Dissecting Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway’s Clash Over Trans Representation on TV

What do you do when the creators of your two favorite shows butt heads about an issue that’s fundamental to each superlative series? When taking either side feels like a form of disloyalty? You dissect until, perhaps, the sides take themselves. Or, in the case of a recent Jeni Kohan/Jill Soloway debate, Kohan’s outspokenness ends up exposing that she may have been in the wrong.

To my chagrin, Vulture reported that this weekend, at a panel discussing LGBTQ TV for the New Yorker Festival, Jenji Kohan had beef with Jill Soloway’s “trans affirmative action” program. The program in question involves Soloway’s quest to hire a trans TV writer for the second season of Transparent.

It is rather an involved quest (and one that risks sounding like a reality-TV competition): as the TV world seems to be lacking in trans writers, Soloway and co. have been reading through short stories by trans women, five of whom she and her team will help develop their own spec scripts. Only one will be the winner! — but the others will have a script that they can use to kick-start a TV-writing career. Luckily, the process won’t be televised, and they won’t all be cohabiting in a tacky loft bedecked in hidden cameras, and none of them will have to use the Bluefly Accessories Wall or worry about disappointing Nina Garcia. Rather, says Soloway, the Transparent team is doing this to “help make trans women TV writers by teaching them how to write.” Here’s a rundown of the debate:

Kohan first made Soloway’s angle for inclusivity seem like misguided — or even rookie-ish — idealism, stating, “I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate.”

Soloway then defended her choice: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be otherizing Maura [Jeffrey Tambor’s character] in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers’ room full of men and we can write women just fine.’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me. It’s absolutely necessary, and it’s gonna change the show.”

Later, Kohan seemed to have slyly returned to the argument, while talking about the OITNB writer who left her husband for Samira Wiley, who plays Poussey Washington on the show: “I turned her gay. I made her gay. I felt there wasn’t enough balance in the room, so I have a magic wand and I make people gay.”

The male gaze was also discussed — with Soloway saying she was almost driven to tears while filming a sex scene with Gaby Hoffman and trying to assert, to a male producer, her vehemence about not objectifying the actress. Kohan responded, rather bluntly, that she just wants to make a good scene, gaze be damned, essentially. Overall, in these quotes, Kohan comes across as somewhat antagonistic — dogmatically anti-dogma, a pragmatist concerned first and foremost with getting the job done, prizing a socially important written product over a socially important writing process. Ultimately, she seemed out to make Soloway’s sensitivity seem unrealistic.

It reflects Kohan’s earlier statement on NPR that OITNB‘s white, middle-class protagonist “Piper was [her] Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.” Back when Kohan said this, the statement seemed startlingly blunt — even insensitive — in its authoritative willingness to pander to what white men might want in order to get results that non-white non-men might actually relate to. But if people don’t understand a system and act within it, it’s quite hard to overturn it, and indeed, her resulting show seems to have helped at least begin to overturn people’s notions of what the world wants to watch. With Piper’s narrative stepping out of the spotlight somewhat in the second season, Kohan kept her word, and proved that her strategy had worked. This is why, perhaps, we shouldn’t immediately discredit Kohan’s critique.

What Kohan seemed to be criticizing Soloway for is othering through the very fear of othering: it’s a tough but easy trap. To worry that an experience is so different from your own that you couldn’t portray it authentically — to go so out of your way as to Eliza Doolittle a non-TV writer based solely on their gender identity — obviously could risk creating new borders. But that’s not really Soloway’s approach, and ultimately the argument against this form of affirmative action begins to echo the rantings of a certain Nickelodeon enthusiast.

It’s greatly to Soloway’s credit that she isn’t Lena Dunhaming — recall that Dunham’s response to a lack of diversity was something along the lines of explaining, “This isn’t my experience, I don’t want to tokenize,” and using that as an excuse to basically give up. Soloway started out with a show whose sole purpose was depicting experiences of alterity, and — after one of the most socio-sexually nuanced seasons of television in recent memory — now wants to give it even more nuance, to make it even more accurate, more inclusive. And ultimately, despite certain concerns, I don’t see how this could be any kind of a problem. Soloway’s claim that it’s strange for a group of non-trans writers to be approximating an experience is quite apt.

Alas, here’s that un-killable argument of whether you have to have lived something to write it or to act it. You don’t. The problem only lies in occurrences of misrepresentation and under-representation (which is obviously caused by the fear of approaching issues outside of your realm of experience), which I don’t believe Transparent can be accused of — at all. And that’s just another reason why Soloway’s search for this trans writer seems wholly reasonable, and Kohan’s idea of what exactly it means comes across as myopic: Soloway isn’t reacting to criticism or scrambling to find something because her show is in trouble. Her show was astonishingly assured, and critically adored: rather than patting herself on the back, she’s seeing that there’s still more she can do.

Of course, even with a trans writer, it’ll still be an approximation; one person’s experience is one person’s experience, and Maura is a character — but wouldn’t it be great if this program further deepens a character whose depth has already been celebrated? I doubt Soloway is going to create a stratified writers room where only the trans writer will be able to touch Maura’s character. So wouldn’t it be great — since this show is not so much about the transition from male to female, but the transition from alienation to inclusion — to have the writing process be more inclusive?

I love OITNB and Transparent, but the polarity of the creators’ debates is apparent in the very types of shows they’ve created. Kohan is known for an over-implementation of shocking plot-twists. Her dialogue is wonderful but somewhat ostentatiously witty, and it’s a wit that pervades. It’s the language of all characters; everyone comes out sounding somewhat Kohan-ized. The episodes address serious issues, but they’re often at the service of a plot: Kohan’s shows are smart, spectacular entertainment, but they are sensationalized, and rarely resemble real life. And that’s totally cool — in fact, it’s awesome.

Soloway just happens to be going for another awesome thing. Her characters — despite their plethora of secrets, and the odd ways they handle and mishandle repression — are so closely studied that the plot, unlike that of a Kohan show, is subservient to its characters. It seems to stem from the smallness of, say, Jeffrey Tambour assuming male-perfoming gestures when in the presence of Maura’s son, or Gaby Hoffman’s character suddenly wearing lipstick. There’s a hugeness to the show’s attention to small, gendered signifiers, and in order to maintain this magnified mode of storytelling, it makes so much sense that Jill Soloway would go through the trouble of training a trans writer with no TV experience. If Jill Soloway were making a Jenji Kohan show, perhaps Jenji Kohan’s critiques of her process would seem more applicable.