Jill Soloway knows how to make great television. That much has been established. But for Soloway, making TV isn’t just about creating something that receives critical praise ― it’s about changing the world.
“For me, the belief that my TV show is going to change the world is a lot of what makes me wanna do it,” Soloway, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns they/them, said.
Enter “I Love Dick.”
The Amazon series, created by Soloway and Sarah Gubbins, is based on the feminist, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Chris Kraus. The show centers around Chris, played by the incredible Kathryn Hahn. After she and her Holocaust scholar husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) arrive in Marfa, Texas, Chris becomes obsessed with the eponymous Dick (Kevin Bacon). Dick becomes the object of her overwhelming sexual desire, and, ultimately, her artistic muse. It is a shifting of roles ― the man as object and muse, the woman as subject and creator ― that seems simple, but feels wonderfully radical.
Much of what makes “I Love Dick” so special is the specificity of the dialogue and the stories, something that’s hard to separate from the show’s writers.
The writer’s room for “I Love Dick” was made up entirely of female and gender non-conforming people. In 2017, despite some progress, Hollywood remains overwhelmingly white, straight and male. And often, the lack of diversity that we see on screen can be traced to the people behind what’s on screen: the writers, producers, and directors.
“I Love Dick” centers its women characters. (Though the show’s cisgender, straight, male characters, are also some of the most complex and fascinating I’ve seen on TV.) As HuffPost’s Priscilla Frank put it: ”‘I Love Dick’ is a triumphant scrambling of art and life, a ‘matriarchal revolution,’ a battle cry for any woman who has yearned to make something of herself, while only ever knowing how to criticize herself.”
In a political moment where it can feel as though everything is at stake, it’s easy to write off pop culture as frivolous ― something we consume to distract ourselves from the outside world, rather than impact it. But what if television isn’t just an escape? At its best, pop culture allows us, even forces us, to rework and expand our notion of what normal is. It lets us practice radical empathy without even realizing it.
HuffPost spoke with Soloway and “I Love Dick” co-creator, Sarah Gubbins, about the making of the show, and subtle revolution that comes from letting women and gender non-conforming people shape their own on-screen narratives.
HuffPost: Did you go into the creation of “I Love Dick” knowing that you wanted to put together an all-woman and gender non-conforming writer’s room?
Jill Soloway: I’d learned, when we were looking for trans writers on “Transparent” that I couldn’t actually ever say, “I would like to hire a trans writer.” I had to say things like, “I would like to hire somebody who’s very familiar with the trans experience.” So, I guess I would say in this case, we wanted to hire people who we felt were familiar with the experiences that Chris [Kraus] had. And it turned out, of the people we spoke to, the people who were the most likely to write about this in the most fearless, bombastic, vulnerable human way ended up being all women and gender non-conforming people.
“Cis men grow up assuming the world is meant for them and that they are the subjects. So as you start to move that and pull this subjectivity into femaleness, I think it makes men uncomfortable.”
Sarah Gubbins: It wasn’t something where we said, “OK, when they pick us up and we put together a writer’s room, we’re going to make sure that it’s all women.” When Jill and I were talking about the kind of writers that we were interested in, whose work we are attracted to, and we thought would make great additions to the show, the list was a lot of women. At a certain point, we kind of looked at that and thought, “You know, I think we should just, uh, have an all female and gender non-conforming kind of room.”
I think what later emerged was as we were talking about the kind of show that we were making, and our hopes for the season, we knew that we were going to be bringing in the ways that Chris Kraus the author brought her own biography so intensely to the character of Chris Kraus. We knew that were going to be doing that in terms of when we were bringing our stories, and our experiences, and our point of views as it pertained to our genders. I think it just made sense. It actually was more nuanced than us just kicking it going, “Let’s only have chicks.”
What do you say to people who say it’s “unfair” or “discriminatory” to have a writers room without cisgender men in it?
Soloway: There’s a false equivalency that is a lot of people’s first response to these things. They say, “Well, isn’t that discrimination?” And I think, you have to really kind of knock that argument off ― or not knock off the argument, but take it in. You have to ask, “What are we doing when we create spaces that are all one anything?” And I think a lot of women feel like it’s about [creating a] safe space. And by safe space I don’t mean, “Oh, nobody’s going to offend my sensibilities,” because it was a really, really dirty room. And it’s not safe from being triggered, ’cause I’m sure, you know, there were all kinds of things that got said that were totally painful to hear and to say.
So this when I want to talk about false equivalencies. Like if somebody was to say to Donald Glover [who put together an all-black writer’s room on ‘Atlanta’], “Oh, would it right for me to have an all white men writer’s room?” You’d have to be like, “Well, no,” because there has been all-white, male writer’s rooms since forever. And so again, I’m gonna do one last comparison. If somebody said to Donald Glover, “Hey, you just need at least one white guy in [the ‘Atlanta’ writer’s room]. You must have at least one guy in there to make sure that your content is dot dot dot, question mark.” To make sure that your content is what? Approved by white people? Makes sense to white people? That would be a totally insane thing to say. It would be an insane thing to demand. And so, for women, it’s the same thing.
Were there conversations that you think wouldn’t have happened had there been cis men in the writers room?
Soloway: I think a lot of women have grown up being told unconsciously, “Just be a little bit careful. Shape what you’re saying. Shade what you’re doing. Massage who you are just a little bit to make sure that men feel comfortable.” So when you don’t have that male perspective in the room, what happens is that women start to really relax and really let their guard down, and really take off that discernment that says, “Well, hold on a second. Don’t do that, ’cause that’s ugly.” Or, “Don’t do that because it’s too slutty.” Or, “Don’t do that because it’s too sad.”
I think it felt like a relief for the women in the writers room to not feel like they were being kept in check by a guy, or multiple guys, who would be representing something that would so-called “normal.” I think we were trying to upend what normal meant. And a lot of the women in the writer’s room had been the only woman in another writer’s room.
Again, cis men grow up assuming the world is meant for them and that they are the subjects. So as you start to move that and pull this subjectivity into femaleness, I think it makes men uncomfortable.
Gubbins: I think there’s a line in the book: “What women say to each other is the most interesting thing right now.” I think there are very aware, dare I say “woke,” cis dudes that probably could participate in those conversations, and weave space, and be observers to what those conversations would be and not active authors. But I think it was easier that we weren’t negotiating that.
A lot has been written about how “I Love Dick” embraces the “female gaze.” Can you talk about what leaning into the female gaze meant to you in terms of the way the show came together?
Soloway: I think my understanding of the binary is shifting and it feels a little bit reductive to just say the female gaze is the opposite of the male gaze. We know that “male gaze” means more than just a picture of a woman in a bikini. And we know that the “female gaze” means more than just Kevin Bacon’s butt as he goes into the water. I think of [the female gaze] as a filmmaking tool that I use.
Here’s a perfect example of what the female gaze is. You know that scene where Toby [an academic and artist studying in Marfa] was sitting in the middle of all those men? [Editor’s note: The episode shows Toby live-streaming herself laying nude in the middle of an oil camp.] Jim Frohna, who’s a man, he shot it and he did a great job. But when I watched it, there [was] something missing. And we went back and shot some more, and this tim he took his pants off and sat in his boxers in the middle of the circle as he filmed. He sort of became Toby. He wanted to record how it felt to be her, instead of look at her. It was amazing.
Gubbins: Every step of the way of making the show was an investigation into what it meant to try to enact the female gaze. I think it meant the way in which we actually made the show, the way we actually shot the show. The kind of set that Soloway has put together is an incredibly inclusive one where they really don’t rush. They don’t worry about time. They really just try to stay as emotionally honest and present as possible. It’s leading with those kinds of intentions and principles as a guide post.
I just don’t think there’s one easy definition for this is what the female gaze means, like “this is how you make a television show shot in the female gaze.” I think it’s intention, it’s process, it’s deliberation, and it, for me, always was about giving Chris Kraus agency and a voice. That also meant she wasn’t going to be contained in one rendition, and that she was going to be complicated, and sometimes frustratingly abject. She didn’t have to be an ideal for us. That’s part of broadening the idea of the protagonist.
Episode 5, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” which shows four female characters ― Chris, Toby, Devon and Paula ― speaking about their sexualities and sexual histories straight to camera, was a revelation for me. I really felt like I had never seen anything like it before. Can you talk a little bit about that episode?
Soloway: We were trying to get really granular, naming our moments of witnessing our younger selves and how we came into contact with the idea of sexual shame. And I think that in a room with all women, we felt compelled to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Because we weren’t just trying to do that extra bit of shading that you start to do when there’s a cis man around.
Gubbins: We really started with the book, and we started with our responses to the book. In investigating the book, you really do spend time thinking about Chris’s history of desire and shame, and the shame that she felt in her sexuality, and her heterosexualness ― being a feminist, but also being so abject in her obsession. That led us down a path of talking about what our own personal histories were, and it led us back to childhood and when we first understood that we were sexual beings, and being sexualized, and our relationship to that.
Then Annie Baker and Heidi Schreck, [who wrote the episode], I remember they spent a weekend watching experimental films from feminist filmmakers. You really thought of giving voice to all the women, or major women characters in the show, in the ways that we were sharing those conversations about ourselves, our mothers, our sisters, our friends. So, that really is how the episode was born.
Why do you think that in 2017, there’s still something jarring about seeing women’s desires laid bare?
Gubbins: Because we don’t see it. You think about the ways in which we’re accustomed to seeing violence, or we’re accustomed to seeing a hyper-sexualized female bodies, or desexualized intelligent female bodies. We have a tradition and a long history of bifurcating our female protagonist. It’s part of what our culture does to women.
Even in the 40 years since Roe V. Wade, it’s like we still have yet to give women complete control of their bodies. I’m not [taking] a political position here, I’m just saying this is our culture. We have a vice president who won’t go to dinner with a woman, for fear that it might be somehow inappropriate to his marriage. This is someone who is leading our government. So, there is still space for that kind of bifurcation. So, I don’t think that when popular culture is reflecting what’s happening in our political climate that we’ve ever kind of come out the other side.
“[Women are] hungry to be seen. It’s a basic human want.”
Soloway: [“I Love Dick”] exists as a corrective for the way that so many young women see female bodies and sex, which is like, “My body has to be perfect. I have to hold my stomach in. I need to make the right kinds of noises. I need to make the right kinds of faces.” These things that kind of get in us when we’re teenagers about what sex is, and it really is about experiencing ourselves as the object while we’re having sex.
These things don’t go away easily. They stay with us into our 20s, and they stay with us into our 30s. And you’re kind of always having to experiencing yourself through the eyes of others if you’re a woman in America. This is how we all grew up: This is sexy. This girl in Playboy. Then there’s some other kind of sex that other people might be having, and I don’t know what that is, but it’s gross. It’s not sexy, it’s gross. Everything that’s not a beautiful girl looking beautiful is disgusting.
And so, sometimes it’s those little things. I think about what would it have been like for me if I were 19 or 20 and I was in college, and I had seen [the kind of sexuality that’s portrayed on “Dick”], not only on TV, but on TV with that stamp that says, “Yeah, this is a regular television show. This is just people. This isn’t anything weird.”
So, what power do TV shows have in expanding ― or limiting ― our ideas of what is possible and acceptable?
Gubbins: Pop culture allows a viewer to come in and exercise their imagination and to have an empathetic experience, be it through humor, through drama. That’s what we do when we consume pop culture. We have an empathetic exchange. By allowing people to experience the fullness of a very controlled gender dynamic, I think it allows them to alter their perceptions. There’s an engagement that they have with characters.
I think [TV can] demystify things that seem scary or are misunderstood. I’m thinking about the way in which gay culture has evolved, and the ways in which our representation of queer culture on TV has allowed for some sort of acceptance and normality at an accelerated rate that legislation alone couldn’t tackle. That’s a very positive belief, but I think it is the power of storytelling, and I think we have this great ability to entertain people, make them laugh, and make them feel things that they didn’t expect to. We get to do that, and we get to do it on a show where we get to represent ourselves. I think people, women especially, are hungry for that. They’re hungry to be seen. It’s a basic human want.
Soloway: There are so many shows that are hypnotic suggestions about how girls act and how women act. And those are things that make me crazy. I think about growing up on “The Love Boat,” watching “The Love Boat” and just watching the way an attractive man would be fought over by two really hot women. And sometimes, I can just get so enraged when I think about that as the writer of that show, writing his own propaganda of how he wishes the world were for him.
That writing really is propaganda for the self. I know it more than ever with “Transparent” and “Dick,” is that I’m a writing a reality. I’m writing a reality that I want to live in. And men have been doing that to us since forever, and then you start to kind of wake up to it, you know? And you realize even something that might be an earnest, creative submission to the canon by another white, heterosexual cis male really is also propaganda.
Is the answer just to have a wider variety of people making that “propaganda”?
Soloway: I just think get the tools in other people’s hands ― in the hands of women, in the hands of people of color, in the hands of queer people ― and start to share the wealth a little bit. That storytelling really does create empathy. It really, really does. I mean, I’ve been the beneficiary of that. I look at the very moment where my parent came out to me on the telephone, and in the very first moments and days my first feelings were fear. And I remember thinking, how am I going to tell my friends? How am I going to tell my in-laws? How am I going to tell my kids?
And then to look here four years later, now, and see what “Transparent” was able to do out of just that one feeling of trying to create a safe place for myself to live in. For my dad to live in. For my family to live in. To make it OK. And it actually made it OK. That’s the crazy part. Is that it actually worked.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.