Blowing Up the Binary: How 'Transparent' Season 4 Is Personal for Jill Soloway

Transparent and inset of Jill Soloway - Getty-H 2017
Courtesy of Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios; Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fourth season of Amazon's Transparent.]

Jill Soloway isn't sure which came first.

The Transparent creator now identifies as gender non-binary and prefers to be described with the gender-neutral pronouns of they, them and their. On the fourth season of the Amazon comedy, which was released in full on Friday, the youngest of the Pfefferman clan, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), is on the brink of identifying as non-binary after years of questioning her identity.

Soloway's parent coming out as transgender in 2011 inspired the writer to create Transparent, something they now refer to as an "imaginary" world where the starring Pfefferman family functioned like "some dolls I could play with, with the therapist." Through a controllable version of their own family, Soloway grew introspective while making their art, questioning their own gender. After watching Ali's journey on the latest season — one that leaves her alone in Ramallah, opting to stay behind when her family returns to the U.S. after an enlightening trip to Israel — the link between Soloway and Ali truly starts to merge.

"I’ve lost track of what comes first," Soloway tells The Hollywood Reporter of whether they consciously or unconsciously wrote themselves into Ali's on-screen story. "Do I have an idea that I don’t want to wear makeup anymore? Is it the same time that I write that for Ali? Is it after, is it before? It’s very weird."

The fourth season of the award-winning series begins with Ali joining "moppa" Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) on a work trip to Israel. During the trip, Maura makes two startling discoveries: Not only is her father, who abandoned their family when she was a child, still alive, but he informs Maura that she isn't the first transgender person in the family (something viewers were clued in on through flashbacks in earlier seasons). While Maura is grappling with the lifelong secret that was kept from her, Ali links up with Palestinian activists and begins her own self-discovery off the beaten path. When the rest of the Pfefferman family joins them and Maura's long-lost father tours them around the Holy Land, Ali splits away to nearby Ramallah, where she confronts her own binary identities as a Jewish woman while opening her eyes to what is across the border.

Soloway has described this season as being about personal and global borders and boundaries: "The boundaries create a space for love and the borders keep people from each other. The [Pfeffermans] are all trying to figure out how the idea of God resonates in relationship to their own bodies."

For her part, Hoffmann says she and Soloway do not directly talk about the correlation between the character and Soloway's personal story. 

"We're all always in conversation about ourselves and each other, feelings and ideas, life and politics," Hoffmann tells THR. "There's just a flow to it that's integrated in every step of the process. I can't even remember a conversation over the four years where Jill and I were sitting and talking about Jill and Ali. There's Jill in all of us and none of us are in any way a comprehensive representation of Jill at any point in their lives."

Below, in a chat with THR, Soloway explains why they decided to layer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over those inside the Pfefferman family, discusses her personal journey as it parallels to Ali's story and says of the future of the series (which has already been renewed for a fifth season): "The Pfeffermans are just getting started."

This season, the Pfeffermans went to Israel. The season was shot in Los Angeles and the actors never traveled there, but you and the writers did go there for research and to capture B-roll footage. Was your trip there as transformative as what plays out?

Yes. Over the past year, I went twice. None of the actors went to Israel. That was all in L.A. A lot of what the Pfeffermans do on the trip is what we did as writers. We asked for the straightforward: what happens when American Jews go to Israel? Then as we began writing the season, we started to get to know some of the queer members who are active in some of the social justice movements in Palestine. And we slowly but surely started to understand that there was no way to do an Israel story about the modern-day queer Jewish people without talking about the way that intersectionality really often pushes people to have to choose. It’s really hard to think of yourself as a radical queer activist and be able to defend Israel. I don’t mean defending Israel’s army or policies. I think it’s pretty common among young, queer people that a lot of people don’t stand behind certain military policies. But wanting to still love Israel or the idea or county of Israel, I think, is a longing that a lot of young people have and they’re looking for a way to experience and understand how little they understand.

Ahead of the season, you joked that people would probably react by saying, "If they weren't in enough conflict to begin with, they went to Israel — what were they thinking?" Why did you set up that challenge?

We always knew we wanted to go to Israel. I met an activist who told me that it’s really interesting to watch what happens when American Jewish people feel their American Jewish privilege peeling away. Starting to understand what the cost is of the idea of Israel. I was really interested in what this activist meant and we then really wanted to begin to weave that into the story. Even humanizing people from the West Bank is something our generation, our parents and their parents, haven’t considered doing.

You began filming in the spring. How much of this season did you have in your head already and how much was influenced by the election and life after?

It wasn’t so much about the election. We were influenced more by what happened after the election, which this kind of rage amongst liberal folks about the state of the world. Israel has always had a big part in that. When you think about Trump and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, American power and Jewishness and vulnerability and safe spaces, it all just got that much more intense after Trump became president.

You challenge the binary on several levels — identifying as male or female, as Israeli or Palestinian. What was your hope with this season?

We have been slowly but surely returning to this notion of the problematic binary. So it doesn’t matter if you’re saying: Pick, you’re a woman or a man. Pick, you’re Jewish or not Jewish. Pick, you’re straight or gay. Pick, your trans or cis. We just kept noticing that all of these things could really be disappeared if you get rid of the binary and realize that people really like the idea of safety. Knowing, this is what men do and this is what women do. Sometimes I liken it to the chaos of being alive. A group of people are about to get on an elevator, the elevator doors open — who goes on first? Everybody knows: Women go first. People are so dependent on these little ways of using the binary to diminish the way of life. And then it happens in the big way where people use the binary to diminish the chaos of dying and the fear of war. "I won’t die because I’m Jewish" or "I’ll be safe because of something else." Whatever these things are, they’re about safety and fear.

Are you saying society should do away with the binary?

It’s impossible to get rid of the binary and I’m not saying to get rid of categories, I’m not saying to destroy the category of male and female, or the category of straight and gay. I’m just saying that there is a third category. There is a place in between and a lot of people are in between on a lot of issues. That in betweenness is a mushy place. I think what Trump showed is that when you pick one side and you defend that one side really hard with strong borders, you go, "All of us 'good white people' are over here and we need to protect ourselves." That feeling of "that strong man is coming to protect us" gets people really excited. What about everybody else? What can get them excited? What can get us excited? What can excite all the people who are other, who feel in between or not served by those hard borders?

Ali (Hoffmann) is the biggest vehicle for those questions this season. From the start of Transparent, Ali has always questioned her identity. Behind the scenes, you also have been questioning your own identity since writing this show, now identifying as gender non-binary.

I know. Even coming back to launch a new season and do press, and looking at the pictures of what I looked like two or three years ago.

How have you been writing through the character of Ali?

The whole show becomes this almost psychic version of my life. A lot of artists are writing things before they move from their unconscious into their conscious. A lot of people are like, “I wrote a script. It wrote itself!” And then they realize a year later that they were writing their wish, or something that was about to happen. "I couldn’t get a divorce so I wrote about a divorce." I’m really aware of that and always have been. But it is a really weird sensation when a writer goes, "I really like this for this character or it wrote itself." That’s usually because the unconscious is about to push something out.

In what ways have you seen your own unconscious come onto the page?

I’ve lost track of what comes first. Do I have an idea that I don’t want to wear makeup anymore? Is it the same time that I write that for Ali? Is it after, is it before? It’s very weird. And also, addressing how certain aspects of the binary bugged me. I felt like Shelly’s [Judith Light] whole "Mario" persona [during her improv class, Shelly adopts the persona of an older Italian man] is a whole thing I’ve been going through. How do I want to sit? How do I want to stand? What am I allowed to eat if I think of myself as more masculine? Can I have more access to my appetite? Can I have more confidence? Can I eat a big sandwich? And shame and femininity and desire. Are we ashamed of our appetite more when we’re female and if we think of ourselves as male, even in an improv class, what does that allow us to do? So, yeah, I have a pretty busy mind when it comes to all these ideas and now I can put all these things together. The Pfeffermans are like dolls and these doll versions that we’re playing with can act out these real questions.

Ali's journey to non-binary is portrayed in a way that hasn't been shown on TV. Two scenes come to mind. The first is when Ali is hooking up with the activist, Lyfe, in Ramallah and realizes, "I never even thought about keeping my bra on during sex." Why was it important to show the curiosity, the steps that she goes through and why did you stop short of having her fully identify as non-binary in the end?

By the end, we got close. I think we had written that Ali was going to be identifying as non-binary by the end of the season, but then as we started to really write it and live it, it just felt fast. But I think it’s interesting because when people come out as trans or gay and are asked when they knew, people say, “I knew when I was 3.” When people come out as non-binary, no one really knows what that looks like. How does that journey begin? I’m living it. I think my sister is living it a little bit. We’re both like, “What if non-binary had been an option for us as children?” Can you imagine your mom saying, “You might be a boy. You might be a girl. You might be something that is sort of in between and both and neither.” I think we would have both been like, “Ok, we’ll take the both, in between and neither. We’ll see what happens and I’ll let you know later.”

That may be an option for a lot of kids in the future. So when you realize that there are so many young people who identify as gender non-binary that it may end up being a real gender designation and you start to think about who you would be had you had access to that genderlessness, or that ungendering of your own self, you can’t help but reconsider how your whole life would have been.

That also happens with Maura (Tambor) making this family discovery, when she says, “I was alone in this. Why didn’t anyone tell me?” This season explores identity through genetics and family. Do you believe it is inherited?

I think it’s both. I think there are genetics that are gender noncomforming. I think there are people in generations and generations of family when people look back and think, “Oh, yeah. All of my aunts were very man-ish.” There are so many ways of being gender nonconforming. There are a whole bunch of intersex conditions that don’t even go under the transbrella right now. But so many people who are born with intersex conditions, their parents keep it a secret from them, doctors do surgeries on babies and some don’t even know. People don’t like the idea that somebody could be of both genders genetically, physically and biologically, so doctors do all these things to normalize the binary.

Imagine who we would be and who intersex children would be if they were able to be born into a world that said, “Fantastic! How lucky you are, mom, to have this kid who is this, who are themselves!” I find myself often drifting into intersex arguments because there is physical evidence so people can see, “Oh, this person is intersex.” Or there is a blood test and you can see this person has both chromosomes.

How close do you think society is to recognizing this in betweenness, or what you are calling a third gender?

It’s not that I’m advocating for blood tests for transness but people are very suspicious if they can’t see something with their own eyes, and yet there are all kinds of conditions and ways of being different and special that there are no blood tests for. I really think we’re on the verge of people being able to identify as a third gender within that identification. It could be transness, it could be intersex, it could be non-binary. Just this third option. And, what would that third option offer people, emotionally? For me, it has so many potential results. I’m thinking about consent, and I think about consent all the time. Why is it always a woman who is disbelieved and a man who is believed? Josh’s [Jay Duplass] line this season, when he says, "An erection is not consent." That was such a huge notion when we thought of it and it’s true. People think that men are consenting 100 percent of the time and people when they think about rape with men, they think it involves some sort of forced intercourse. Or how the family immediately jumped to Lyla's [Alia Shawkat] defense and assumed her relationship with Sarah [Amy Landecker] and Len [Rob Huebel] was Len’s choice and that he did it all. People laminate "doing" unto men. They laminate "done to" unto women. That’s just regular Western thought. What would a third gender do to those notions?

The other scene I was referring to above is when the family is in the Dead Sea and finds out from Maura that Ali is non-binary. They have a very honest chat about using gender-neutral pronouns. Is that something you’ve experienced in your own life?

I use non-binary pronouns but I’m never touchy about them. While promoting the show on a panel, everyone was gendering me female and I didn’t stop them because it happens all the time. It’s so hard for people to get and to use the “they” pronoun. It’s hard for me to remember. For me, using non-binary pronouns is almost an ideal world. When people do it and remember to do it, I get all excited. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. That’s right!” They, neither, both. I can be either, both, neither and all the time, I can be switching. It always feels like a kind of cool, respectful space to live in. Almost like a fantasy future space. But I never give people a hard time about it.

You have half-joked about doing 10 seasons of Transparent. You said you don't map it out in your head, so do you look at what this season gave you and then think about how much more story there is for you to do next?

Yes. I definitely am starting to see season five already and so are the other writers. We left Ali in Israel, so we have to figure out what’s happening to her. I don’t know if she’s staying there — I don’t want to tell you! But the Pfeffermans really are totally generative. They give birth to so much and I really do feel like they are just getting started. Maura is definitely just getting started. She’s just figuring out who she’s attracted to and it’s complicated when your gender changes. I don’t think trans people really want cis people asking right away, “If your gender changes, who are you attracted to?” That happens to me all the time. People who know I’m non-binary want to know, “Are you still attracted to men? Are you still attracted to women?” People who want to talk about their gender quickly get forced into talking about their sexuality for people who want to understand. The two are pretty unrelated.

Maura does end up identifying as a "heterosexual woman" and introduces boyfriend Donald (John Getz) to the family. Can you explain how she got there?

When my parent first came out, that’s what a lot of people wanted to know. “Does this mean your dad is gay?" I would say, "No, she’s a woman." And then get asked, "Who is she sleeping with?” Why do people need to know this? She’s the same person she always was. It’s the same with Caitlyn Jenner. She was attracted to women, she’s still attracted to women. So that’s something trans people want people to understand. Just because you change your gender, it doesn’t change who you are attracted to. Yet, once you get deeper and deeper into trans life, and you start to understand all the iterations, what Maura said was true. Some people are actually heterosexual. If you’re heterosexual and you transition, now you’re actually going to be attracted to the opposite sex — but you’re still heterosexual. So, it’s complicated. You have to go really deep in to understand the nuances. There are no right answers and there are no mistakes because the train is moving so quickly and people are learning so much. I just feel lucky that we get to be making art in the midst of so much.

Transparent is now streaming all 10 episodes on Amazon Prime Video. Tell THR what you think about the new season in the comments below and check back in with Live Feed for more from the cast this week.