EXCLUSIVE: Jill Soloway on Patriarchy, Privilege and Flipping the Male Gaze

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In 2014, Jill Soloway burst onto the digital TV landscape with Transparent on Amazon and quickly became an Emmy darling for its portrayal of a complicated Pfferman clan in transition. Now Soloway, who identifies as gender nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” is serving up a second helping of their particular brand of art house matriarchy in the messy, cerebral, hilarious series I Love Dick.

Based on the 1997 book of the same name by Chris Kraus, the story follows a married couple, Sylvere and Chris (played by Griffin Dune and Kathryn Hahn), as they move to Marfa, Texas, where the husband attends an art institute run by a cowboy named Dick. On its face, the show is about Chris falling in love with the idea of Dick (Kevin Bacon) and using that stolen sexual excitement to reinvigorate her marriage and artistic direction, swapping filmmaking for the performance art of writing lusty love letters to Dick, which she pastes all over town. In reality, I Love Dick depicts Dick himself as a muse and explores how that designation unravels him and sends him and the rest of the characters down a rabbit hole of feminism, the male gaze, sexuality and gender norms.

Unsurprisingly, the show was able to plumb those depths courtesy of an all-female writers’ room. “It’s about wanting to keep pure that rage [of growing up other] and not feel like it had to be softened to keep the peace of the room,” Soloway says of the show’s writing staff.

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Soloway was born and raised in Chicago and got their start on shows like The Steve Harvey Show, United States of Tara and Six Feet Under. At home, they say they were “lucky enough” to have one parent come out as transgender. That experience became the basis for their understanding of that community, the foundation for Transparent and the inspiration for their own nonbinary identification. Soloway says they spent years as a femme lesbian but eventually identified as butch; however, the weight of that box’s trappings was crushing. Now, they’ve carved out a new path as nonbinary.

“For me, I still have all the rage [of growing up other], but identifying as nonbinary really calms me because I don’t have to go, ‘This is my lot as a woman. F**k, this is what’s expected of me,’” Soloway explains while stressing that they’re not abandoning women.

If I Love Dick, another Emmy frontrunner, is any indication of Soloway’s feminist dedication and furthering their goal of toppling the patriarchy (also referenced in the name of their production company, Topple Productions), the plan is working. On the heels of the release of their newest Amazon hit, Soloway spoke to ET about flipping the male gaze, female empowerment and that pesky patriarchy.

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ET: At first, I Love Dick seems to be about unrequited love. Then I realized it’s about turning the male gaze on its ear, and how most men can’t handle that constant attention. It’s also about the male act of looking at women together, whether it’s in porn or just in the everyday.

Jill Soloway: In the pilot, when they’re at dinner and Dick and Sylvere are looking at Chris together and ask each other whether or not she’s a good filmmaker, this is the moment where Sylvere leaves her and joins Dick in this corroboration of male gaze. It is the inciting incident of the whole series, where she’s like, “I will not be the object of the male gaze. I am going to try to find my own way of seeing the world.” The truth is women are used as the conduit for men to be able to enjoy sexuality together.

How has your own identity played out in your work?

One of the things that’s been so enlightening has been moving from femme to butch. When I was more femme, it was my job to hold the beauty. Now that I’m butch and am dating more femme women, I’ve noticed that both men and other butch women want to see a picture of [the woman I’m dating]. They want us to talk about her together because images of hot girls are conduits for men to get together and talk about their desires and their worship of beauty. That’s one of the hardest things about the male gaze as you try to understand it, the ways you’re asked to participate without your consent.

I love when Sylvere asks Dick, “You don’t like being the muse?” and Dick replies, “It’s humiliating.” It reminded me of my high school dream to have a video where I’m fully clothed, wearing a turtleneck and fur coat, surrounded by nearly nude men -- as a reaction to music videos featuring nearly nude women dancing around fully clothed men.

You could see that male gaze back then; you could watch and feel that.

Do you think women can objectify themselves for monetary purposes instead of the male gaze?

If you monetize it, you own it -- and that could be anyone from a stripper to a Kardashian. These are people who are incredibly empowered, who recognize their body is a tool for empowerment. My problem is that empowerment comes one degree away from the male gaze, because you’re trying to get a man to do something by engaging their gaze. For me, the dream of being in the center of the video in the turtleneck is that you aren’t actually being looked at, you’re doing the looking. The fantasy for women, for me, is to be invisible and have my work investigated.

I can’t outrun the problem of people talking about my looks, but I do suffer from having spent years working on how I look as a way to feel powerful. Now I feel this tragic sense of “Oh, my God, I missed so many years of having a full mind.” I could’ve been becoming smarter and creating.

In I Love Dick, the women are speaking from positions of power, regardless of how they identify, their jobs or how much clothing they’re wearing. Did that come from the years you wasted on beauty, like, “Let me allow these women to be their full selves?”

Power is the word of the moment for me. It’s shorter than intersectionality or solidarity, and both words create questions about who stands for whom. We all want power; women want it, people of color want it, queer people want it, gender nonconforming people want it. We all want the power that comes with being the default subject, that’s why we’re full of rage. No man will ever understand what it feels like to grow up other, no white person will ever understand growing up as a person of color. There’s so much rage over not only wanting to be recognized as we are, but also who we would be had we been the original subject, and not been born into this other.

You hired an all-female writers’ room. What was the purpose of that, aside from creating an authentic female experience?

You’re always silently clocking your allies in whatever room you’re in, and the idea of what is “good story” or whether a story is “working” is the kind of thing that people who’ve had more time in the business might say. Like, “Alright, it’s all well and good that we’re just having fun here, but as a person with experience/the guy -- and I’m not criticizing what’s going on -- I just want to make sure you guys are getting this right.” In doing so, cisgender men might be unconsciously advocating for what makes them feel comfortable, and that would be versions of the male gaze. That could damage a blossoming possibility when you have a group of people in a room together who’ve never had the opportunity to do that before. It’s exactly the same thing with people of color. I’m sure if Donald Glover had an all-black writers’ room…

He did for Atlanta; I was just going to say the same thing.

What if someone would’ve said to him, “You need to have just one white person in there. It’s their job to rein you in because you’re going be too black!” Or, for a women’s writers’ room, there was a guy in there like, “Too much period blood!” You don’t even want that physics, so that choice was to create a room without the male gaze.

I think that space made deeper women-centered scenes possible. Like when the lesbian character, Devon, calls out the woman she’s dating, Toby, while the latter is completely naked for a performance piece that Devon thinks is exploitive. It was a rabbit hole of white feminism versus brown feminism, art for art’s sake versus creating something purposeful and a conversation between lovers.

Thank you for seeing that! I think women viewers do go down a rabbit hole with our show. One woman’s empowerment is another people’s disempowerment, and how does that get talked about in a story between two people who are falling in or out of love? So much fun for a feminist intellectual to think about!

Circling back to the man as muse, what kind of direction did you give Kevin Bacon in playing Dick?

I don’t really get too micro when it comes to a scene, I’m more creating a space for everybody to let loose. I’ll talk to Kevin about a larger emotion he’s playing and he takes care of the pain and sorrow. I do think that who Kevin Bacon is, the six degrees of separation, means something. In looking for real connections, he probably felt a little about Hollywood the way Dick feels about Marfa.

How does being nonbinary affect your work and topple the patriarchy, your goal and the name of your production company?

Luckily, I have the privilege to try being femme, butch or nonbinary. I don’t want to be frivolous about that.

You don’t want to be privileged about your privilege?

No, I don’t want to be privileged about my privilege, because there are so many people who would like to walk into another experience and for whatever reason, they can’t. I’ve been able to create space in my life to experiment, and my parent coming out was a big deal because it allowed me to notice, besides my age and where I am in life, “Where and how do I want to be today?” It’s a very strange thought experiment that feels like a little bit like your turtleneck: I’m not what you see. I’m not even the other thing, like, “Oh, Jill’s a guy now and she’s failing at that!” I don’t want to be failing at my butchness either! I just want to be. The nonbinary thing is great because I just step out of all of the questions of what I am.

I don’t hassle people about pronouns because I know how hard it is. But when people get my pronoun right, it’s such a lovely feeling to not say, “Women are this” or “She is this” or even “Butch is this, masculine is this.” I’m neither, I’m both, I’m constantly changing. It really removes me from my own self-talk of failure, a lot of which was gender.

So, the nonbinary identity itself is fighting the patriarchy by not subscribing to a label.

Yeah, it is all off my table.

What does toppling the patriarchy look like for you?

If Donald Trump could dream of being president, we can dream of anything. Things are happening so quickly; I couldn’t have even imagined I Love Dick five years ago, let alone that it would be on television. I have to believe that there could be a world where the shared values that are currently thought of as religious values, like God, actually become shared values like love and justice. I think most people prefer peace, but because of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism or any of the -isms, we’re where we are right now.

A toppled world means that the kind of masculine, war-mongering, dominance-obsessed men that have their hold on our planet would evolve in a positive way. To me, believing that I can change the world through culture, television, books or movies, that’s how I get out of bed. I don’t see it happening in my lifetime, but I have an 8-year-old, and this could be his future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.