It’s a reliable stage in the cycle of auteur deification that has emerged over the last few years: creator breaks out and acquires rabid fan base; creator, being human, messes up; creator sees fans rip apart the pedestal they were placed on, whether they asked to be there or not. Azealia Banks goes through this every few weeks, sometimes every few minutes — witness the Hot 97 interview where she simultaneously calls out Iggy Azalea’s appropriation and dismisses Bill Cosby’s public reckoning as racism. SNL‘s Michael Che went from being lauded as Weekend Update‘s first-ever black co-anchor to being derided as an asshole who couldn’t admit catcalling sucks in less than a month. And now, it’s Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s turn.
Soloway posted the above image to her 9000 Facebook fans Thursday night, putting her in the less-than-desirable company of InTouch magazine as yet another prominent voice speculating about the gender identity of Bruce Jenner. Immediately and predictably, social media answered Soloway’s call to “Tell me if it’s wrong,” including a lengthy series of tweets from writer Tom Léger arguing, among other things, that the post “is evidence that [Transparent] is rotten at its core… Transparent is a show about how difficult it is to be a cis person who knows a trans person and can’t just cut them out of your life.” Trans blogger Amelia vowed to “never ever trust or give a pass to a cisgender person telling trans stories.”
To be absolutely clear, Soloway’s post was wrong. I’ve argued before that public figures have the right to keep their sexual identity private, and that principle holds just as true, if not even more so, for gender. Jenner doesn’t just deserve to decide whether or when he comes out as a trans woman, or any identity other than cisgender male — and because he hasn’t, I’m referring to Jenner as “he” — he deserves to do so without becoming a punchline. (And judging by the not-as-objectionable-but-still-gross decision to represent Kim entirely with an ass shot, that photo’s definitely meant more as a joke than a sign of support.) Soloway should have known better, and since the post was taken down and replaced by an apology calling it “horrible judgment” to share what she now realizes is “a cruel mockery of the journey Bruce Jenner may or may not be undertaking,” it looks like she now does.
It also seems, however, like Soloway is vulnerable to the pattern of deification and rejection I pointed out at the beginning of this post. Soloway is a cis woman who also happens to be the driving force behind the most prominent source of trans representation in contemporary pop culture. In some ways, this rightfully makes her an object of skepticism and scrutiny; in others, it also means she’s expected to never, ever screw up or face never-agains from fans like Léger and Amelia. That’s an expectation that, say, showrunners who don’t have a single trans character or stand-ups who drop the word “tranny” on a nightly basis blithely do without.
Soloway’s post doesn’t invalidate the tremendously nuanced trans character she made the center of her show, nor does it reveal the show’s secretly bigoted nature. I take serious issue, for example, with Léger’s take on the series. It’s true that Transparent is arguably more about the Pfefferman children’s relationship with Maura than it is about Maura herself; but there’s also nothing wrong with exploring Sarah, Josh, and Allie’s reactions, nor making those reactions deeply flawed (particularly when the kids’ character development doesn’t come at the expense of Maura’s). Art where all characters act in perfectly accepting and socially accepted ways is art that’s ineffective at best and dishonest at worst.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Soloway has said something objectionable about Jenner, or even a trans public figure. In this interview from September, Soloway admits that she “really hope[s]” Jenner is transitioning, because trans issues would be “even more in the zeitgeist if that’s true.” It’s an insensitive statement that, in my opinion, reveals the genuinely good but mistaken intentions behind the Facebook post: Soloway wants more trans visibility. She also, tellingly, says she relates more to the Kardashian sisters than to Jenner himself, yet another reminder that Soloway is writing from the perspective of a cis child of a trans person rather than a trans person.
The interview also includes the following comment, which seems far worse than the Jenner photo and presumably would have drawn much more attention if it had appeared yesterday rather than several months ago: “When I heard R. Kelly’s child is in transition, it’s like, what other choice would R. Kelly’s kid have? If R. Kelly is your dad… how in the world could you possibly grow up with that dad?”
What’s changed between then and now is Soloway’s public profile. When the Out interview went up, Transparent hadn’t even been released yet, and Soloway wasn’t yet idealized as the perfect cis ally. She’s not, obviously, and no cis person is — the perfect ally doesn’t exist, and admitting that is a key component of allyship.
And because all allies screw up, particularly when they’re given as wide and public a platform as Soloway’s, there has to be a way to atone for those screw-ups that’s not losing the opportunity to share their flawed but groundbreaking work. Transparent is neither perfect nor immune from criticism; it’s still a milestone in television. Holding art, and artists, to a standard of perfection-or-rejection promises to make sure those milestones never happen.