Note: The creator of Transparent has changed their name to Joey Soloway. The video portion of this interview was recorded before this name change.
Transparent — the groundbreaking Amazon dramedy centered on a transgender parent and her family — is competing at the Emmy Awards for perhaps the last time in a new category: Best TV Movie.
The end of the Pfefferman family saga, Transparent Musicale Finale, is vying against other notable productions stemming from popular television shows, including Netflix's El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
However, Transparent creator Joey Soloway, in a roundtable conversation with The Advocate on the show's legacy, reflected how the "remarkable" accomplishments of Transparent transcended more typical offerings from the entertainment industry. Pivotally, it has broken the mold in representation, which in turn has helped change the way members of society perceive the world.
"Protagonism is propaganda for privilege," noted Soloway, who has come out as nonbinary and changed their name to Joey since the series premiered in 2014. At least "96 percent of everything we watch is a white straight man's idea of reality."
They stressed the deleterious impact of a landscape populated with this propaganda on marginalized viewers who don't fit this mold. Even with their success in the entertainment industry — Transparent has been nominated for and won a slew of Emmys, including two wins for Soloway personally as a director — they revealed how they still battle "constant shame," feelings of inadequacy, and the fear that there is "something wrong with me."
"We are one show that protagonizes transness. We are one show that normalizes transness. An Emmy isn't enough. We need thousands of shows like this," Soloway said.
Above: Joey Soloway, Faith Soloway, Shakina Nayfack, and Alexandra Billings discuss staging Transparent's finale in the wake of a tragedy.
Transparent's impact on culture is undeniable. When it debuted in 2014, there were no television shows that centered on the trans experience; even in 2020, there's only one currently airing, FX's Pose. A lot has happened in six years, however. At the time, Amazon's marketing department did not want to use a depiction of Maura, the out transgender woman originated by Jeffrey Tambor, in its advertising. Instead, they wanted to depict her closeted persona, Mort.
"Amazon wanted Mort because they were afraid people wouldn't know what to do with an image of Maura. That was six years ago," Soloway said. Amazon would "spring" Maura as a surprise in the show, Soloway said they were told, "as if being trans wasn't fantastic, as if being trans wasn't magical, as if being trans wasn't the most exciting thing that you could ever want to see on a billboard."
"We had to fight for her just to be admired," Soloway said.
While transgender representation is still abysmal in media, the culture has made important strides in visibility since 2014, among them Pose and the Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman featuring trans star Daniela Vega. Halle Berry's recent quick turnaround and apology for considering a transgender role also demonstrate the progress made in the conversation around transgender casting — particularly in an industry with enduring discriminatory hurdles.
Alexandra Billings, the transgender actress who portrayed Davina, Maura's best friend, has witnessed Tinseltown's changes firsthand, albeit with some healthy skepticism. "Hollywood has changed in the sense that it has realized it can make more money with stories that are told by the actual people who live them. Have they made a morality change? I have absolutely no idea,” Billings said, adding, “I really don't care how it gets done. As long as it gets done. And we have a voice in the room."
Transparent helped pave the way for this progress. It was also almost felled by the changes it helped bring about. Centrally, while Tambor helped bring critical and commercial attention to Transparent, the cisgender actor's casting was controversial from the outset. And after playing TV's most prominent trans woman for four seasons, Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct by his former assistant Van Barnes and actress Trace Lysette. The allegations and Tambor's ensuing departure in 2018 threatened the future of Transparent.
If Soloway could go back in time, would they have cast a transgender actor in Maura's role? Soloway wishes the answer was as "simple" as saying yes. However, "the time machine questions are so hard because you just don't know what else you're going to lose in the time travel," Soloway said.
Apart from Tambor, the Transparent set was an "incredibly safe space," said Soloway. Indeed, the production was lauded for how it employed transgender talent in front of and behind the scenes in order to create an inclusive environment; over 80 trans people were involved in its run, including producers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst and writer Our Lady J.
Regardless, "we let the most powerful male person on the set separate himself from our safe space and create his own rules," Soloway said. At the time, Soloway created a carve-out for Tambor, ironically, because they feared jeopardizing the show's future.
"It happens a lot on TV shows," they said. "I've been on other shows where you can't do the show without the star. So they begin to get a different set of rules. And when that person is white and that person is male and that person is older and when that person has a bunch of privilege, it just continues. I wish I would have been able to see the way that patriarchy and white supremacy were acting within our show."
Billings acknowledged that she also had a blind spot toward Tambor, which in hindsight is unsurprising to her, given the way privilege works in America. "The idea that Jeffrey Tambor behaved in a way that was odd or bizarre is sort of ludicrous when in fact that country was founded on a bunch of rich white men who made the country for other rich white men," Billings said. "All of ... these white men are behaving exactly the way they were taught to behave."
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency, who epitomizes the worst outcomes of this privilege, forced a reckoning in the world, Billings said, which extended to Transparent.
"Every human on the planet has now had a gigantic mirror to look at. And I know for me, that as Jeffrey behaved badly on set, that I didn't want to look in that mirror," Billings said. "I didn't want to see my own reflection; I didn't want to see my own behavior. I didn't want to see how I was either adding to it or trying to stop [it]. I didn't want to look at anything. And this isn't about guilt for me, but this is about responsibility."
Above: Joey Soloway, Faith Soloway, Shakina Nayfack, and Alexandra Billings discuss favorite musicals and Transparent memories.
Collectively, the cast and producers of Transparent were tasked with looking into this mirror and then, somehow, finding a means to end the series without its star. That ending became not a fifth season but Transparent Musicale Finale. The musical film was a fitting end to a show that was in need of a change, said Faith Soloway, who penned its music and lyrics.
"When there are no words, you sing," Faith Soloway said. "There were no words to get us through what we were going through." Everyone in the Transparent world "needed to heal," she said, and the musical became the means to bring that about.
The casting of Shakina Nayfack, a transgender actress known for Difficult People and her one-woman show Manifest Pussy, was also a breakthrough for the production. While Maura's death marked the musical's inciting incident, Nayfack channeled her spirit by portraying her in a play-within-a-play structure. It was no easy task for Nayfack, who began as a writer of the musical before graduating to its leading role.
"I came in late in the game," Nayfack said. "So my experience was how to help save this beautiful family that had suffered this terrible loss ... [including] fans of the show who felt a lot of pain and a lot of anger for the way that things had to end kind of abruptly.
"It felt like a lot of responsibility and a big honor to bring the magic and the spirit that I could bring to this iconic role, this iconic matriarch, and then the adventure of it was like, how can we be playful, and find humor and joy in something that is so painful for so many people? That's a tall order. But I'll tell you what, trans people are really good at that. We've been doing that our whole lives."
As Transparent is being considered for awards season and for its legacy, its cast and creator remind the world of this remarkable resilience.
"The road map that we provided in terms of restorative justice is also worthy of recognition because we took a collapse that was born out of assault and made something healing. And that is something the world needs to learn how to do," Nayfack said.
"We’re one show that almost got toppled by patriarchy. We were told, recast Jeffrey Tambor with a trans woman. My first response was, how is that possible?" Joey Soloway recounted. "And yet we found a way for Maura’s spirit to land in the body of a trans woman and have her sing from a place of joy and healing and forgiveness. This is beyond Emmys and Golden Globes to me. This is pure magic."
Finally, there is also the message that Transparent has always broadcast, which is the need of marginalized people to see and tell their own stories.
"We want the ambient sense of belonging in the world that white people and male people have, just from having grown up watching white male creators say, 'This is us,'" Soloway said. "We want, 'This is us.' We want trans protagonism. We want queer protagonism. We want Black protagonism, and we want the protagonism of the other to end the reign of white supremacy and patriarchy and remind the world that people who are other are not 'other,' they're people."
"It's obvious to me," Soloway said of this truth. "But then again, we're in it. I can't believe that people don't find what we pulled off [awards-]worthy. The Nobel Prize? I'll take it."
Watch Joey Soloway discuss the legacy of Transparent below.