At the end of Jill Soloway’s second memoir, the writer and director comes out as nonbinary. For the unwoke, that means rejecting the labels of “male” and “female,” instead taking the pronouns “they/them.” Snubbing strict gender and sexuality binaries, Soloway explained on The View, is very hip among the Instagram generation.
Then why is her memoir called She Wants It? Via email, I asked Soloway about the decision to include a female pronoun in the title.
“I saw She Wants It as this powerful paradoxical phrase that captured so much of what the book is about,” they explain.
Despite the fact that they can’t see me, I nod vigorously, because paradox is precisely the quality that has always endeared me to Soloway’s work; I try to channel their ability to depict flawed but compelling characters on the fringes of society whenever I sit down to write.
I first learned of Soloway from their work on Six Feet Under, a television show so perfect I mourn it whenever someone so much as mentions Game of Thrones. In 2014, Soloway created their own show, and my sister and I binged the first season of Transparent in the same way we binged the Six Feet Under Netflix DVDs 10 years earlier.
Transparent was revolutionary in that it presented the first transgender main character on a major television show, but I wasn’t drawn to it for its politics. I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoyed Six Feet Under: for its depiction of societal spaces “shaped by ambiguity and paradox,” as Kim Akas wrote in Reading Six Feet Under. (The show’s title yields more results on Google Scholar than probably any other.)
Six Feet Under depicted a dysfunctional family running a Los Angeles funeral home; the series begins with the father’s unexpected death, throwing family into a frenzy to manage the business. Transparent also depicts a dysfunctional Los Angeles family; the series similarly begins with a paternal death of sorts — in the first episode, the patriarch comes out as a trans woman.
The characters on these shows aren’t aspirational. They’re bleak. Messy. Lost. Frustrated. Frustrating. You don’t idolize them, don’t admire their outfits or their hair or their jobs or the ease with which they move through the world. But you know them. Sometimes they warm your heart, then you fantasize about them getting hit by a bus. They make you furious and then make you laugh. They say one thing and then do the opposite. They are contradictory, paradoxical, and ultimately — very real.
She Wants It is compelling for the same reason: Soloway is a real person. That is, their behavior is often confusing, sometimes maddening. They aren’t afraid to be flawed, to have trivial desires, to be jealous, to be hypocritical, to be unlikeable. And for someone socialized as a woman, being unlikeable can be radical.
She Wants It details a gender and sexuality journey that begins when Soloway’s father comes out to them in 2011. Soloway is deep in a period of major career frustration at the time, one that resonates with my own attempts to be a fiction writer. “I had been working steadily for over a decade,” they write. “Year after year, I would write two or three pilots, and they would always sell but never actually get made. So many projects that were always SO CLOSE, and yet…. Nothing. Ever. Happened.”
But everything changes with a phone call. Soloway’s father tells them to sit down and then comes out as Carrie London. Soloway reacts with reassuring words, promising to always love their parent unconditionally. But their brain buzzes with something else. “There was also some part of me that knew I would be making this into something,” they write. “Not simply that this could be a movie or a show or something, but that it would be a movie or a show or something.”
The tension between Soloway’s desire to be emotionally present for their parent, while simultaneously obsessing about turning the moment into a commodity — a television show — is the very type of internal dilemma a Soloway-created character would experience.
But a bigger one comes at the end of the memoir, much in the way a TV episode ups the stakes in the third act.
The day after Reese Witherspoon invites Soloway to attend a meeting of powerful Hollywood women to strategize Times Up, Soloway learns that the former PA to Jeffrey Tambor — who plays the lead on Transparent — publicly alleged that Tambor had sexually harassed her. Soloway, who spends much of the book priding themselves on creating a sui generis show aimed at dismantling male oppression, finds themselves “wondering if there was an amount of money that could put an end to all this before it got out of hand,” and even admits to questioning the legitimacy of the victim’s claims.
“Yes, believe all victims but — damn it — how could this happen on my show, too?”
She Wants It blurs the lines between art and life to a near headache-inducing extent. When Soloway creates a Transparent character based on the poet Eileen Myles to fall in love with the character based on themselves, they end up in a romantic relationship with real-life Eileen Myles. Another character based on themselves (spoiler: they’re all Jill) leaves their husband for a woman, just before real life Soloway leaves their husband for a lesbian affair with a woman who goes by “Macho Mel.” When I ask, prompted by all these Jill’s, if they see their gender/sexuality expression as an artistic choice, they write to me: “None of us can divorce our identities from politics, from art, from the world.”
As someone who, like Jill, made a somewhat abrupt transition from dating exclusively men to dating exclusively women, I felt connected to Soloway’s descriptions of discovering lesbian love for the first time. And like Soloway, I’ve often wondered whether my dating women was an aesthetic or political act. Was I born gay, or was I just tired of structural inequality dictating my relationships?
“Holy shit,” Soloway writes, “my whole life, I had been the person […] trying to do what might make him do the thing I wanted.” I remember a boyfriend telling me to “watch a porn to get some technique.” But I didn’t want to be good at sucking dick; what about my pleasure? Upon finding lesbian love, Soloway wonders: “What did it mean now that there was a world of women, queer women, who, besides wanting me, might even want to know what I wanted?”
With Mel, they describe a “creative explosion as we fell in love, something I’ve learned is pretty common with girls.” Together, they begin writing a comedic short about female ejaculation. With Eileen, Soloway reflects: “This is so weird. To be in love with someone who loves my mind.” Together, they write a feminist manifesto in between having sex and strolling around Paris. Quelle romance! (I’ve similarly had many lesbian dates yield writing partners, and have — albeit shamefully — used flirting with women to release excess creative energy.)
Back from France, Soloway makes an appointment with her son’s barber, where they’re handed a beer upon entering and no one says “Cute shoes!” or asks, “So where are you going out tonight?” With a new, more masculine haircut, Soloway finds that “getting ready” was no longer a thing: “I was just a head, a face.” At a neighbor’s party, they gather in the kitchen with the dads, debating politics. As weeks pass, Soloway finds themselves more comfortable in the world than ever.
I ask Soloway whether they are concerned that they feel more comfortable with a more masculine presentation because the patriarchy prioritizes masculinity. Soloway responds, “I don’t feel concerned about taking on a presentation that allows me to feel more powerful and control in the world, and feel like myself.” They continue, “The key is that we fight to create a world where femme-presenting people are given the same respect and privilege.”
As a femme-presenting woman dying to be given the same respect and privilege as my butch counterparts, to be able to demand a perspective without being dismissed as “thirsty” at best, “narcissistic” at worst, the answer satisfies me at first. But part of me feels sad. Like Soloway, I have a near-compulsive desire to transform my experience into commodifiable art. As soon as I started dating women, I began generating manuscripts at lightning speed. And like Soloway, I started to become frustrated with — as they describe their career before their parent came out — “Almost getting there, thinking I was getting there, and not getting there.” I’ve yet to sell a book to a publisher and, like Soloway, have starting thinking that I’m probably not “a real artist.”
Do I have to chop off my hair and start wearing suits to achieve my professional goals?
Of course not, I imagine Soloway telling me. You can be a casual femme with flowing mermaid hair and be respected for your perfect art, without having to effect a masculine confidence — or worse, partake in any sort of girl–bossery.
But I have no idea what they would say. Because it was an email interview, mediated through their publisher. I don’t even have Soloway’s email address.
Sometime in the past year it’s become trendy to hate on Jill Soloway, much in the way it’s trendy to hate on Lena Dunham — both are as successful as they are unlikeable.
When I told friends I was writing this article, the chorus ranged from “eh” to “she bothers me.” It was the same type of vague disdain the public fires at Dunham, to me proving the impossibility of being a woman — or in this case nonbinary person — famous for something other than being pretty. (Hillary, anyone?) But I still giggled when my good friend tweeted: “a jill soloway take down??? I’ll take ten please!!!”
The tweet referenced Andrea Long Chu’s viral article entitled “No One Wants it,” which was published as I was writing this piece.
I love Chu’s writing, and this piece was no exception.
Chu is not the first to point out that Soloway might be harmful to the marginalized communities she purports to represent — such as by casting a cis man to play a trans woman, and wanting to sweep it under the rug when that cis man gets #MeToo’d. But Chu dedicates the most airtime to dismissing Soloway as over-privileged and out-of-touch. In response to Soloway’s giddy description of the inaugural #TimesUp meeting, Chu writes, “it seems never to occur to Soloway that she might be conflating global upheaval with a sudden influx of rich and famous friends.” Chu characterizes Soloway’s voice as embracing “the worst of the grandiose Seventies-era conceits about the transformative power of the avant-garde guiltlessly hitched to a yogic West Coast mindset,” as if — wait for it — “Peter Thiel were gay.”
I laughed. I mean, it was funny for a major Hollywood player to think women could “change the world in an instant [if] we all turned off our cellphones to stare at the moon together.”
But unlike Chu, I wasn’t offended. I was charmed by the sincerity (it’s basically extinct among my age group). And who doesn’t love the moon?
Chu attributes Soloway’s “oblivious[ness]” to privilege, a complaint Dunham receives often, and perhaps my own privilege animates my eagerness to give both a pass. After all, my girlfriend went to college with Dunham, and Soloway and I live in the same neighborhood. We were all born white women, the second most problematic demographic after white men.
She Wants It depicts a person who wants it all — “maximum freedom,” they tell me over email. And nothing quite enables freedom like privilege. The words are literal synonyms.
Perhaps freedom/privilege is why I’ve resisted identifying as a lesbian (despite having dated exclusively women for over five years), and why I think I deserve to publish a novel.
And maybe it’s privilege/freedom that allows me to stan Soloway, while also stanning their biggest online critic. I don’t have to pick one or the other. Girl-bossery, afterall, tells us not to pit women against each other.
Chu is putting the onus of structural inequality entirely on Soloway, much in the way Dunham has become the universal symbol for every obnoxious thing a white woman has ever done. It’s easy to target someone in the public eye who challenges the way someone born a woman should look — that is, pretty, femme, and quiet.
But Chu and I nonetheless reach a similar conclusion: “The nicest thing that can be said of this […] book is that it proves, once and for all, that trans people are fully, regrettably human.”
Like all of Soloway’s work, She Wants It drives home that humans are messy. Bleak. Lost. This is compounded for those who publicly identify in a way that’s been historically forbidden. More than anything, She Wants It pushes us to think beyond the narrow categories prescribed to us and face the fact that life is a big, weird mystery.
Toward the end of the book, Soloway walks with her parent through Chicago.
As they pass the mall Soloway used to frequent as a teen, her Moppa says, “I don’t know if I feel like a woman. I might be more like you. In between.”
It’s easy to be critical, but much harder to be understanding.
“That’s cool, Moppa,” Soloway responds. “Nobody knows anything, we’re all just learning.”