An activist, director, and creator of groundbreaking and critically acclaimed series such as Transparent and I Love Dick and writer for series such as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), Joey Soloway (previously known as Jill) is widely acclaimed for creating strong and complex Jewish, female, and transgender characters, as well as for creative storytelling throughout their film and television career. Their internationally successful series Transparent was a major influence on transforming trans portrayals in mainstream media. The series is also considered groundbreaking in its nuanced portrayal of feminism’s role in modern Jewish familial life and love. Soloway is considered one of the most important artists working in the “Golden Age” of television storytelling.
Activist, director, and creator of the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed series Transparent, I Love Dick, and others (and writer for series such as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), Joey Soloway is also a social activist, considered one of the strongest advocates for women, queer, and nonbinary identities in Hollywood. Soloway, who was previously known as Jill, identifies as nonbinary, uses the third-person pronoun (they/them/their), and lives in Los Angeles. Judaism, feminism and modern Jewish culture are resonant themes in their work. Soloway is recipient of numerous prestigious film and television industry awards (Sundance, Golden Globes, Emmys). They co-founded the East Side Jews collective, 5050by2020 (an intersectional power movement in Arts and Entertainment connected to the Time’s Up movement). They also created and produced (with Maggie Rowe) the long-running live confessional monologue comedy series, Sit ‘n’ Spin (2001), in partnership with Comedy Central at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood, California. Transparent, their critically acclaimed, award-winning show on Amazon (2014-2019), is often considered the most groundbreakingly Jewish, as well as transgender series to date. After achieving fame as Jill, they announced their name change to Joey on June 26, 2020.
Early Years & Education
Soloway was born and raised in Chicago in the famous 1960s neighborhood of South Commons, designed as a racially integrated community which Soloway recalls fondly as a an “idyllic experience” and a “communal dream” (Ihejirika). Soloway’s father, Harry (later Carrie), was a psychiatrist and Soloway’s mother, author Elaine Soloway, was a fervent activist in South Commons, inspiring her offspring’s social activism in later years. A utopian outlook seems to have been altogether intrinsic to those formative years, subsequently serving as a profound influence on their radical social vision and art: “We were kids, so everybody was just playing. There was very little race and class awareness on our part. For us, it really did feel like that utopia, and I think it made me curious” (Ihejirika). Their relationship to sister Faith was extremely close, a bond that may have been strengthened by their parents’ increasingly tense and unhappy marriage.
Soloway attended Lane Tech College Prep and graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is where their feminist awakening first began (a Women’s Studies course instructor insisted that Soloway confront their own underexamined heteronormativity): “I wanted so badly to be an artist, and to write interesting things, and I decided I would have to have an interesting life…like Jack Kerouac. Submissive to everything, he got to say, about his technique. I was jealous of him and Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, and it felt so unfair that they could do anything on the road, but if I wanted to go on the road I would get raped. Women spend the first half of our lives afraid we’re going to get raped and the second half afraid we’re going to find a lump. Are we ever not afraid?” (She Wants It, 35-36).
After returning to Chicago, they worked as a production assistant on commercials, while writing plays with sister Faith for Chicago’s alternative Annoyance Theatre. Not long after relocating to Los Angeles, Soloway began writing for Six Feet Under and Grey’s Anatomy, among other series but struggled to launch their own independent career until Afternoon Delight, their feature film debut, won the 2013 Directing Award at Sundance as well as a Spirit Award for First Feature.
Transparent and its Jewish Characters & Themes
Soloway based the concept for Transparent, by far their most popular as well as groundbreaking series to date, on their own experience when their father telephoned early one morning in 2011 to announce that he was trans (“Jilly are you sitting down?” was how they would recall it). In numerous interviews, Soloway has claimed that almost immediately they felt obliged to transform that shattering revelation into art. That announcement by a father on the verge of retirement becomes the catalyst for the fictional Pfeffermans’ individual sexual, gender, and religious self-discoveries throughout Transparent’s five seasons. The series, which follows the lives of a separated couple, their three argumentative adult children, and their various romantic partners, became even more of a real-life family affair when Joey’s sister Faith Soloway, who embraced her lesbian identity long before Joey, came on board to collaborate as producer, writer and lyricist; hence the entire family’s journey through queerness proved a frequent inspiration for the plot. Those who worked closely with Soloway often hail Soloway’s creative process as “evolved,” “organic,” “utopian,” or otherwise profoundly collaborative in spirit. A typical day on any Soloway set typically begins with everyone involved with production (actors, cinematographers, technicians) standing together in a circle to reinforce a sense of shared purpose, mission, and creative spirit. Another innovation intrinsic to their creative process is what Soloway calls the “doing box,” in which everyone on set gathers at the beginning of the day to share whatever is happening in their personal lives, revelations that influenced subsequent characterizations, dialogue, and story arcs (the practice was subsequently inherited by the cast and production team of I Love Dick).
One of Soloway’s most driving motivations as an artist is the insistence on full autonomy in the creative process, a realization they describe in their memoir: “every final decision about casting, writing, shooting, cutting would come from a place of what would make the truest art…not what people thought would make money” (She Wants It, 30). In spite of early dismay expressed over the casting of Jeffrey Tambor, a straight man, in the trans role of Maura, Soloway was later hailed for hiring an unprecedented number of trans writers, actors, and crew for the series, and from the very beginning, Soloway and their colleagues frequently consulted with GLAAD (an LGBTQ advocacy and media monitoring organization) to ensure that Transparent portrayed the full humanity and complexity of its queer and trans characters (trans actress Sophia Grace Giannamore portrays Maura in Season Three). That rigor earned the admiration of many critics and activists, such as acclaimed transgender author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who, after the series had run its course, lauded Soloway’s success in creating “something tremendous and new…an alternative universe in Hollywood which for a long time worked. One TV show isn’t going to end the oppression of the patriarchy, but it’s still awfully good work to be doing” (Green).
For similar reasons of verisimilitude, many Jewish viewers and critics greeted Transparent’s Jewish-American themes and prickly characters enthusiastically. Theater director Isaac Butler probably comes as close as anyone to delineating its restless inquiry into both its exasperating characters and perhaps the contemporary Jewish-American experience as a whole: “Transparent has few answers, because…it explores its themes dialectically. The contrast between the utopian possibilities of borderlessness and the anxiety, pain, and feeling of loss that accompanies that state is in many ways Transparent’s true subject” (Butler). Much of that success is undoubtedly owed to Rabbi Susan Goldberg, a close friend of Soloway and rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles since 2013, who served as series consultant from the beginning and reviewed scripts for authenticity.
Working closely with Soloway, Goldberg was frequently on the set and helped write the sermons that the character Rabbi Raquel delivers. Actress Kathryn Hahn (a creative collaborator with Soloway on several films and series) closely shadowed Goldberg in daily life, including religious services and textual study, to thoroughly embody the character, to the extent that she even took on some of Goldberg’s mannerisms to embody the role. For Goldberg, the series’ delicately interwoven transgender and Jewish themes can be summed up as a spiritual challenge: “Of being in the wilderness. You know most of the Torah happens in the wilderness. It’s not the big epiphanies. Yes, there’s a leaving of Egypt but after that there’s a lot of time in the wilderness. The whole rest of the Torah is in the wilderness. That idea that you might have a moment of coming out of revelation and some aspect of yourself and then it’s the rest of the journey. It’s not only an epiphany. So that idea and there’s also a real throughline of using the Parsha (Bible portion) Lech Lecha where Avram and Sarah, but the communication from G-D is to Avram, to go on a journey. If you look at the Hebrew it says “go to yourself in this journey” (Heilbronn).
Goldberg selected that same Torah portion for the flashback in which the youngest daughter, Ali, is due to have her Bat Mitzvah, which becomes a major plot development that shapes subsequent seasons. Tambor’s character opportunistically accedes to his daughter’s apparent wish to cancel the event because he secretly desires to attend a camp for crossdressers (an act for which Ali resents him years later), thus foreshadowing the journeys of both individuals: “This idea of that Torah portion being the one that she didn't get to do is meaningful because at that same time the character of Maura has canceled the Bat Mitzvah partly because he wanted to go on his own weekend to reclaim his own gender identity. And so it's the loss of [Ali's] opportunity to be coming into her own as a woman while her dad wants his opportunity to come into his own as a woman. And so all of the trans themes and the Jewish themes are really interwoven” (Maloney).
In Transparent’s early seasons Soloway still identified as a heterosexual woman, married to musician Bruce Gilbert and mother of two sons. But working on the show proved a catalyst for their own transformation alongside those of Transparent’s fictional family members: “At first it was like, I just want to tell a small story to create a little imaginary world where I can feel safe to explore these feelings and also to make the world a safe place for my parent to be out. And then as I got to know so many trans people working on the show, I started to go through my own gender questioning and wondering” (Ihejirika).
The series hit an infamous bump after its fourth season, when Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by two transgender crew members. Tambor vehemently denied the allegations but was fired by Soloway, and the two have not communicated since. Subsequently, Maura was killed off before the next season and the creative energy of the show shifted to focus more on the creative voice and independence of Shelly Pfefferman, Maura's ex-wife and mother of Sarah, Josh, and Ali. Transparent’s final “season” was limited to a two-hour musical film for which Faith Soloway (hearkening back to their early days in Chicago collaborating on a parody of The Brady Bunch for live stage called The Real Live Brady Bunch) wrote songs and lyrics. However, this finale did not meet the high expectations of many viewers and critics, who felt its pat resolutions did not serve the character development and psychological complexity of the earlier seasons. Throughout its run, Transparent won two Golden Globes and five Emmys, including one for directing.
Later Works and Activism
Together with playwright Sarah Gubbins (and an all-female writers room), Soloway subsequently created a second cerebral comedy-drama for Amazon, the series I Love Dick, loosely based on the memoir-novel by Chris Kraus (widely considered a feminist cult classic), which Soloway describes as exploring what it means “to fall hard for someone, but realize you’re falling for yourself, your voice. To come alive…To feel artistically fulfilled living inside of your lust” (She Wants It, 204). Though it generally met with positive critical acclaim for its bold portrayal of female desire and art (critic Rebecca Nicholson called it boundary-pushing, “astonishingly beautiful,” and praised its “gleeful sense of visual freedom”), I Love Dick ran for only one season.
In 2018 Soloway began to serve as editor-at-large for Amazon’s new progressive imprint TOPPLE Books (also the name of Soloway’s production company, signifying “toppling the patriarchy”), which publishes narrative non-fiction and fiction from underrepresented writers such as women of color, gender non-conforming, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer authors. Soloway has also been a prominent activist for LGBTQ representation in the arts and is a founding member of both the #TimesUp and #5050by2020 campaigns to eradicate sexual misconduct and gender inequity in the workplace.
She Wants It, Soloway’s 2019 memoir, documents their journey from heterosexuality to lesbian dating and finally formally identifying as non-binary, wearing men’s suits and haircuts. They envisioned their memoir’s essence as “a Dear John letter to femininity. I wasn’t thinking that, as I was directing my first movie, as I was getting breast reduction surgery, but it turns out that as I was finding my voice, I was peeling off, first the physical layers of femininity — the breasts, the clothes, the hair and the makeup. I feel like I’ve come to the other side, where I’m like nothing. Just human. I feel like I’ve come through the woods” (Green). However, as Soloway often acknowledges, private life is often more complicated. In 2018 at the age of 53, they told the journalist Sophie Heawood that while they were enjoying a “rebirth (like being 15 again),” that hard-won freedom meant a “crisis” for the people in their life, acknowledging that they were “having my cake and eating it,” variously identifying as “she, they and Mom” to different people in different contexts. Soloway continued to be “Mom” to their two boys, because of their reluctance “to take away their having a mother. It’s a lot to ask from a kid, ‘Hey can you see me as neither?’” (Heawood).
Widely recognized as a pioneer in helping shape the narrative of LGBTQ representation in the media, Soloway is recipient of an award in 2015 from GLAAD, an NAACP Image Award in 2016, and the “Equality Visibility Award” from the country’s largest LGBTQ-rights organization, Equality California, awarded for Soloway’s “transformative work increasing representation of transgender and non-binary people on television, and empowering a generation of LGBTQ artists.” On receiving the award, Soloway expressed their fervent wish for “a dream of a world where trans people and queer people can feel safe and just at home in our skin. The queer shall inherit the earth” (Herman).
Selected Works by Joey (Jill) Soloway
She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy. New York: Random House, 2019.
Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants. New York: Free Press, 2005.
"Jodi K." In Susie Bright, Eric Albert, Greta Christina, Jill Soloway. Three Kinds of Asking For it: Erotic Novellas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Butler, Isaac. “Transparent Is the Most Profoundly Jewish Show in TV History.” Slate, September 27, 2017: https://slate.com/culture/2017/09/transparent-is-a-profoundly-jewish-tv-show.html.
Corcoran, Monica. “A Night Out with Jill Soloway: To Tell the Truth.” The New York Times, September 4, 2005: Section 9, Page 4: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/fashion/sundaystyles/jill-soloway-to-tell-the-truth.html.
Freedman, Jonathan. “ ‘Transparent’: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 10, 2016: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/transparent-a-guide-for-the-perplexed/.
Green, Penelope. “They Live in Public: Jill Soloway is Building a Gender-Free Empire.” The New York Times, October 14, 2018, Section ST, Page 1: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/13/style/jill-soloway.html.
Heawood, Sophie. “Interview with Jill Soloway: ‘This Identity is Perfect, It Feels Like a Perfect Suit To Put On’.” The Guardianm October 7, 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/oct/07/jill-soloway-my-father-told-me-he-was-trans-and-it-changed-my-life-.
Heilbronn, Leora. “5 Questions with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Consultant for Transparent.” Scene Creek, May 9, 2015: http://scenecreek.com/5-questions-with-rabbi-susan-goldberg-consultant-for-transparent/.
Herman, James Patrick. “Jill Soloway Honored at Los Angeles Equality Awards: ‘The Queer Shall Inherit the Earth.’” Variety, September 30, 2019: https://variety.com/2019/politics/news/jill-soloway-los-angeles-equality-awards-1203353127/.
Ihejirika, Maudlyne. “Exploring with Jill Soloway, 50 years later, Shared Childhood in Urban Renewal South Commons.” Chicago Sun Times, September 1, 2019: https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/2019/9/1/20841369/urban-renewal-experiment-housing.
Maloney, Darby. “The Female Rabbi Who Helps Weave Jewish and Trans Themes in Transparent.” The Frame, December 24, 2014: https://www.scpr.org/programs/the-frame/2014/12/24/40865/weaving-jewish-and-trans-themes-in-transparent/.
Nicholson, Rebecca. “I Love Dick: Jill Soloway Pushes Boundaries Even Further Than Transparent.” The Guardian, May, 11, 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/may/11/i-love-dick-review-jill-soloway-transparent-kathryn-hahn-kevin-bacon,
To view a keynote address by Jill Soloway addressing the critical concept of the female gaze and its role in transforming film, art, and culture click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnBvppooD9I