to happen. I've been writing pilots that haven't gotten made, sometimes two or three a year for 10 years. And a lot of times, they were based on people. And in the early days I would say, like, hey, just so you know, I have a character who has your name and acts like you. And they would be like, oh, I better read it. And then you'd go through all this stuff trying to get people OK with the fact that you're using them in your writing, and then it would never even be on the air. And you just wasted a whole bunch of time and, you know, added a bunch of, you know, drama to your relationship...
SOLOWAY: ...With the person feeling like, oh, you're writing about me - it never happened, you know. It never happened. This is my first pilot that I've ever gotten made. So I didn't really want to talk about it too much until I knew that it was going to happen.
GROSS: So you didn't tell your parent at first?
SOLOWAY: Well, I told - you know, they obviously knew the steps - that I've written a pilot. Oh, I don't think anything will ever come of it, that kind of thing. Oh, well, yeah, they're going to shot the pilot, but don't worry. No one's every going to see it. I honestly...
GROSS: So by the time you told your parent, it was already a done deal (laughter). Is that what I'm hearing?
SOLOWAY: I mean, you know, what? I'm so lucky that my parent has been so excited and lovely and loving about having to speed up their journey so that this story can happen. I mean, the thing I tell my parent and my sister and my mother, all of us who feel like, wow, this is really personal. I mean, even though the show is totally fictional, there are so many things about it that feel like they speak to parts of our family. But I've already met so many people who've told me that they've been about to use the show to come out to their kids. It's bigger than us.
GROSS: Jill Soloway will be back in the second half of the show. She created the Amazon original series "Transparent." The entire first season is available on Amazon. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jill Soloway, the creator of the new series "Transparent." It's an Amazon original series, and all 10 episodes of the first season were released last month on Amazon. "Transparent" stars Jeffrey Tambor as a 70-something father who comes out to his adult children as transgender, transitioning to female. The children try to assimilate the news as they navigate through their own issues related to identity and sexuality. The series is partly based on Soloway's experience watching her parent come out as trans at the age of 75. Soloway also worked as a writer and producer on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's "United States Of Tara."
You know, the - the Jeffrey Tambor character Maura, the transparent in the series, gets advice from a trans-woman who becomes Maura's coach. And part of the advice is, you have to let go of everything everybody thinks of you. A friend said, in five years, you'll look up and not one of your family members will still be there. So that's the advice that - the Jeffrey Tambor character, Maura, gets in - in the series. That has not been the case in your family, but - but I assume you wrote that line and that - that is the case with a lot of trans people who come out to their family.
SOLOWAY: Oh, yeah, we had - we had this awesome woman named Van Barnes who's just a fabulous writer, artist, trans-woman, amazing person. She - she was with us all season. She actually played the sex worker that Josh has the Skype session with. And she told us that somebody told her, you know, that if she was going to transition, she should be prepare to lose all of her family. And we thought that was so beautiful and heartbreaking and really wanted to give it to Davina to tell Maura. I have to believe that this show is part of a revolution that will make it so that hopefully that will be less and less true, but unfortunately, that's been the truth for so many trans people.
GROSS: So do you have - I know Jennifer Finney Boylan is a consultant on the show, and she's a trans-woman who was on our show just a few months ago. And she's, I think, a writer-in-residence at Barnard, now?
SOLOWAY: Yeah - professor.
GROSS: Professor, yeah. So I know - I know she's been advising on the show. Did you make a point of making sure that there were, you know - was a trans writer on - on the show like how - how - I know you want to be as authentic as possible in the character's experience, so what - what does it require to do that?
SOLOWAY: Well, when I was putting together the writers' room at first, I was - you know, any show-runner has had - anybody who's had experience in the writers' room at any level, you're always kind of imagining your dream writers' room, your dream table. If I ever get my show, I'm going to hire this person and that person and this person and that person. And so for me, you know, and I also look to - I look to Alan Ball and the way I - when I worked on "Six Feet Under." If you looked around that table, you could really feel like all of us were parts of Alan Ball's brain. And similarly, I really wanted to feel like when I looked around my writers' room, I could feel, you know, this - this unspoken chemistry that would allow the show to come through.
So the first person I hired was my sister because she grew up in the same family as I did and understood every silly detail, as well as the more dramatic ones. And then there's a writer named Ali Liebegott. She identifies as genderqueer. She's from this group of people in San Francisco who are part of something called Radar Labs. Michelle Tea has this amazing queer community in San Francisco, and I met Ali Liebegott there. From the moment I met her, I knew she'd be a great writer, and so she was - I think, maybe the second person I hired. And I had felt that Ali's genderqueerness, as well as her experience with the queer community, was sort of going to be able to represent enough transness that it would be - that it - that it would be enough for season one. I think in approaching season two, I'm recognizing that I really need somebody with a trans-feminine experience, totally different than the trans-masculine experience. So we've narrowed it down to a few different writers with trans-feminine experience and perspective. And we'll be bringing somebody else into the writers' room this - this coming season.
GROSS: The family in "Transparent" is - is Jewish. It's the Pfefferman family. And one of the characters in "Transparent" is a woman who's a rabbi. I was reading some interviews with - with you. One of the comments you made was that watching Lena Dunham's series, "Girls" - I'll quote you, you said, "it was angering for me at first because I had spent decades hiding unlikable, unattractive, Jewish girls in likable, attractive, non-Jewish actors and characters." Please explain.
SOLOWAY: Well, I think there's some old adage like, you know, write Jewish, cast British. Have you ever heard that?
GROSS: No (laughter).
SOLOWAY: Yeah, that was - that was what we were taught - the old-school TV writers were doing, which is, you know, there's room - you know, a writers' room filled with these kind of Borscht Belty, Jewish guys, you know, and TV shows like "Friends" have a lot of pretty girls. And so, yeah, that's the adage that you - that you write from that place of the pain and the vulnerability and the sadness and the comedy of Jewishness, but you, you know, have people who look good say the words.
Look good, that's not right (laughter)....
GROSS: Unlike Jews.
SOLOWAY: ...I guess I should change that description...
GROSS: Unlike Jews, who never look good.
SOLOWAY: That's horrible.
GROSS: You made your bed.
GROSS: Now, you must sleep in it.
GROSS: So how is it different to write about Jewish characters?
SOLOWAY: Well, I don't know. They're - I mean, God, I could talk for a few hours about what Jewish people are like, but, you know, I want to tell the truth. I want to tell the truth in every detail. I want to - you know, there's a scene at 10, which is - hopefully won't be a spoiler to say that the whole family's sitting around at the end of a shiva, and everybody carries the sort of, you know, big tinfoil serving things to the dining room table. And then everybody sits around. They take the - they take the big serving spoons and just kind of feed themselves and each other. Shelly, you know, tastes the coleslaw. Maura wants a bite. Shelly feeds her a bite. You know, I don't know if that's Jewish or not, but to me, that's just, like, the Jewey-est thing you can do after everybody leaves a party is just put all the food in the center of table and just go at it, shtetl style. Yeah, I just - I just love the comedy, you know, food and flesh and that kind of warm feeling, that boundary - there's something boundary-less, I think, about a Jewish family that - that is really funny to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Soloway, and she's the creator and show-runner of the Amazon TV series "Transparent." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Soloway. She's the creator and show-runner of the Amazon TV series "Transparent." And it stars Jeffrey Tambor as somebody who comes out as trans at the age of about 70 and has to break the news to his three adult children.
SOLOWAY: To her three adult children.
SOLOWAY: To their three adult children.
GROSS: To their three adult children. Oh yes, OK. So your sister is a writer on "Transparent." There are three adult siblings in the series and they all have kind of secrets in their past and skeletons in their closet that they kind of like to pull out and show to each other, you know? Just, like, they're pretty good at pushing each other's buttons and bringing up...
GROSS: ...Things from the siblings' past that is really kind of, like, painful or embarrassing. And is that reflected in your relationship with your sister who's also your fellow writer on the show?
SOLOWAY: Faith and I are pretty - actually, I think the Pfeffermans are a lot more kind of feisty than Faith and I. My sister and I really I think mostly make each other laugh and protect each other. And yeah, I wouldn't - I mean, the siblings are in some ways me and Faith because Faith is my older sister, she's a lesbian. I would say in my 20s, I was probably sort of like Ali. And then in many ways Faith is like Ali - reminds me of her - you know, Faith's backpack, Faith's wallet. We used all of the details of Faith physically to be Ali, and I'm a lot more like Sarah - Silver Lake mom, kids, and we both really feel a lot of Josh in both of us. I feel a lot like Josh; I really relate to Josh a lot. But, you know, Faith and I as people, we're nowhere near - we're nowhere near as pokey as the Pfeffermans are with each other. We're pretty chill with each other.
GROSS: How did "Transparent" end up on Amazon as opposed to say HBO, where you worked on the show "Six Feet Under," or Showtime, where you were the showrunner for "United States Of Tara?"
SOLOWAY: Yeah, I think - I think when I, you know, had that moment in my head, you know, this is my TV show, I'm going to write it, I think in my head it was HBO or Showtime for sure. That was for sure how I imagined this going. But by the time I wrote the script and went around to all of the networks, including HBO and Showtime, I think I was potentially maybe the victim of being somebody who came up in TV. And even though I had just made my first film and was a director at this point, I still didn't have the kind of cachet that people really need now to get TV shows on the air at a place like Showtime or HBO. HBO to me felt like bringing it home to the place where I had gone to college. And the people at HBO did say yes, we love it, of course we'll buy it. Just so you know, we're going to develop it, we're going to work on it and it might take years before it gets on the air and of course, it may not even get on the air. And Amazon said we want this, we'll buy it, we're going to know in a couple of weeks if we're going to shoot it. Once we shoot it, it's going to be aired. They have a process where everybody sees the pilots. And if you have a pilot at HBO or at Showtime, if they decide they're not sure about it, nobody ever sees it. And they also own it forever, and I couldn't stand the thought of this thing that was, like, my one big story. I'm finally ready guys, OK, this is what I'm meant to do. If it doesn't rise up the ladder at HBO the way it should, it belongs to them forever, so Amazon's kind of nimbleness with the deal, the fact that everybody would see it, that I would have the opportunity to show it whether or not it got order to series. And then the fact that, you know, I could potentially get it back if need be if they didn't buy it, I could turn it into a movie. There was all kinds of openness to the process that made me feel that I was safe there.
GROSS: So what are some of the different phases you've gone through in your life in defining yourself as a woman?
SOLOWAY: Today I would say I'm dressed sort of like a boy. And on other days I look pretty feminine and will put on makeup and get my hair done and look pretty ladylike. And I think I've always had that struggle my whole life of feeling a little bit more gender-neutral, feeling more comfortable as a creative person when I'm dressed like a boy, when I'm dressed more masculine. So if I'm doing comedy, if I'm writing, if I'm working, I really like to be, like, in a - I like to wear jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and feel kind of masculine because it makes me really focus on what I'm doing. And it puts the work first, which is odd to even say that, to even realize that little codes and cues like I don't need to be looked at, I don't need to be appreciated, I don't need to be pretty, allow me to be more creative. I mean, just that sentence is totally fascinating and I'm only realizing it right now. But then when I have to be photographed or I have to be seen or, you know, Jill Soloway the showrunner, go on stage, get my picture taken, I really, really don't like the way I look. I mean, I have to put on - I have to get my hair and my makeup done or I look when I'm photographed like somebody I don't want to look like, which is this really weird struggle. So I, you know, as a woman, as a feminist, I constantly struggle with how femme do I want to look? How pretty do I need to be? What makes me feel the most comfortable? I struggle with it every day. Every morning I have to ask myself, you know, how am I my going to dress to get out of the house? And I remember, you know, a few years ago, before my parent came out actually, like, crying before an HBO Emmy party because I was wearing clothes that I hated, but I felt like I had to wear to dress up. So whatever it is - Spanx, pantyhose, bra - you know, like, all that stuff that means lady dressed up. If I'm not the right mood, it can make me just start sobbing. And I know a lot of women who feel that way, like that they feel that they're putting on drag when they're getting quote, unquote "dressed up."
GROSS: So sexuality has, you know, been a subject for you even in the movie that you made - the independent film "Afternoon Delight." It's about a woman who goes to a strip club to try to get a little sexual excitement back in the marriage - goes with her husband - and then she ends up trying to help the stripper in hiring her at home. And so...
SOLOWAY: To be the nanny, you should say...
GROSS: To be the nanny. Yes, oh, I'm sorry.
SOLOWAY: ... Because it sounds like you brought her home - hired her to come home and strip.
GROSS: That sounded so wrong. That sounded so wrong, I know - to do lap dances, yeah, OK. So there is a theme of sexuality as well as gender issues in your work. And I guess I'm interested in hearing why that's been a theme for you?
SOLOWAY: Yeah, well, sexually women really perceive themselves being seen. I think from the moment you start having sex, if you're aware at all of pornography or aware at all of how sexuality is presented by men, there's a certain being seenness to being female that is inherent in sexiness - or it's like sexiness in quotes, which provides you access to, quote-unquote, "good sex." I just want to destroy all of that and show what it feels like to be the woman, to be inside the woman's body, head, mind, soul, having sex, looking back, seeing out. And I've kind of just stole this from Andrea Arnold. She's an amazing director who made this movie "Fish Tank." And while I was watching it, I was like this is the female gaze. She is showing us how it feels to be this girl. She is not looking at this girl. And I watched the way she used the camera, where a lot of, you know, profiles, a lot of looking at but never, you know, never lingering over the woman as if she - as if her beauty or her sexiness is a product. But rather allowing us to see how it feels to be her, so I take that to everything I shoot. And sex especially because I think sex scenes need it more than any other scene.
GROSS: So on a more visceral level, can you talk about why sexuality has been an important subject for you in your work, or is it purely intellectual?
SOLOWAY: Oh, it's 100 percent intellectual. Yeah, I'm not interested in sex at all, just the idea of sex.
SOLOWAY: I don't know, you know, I think of my work as this kind of holy trinity - funny, dirty, sad. It's...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
SOLOWAY: ...Really easy to do funny. You get a lot of funny people in a room, the show's funny. And it's really easy to do sad, you know, you just kind of put on some sad music and write dramatically, everybody can do that. It's really hard to get dirty right. There's a lot of porn, which is really meant for commercial reasons, and then there's, you know, all of the kinds of filters that we understand about filming sex because it's usually filmed by men. So yeah, I kind of take it as this kind of - it's my rallying cry. It's part of the - to me it's part of the toolbox of undoing some of the ways in which women see themselves being seen to write about sexuality. I mean, it's also interesting from trying to get people to go you have to watch the show.
GROSS: Jill Soloway, thank you so much for talking with us.
SOLOWAY: Thank you.
GROSS: Jill Soloway is the creator of the Amazon original series "Transparent." All 10 episodes of the first season are available on Amazon. The show is already renewed for a second season, which is scheduled for next year. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Taylor Swift's new album, her first pure pop collection. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Taylor Swift's new album - her fifth - is called "1989" which is the year she was born. For the past few years she's been the young queen of country music, by far its biggest selling artist, but "1989" side-steps country music entirely to become Swift's first pure pop album.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YOU GET THE GIRL")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Stand there like a ghost shaking from the rain. She'll open up the door and say, are you insane? Say, it's been a long six months and you were too afraid to tell her what you want. And that's how it works. That's how you get the girl.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: She began her career as country music's hardest-working ingenue, crafting sophisticated story songs that somehow managed to convince listeners of her innocence and heartache. She became a superstar on the strength of albums filled with elaborate metaphors for the heartache her choruses assured us would never break her down. Now Taylor Swift arrives as a fully-formed pop star with songs inflicting and transcending the heartache any mature adult is capable of and the key to her success this time out is one of the best tricks a pop music artist can pull off - songs that nod fondly at youth while yielding the pleasures of adult artistry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF THE WOODS")
SWIFT: (Singing) Looking at it now, it all seems so simple, we were lying on your couch. I remember when you took a Polaroid of us then discovered the rest of the world is black and white but we were in screaming color. And I remember thinking, are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet?
TUCKER: That's "Out Of The Woods," one of the lush melodramas Swift has assembled with collaborators such as Max Martin and the Swedish songwriter known as Shellback. Swift still teases her fans with little details that may or may not refer to romantic autobiography, but she's mindful that if you want to make hits that last longer than the time it takes to hit the refresh key on your browser, you don't do it by setting your day planner to music. Nope - you do it with melodies that build something new atop previous styles and with vocals that convince listeners that they can and should sing along, preferably at the top of their lungs. She develops all of this with witty efficiency, on a song such as "Style."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STYLE")
SWIFT: (Singing) Midnight you come and pick me up. No headlights. Long drive could end in burning flames or paradise. Fade into view oh, it's been a while since I have even heard from you. Heard from you. I should just tell you to leave 'cause I know exactly where it leads, but I watch us go 'round and 'round each time. You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye and I got the red lip classic thing that you like and when we go crashing down we come back every time 'cause we never go out of style. We never go out of style.
TUCKER: With its callback to James Dean as a style icon and its musical paradox - a disco beat that is downright languid - "Style" could have been just a bit of callow piffle. But it's on a song like this that Swift's technique really takes hold. She writes one syllable for each beat in the chorus. That has the effect of nailing the rhythm down tightly. At the same time, the melody soars like something Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder might have cooked up during the decade before Swift was born. On "Style" and on a song such as "Blank Space" she's making big ballads that aren't inflated with gassy sentimentality.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLANK SPACE")
SWIFT: (Singing) New money, suit and tie I can read you like a magazine. Ain't it funny rumors lie and I know you heard about me. So hey, let's be friends, I'm dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand. I can make the bad guys good for a weekend. So it's going to be forever or it's going to go down in flames. You can tell me when it's over if the high was worth the pain. Got a long list of ex-lovers, they'll tell you I'm insane 'cause you know I love the players and you love the game. 'Cause we're young and we're reckless...
TUCKER: The danger for Taylor Swift was never that she'd go off the rails and start snorting or twerking, but rather the opposite - that she'd become a chilly, shut-down control freak. Instead, she's writing vigorous material free of irony, songs that are intricately clever, music that has pep. In fact, despite "1989's" goal to establish her as a proper grown-up, what I like most about it is the music's reminder that Taylor Swift is the peppiest pop star we have right now.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Taylor Swift's new album, "1989."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OFF")
SWIFT: (Singing) I stay out too late, got nothing in my brain. That's what people say. That's what people say. I go on too many dates, but I can't make them stay, at least that's what people say. That's what people say but I keep cruising, can't stop won't stop moving, it's like I got this music...
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