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If Jill Soloway Can’t Get Trans Characters Right, Nobody Else Can Hope To, Either


Jill Soloway just won an Emmy for directing the Amazon TV series “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor, who also just won an Emmy for portraying a trans woman on the critically acclaimed show. In most cases this kind of acclaim would be occasion for a little celebration, but for Soloway, the success of the third season of her cutting-edge show brought self-recrimination instead. In an interview in Vulture, the director announced “the time has come where it’s unacceptable for cis men to play trans women.”

What’s a little strange here, or in Soloway’s words “ironic,” is that Tambor is a non-gender-transitioning actor who not only played, but also continues to play, a trans woman in Soloway’s show. In his acceptance speech, Tambor said he would be fine with being the “last cisgender man to play a trans woman.” Apparently back in the dark ages four years ago, when the show started, Soloway’s casting choice was not only acceptable, but heroic. Things change fast. She explains her error in the interview:

It definitely started in a different time. And my ignorance, I lead with my ignorance, is that I really didn’t understand anything with the trans civil-rights movement when I created the show. I’m lucky that we’ve had so much support from the trans community and that we’ve brought so many trans people in, so the show feels like a hub of a trans community. At this point, as a feminist, I’m getting tired of white cis men writing about sex workers. [She goes on to list a number of things that non-gender-transitioning, white men should shut up about.]

We note in passing that, notwithstanding Soloway’s realization of her ignorance, she is continuing the lucrative show into a fourth season. Principles are nice, but Emmys are so shiny.

The real issue here, however, is not Soloway’s blatant hypocrisy, but the gaping holes this casting controversy exposes in the trans movement’s ever-changing narrative. The existence of his penis now apparently makes Tambor unfit to play a trans woman. But, according to the trans movement, a penis has nothing to do with making someone a man or a woman.

Trans Women Are Women, But Women Can’t Play Them

A non-gender-transitioning woman is just as much not a trans woman as a non-gender-transitioning man. According to some sources, having non-gender-transitioning women play trans women is also problematic. This leaves us being told by trans activists that, even though trans women are women, period (!), they are also a unique class of woman whose experiences must not be artistically appropriated—although presumably it is wonderful for trans women (or, as some consider them, men) to play roles written for women.

If trans actors are the only ones who can portray trans characters, and the industry is allocating more roles to trans characters, and trans actors are also able to play gender-accurate characters, then ought trans actors be admitted to acting programs or signed by agents at a higher rate than their gender-accurate female counterparts simply because they are imminently more hirable?

Is this good for the industry overall? It’s been a long time since Mickey Rooney played Audrey Hepburn’s over-the-top Chinese immigrant neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and since then the push for characters to be played by actors who match the racial and ethnic breakdown of their roles has been strong and effective. Underrepresented groups have also pushed for entertainment media to portray the individuals in their group in ways that contrast negative stereotypes.

But when does the reasonable push for inclusion become a demand for control over storytelling? Is it reasonable for groups of individuals who are bound together by shared identifiers to control entertainment narratives about themselves? At what point will activists demand that only trans writers be hired to tell trans stories? Diversity on stage, screen, and in the writer’s room has more to do with diversity of talent, making sure that writers and performers with talent from diverse backgrounds are given a chance to prove their stuff. Diversity is about opportunity, not about dictating narrative or presentation.

An Attempt to Make Words Meaningless

The trans movement and its allies in entertainment are trying to alter words by shaming people who have internalized their dictionary definitions. They are trying to redefine gender as unassociated with biology and as associated with an outward expression of personal individuality while using societal stereotypes to determine the categories of man and woman.

Meanwhile, removing the traditional definitions of gender destroys the usefulness of those functional stereotypes, or identifiers. Those definitions, such as playing with dolls and wearing dresses, apply to the biological reality of men and women, but if biological reality is no longer relevant in determining gender, then the existing identifiers based upon biological differences between men and women no longer function, because they are symbols that reference nothing.

What is a child referencing when claiming to be a gender that opposes his or her biological reality? What is the difference between a child saying “I wish I were a boy,” and a child saying “I am a boy”? Is the latter spoken by a child who is more in touch with the necessary concept that what one wishes doesn’t always come true? The trans movement is splitting the definition, or identity, of women into a physical, ontological reality and an ages-old story about what a woman really is.

For trans advocates, codified gender norms only exist so transgender people have a norm to live up to. Yet women have been battling against many such norms both publicly and privately since at least the suffragette movement.

There Is No Such Thing as a Woman

What happens to transgenderism if gender is abolished, washed away as nothing more than fashion sense? If girls have mustaches, britches, and tight muscles, and men wear dresses, heels, and make-up and pose for pin-up calendars in garter belts and thigh-highs, what, exactly, does it mean to feel female or to feel male? Men can be femme, women can be butch; many are, and they wear it well. We cannot simultaneously believe that gender is a social construct and that children intrinsically know, before substantial social immersion, with which gender they identify. Two opposing concepts cannot be true.

Soloway and Tambor should be celebrating. They have done good work. They didn’t do anything wrong in bringing the trans experience to television screens as they did. But what they are doing, through backtracking and publicly shaming themselves about their own supposed ignorance, is exposing how uncertain the claims of the trans movement are and always have been.

We cannot shame people for failing to accept rules about gender that even its most strident advocates admit change on a dime. We certainly cannot legislate speech or locker-room access in the face of this uncertainty. It is time for our culture to take a deep breath on the trans issue. We are a long way from a man being accepted as a woman just because he says he is.

Soloway was right. Her putting on the hair shirt is ironic—but not because she has finally realized that she is, or was, a bigot. It’s because the very thing she told us is beyond question is more rife with questions than a “Jeopardy ”marathon. If the creator of “Transparent” is unclear about the new rules, then what chance do the rest of us have? It is time for this ontological revolution on gender to slow down. The question of gender is far from decided.