'Transparent' Creator Jill Soloway on the Arts and Civil Rights

Vivienne Flesher

The creator of the hit Amazon series speaks about how art encourages empathy in everyone.

I think the biggest thing standing in the way of tolerance is when people say, “I don’t know anyone who is black or transgender or queer.” What television does is bring those kinds of people right into your living room. Roger Ebert called filmmaking an “empathy machine.” The very technology of story is that it takes a viewer and puts them in the body and the seat of another person, what they’re feeling, their ups and downs and challenges.

You don’t have to be Jewish or trans to connect with Transparent. The total shock and upside to writing a show based on my family’s story was that people all over the country and all over the planet enjoyed it. And because they enjoyed it, it might be able to have some effect on civil and human rights. A lot of people feel that politics follows public opinion. So when you change the way that people feel about something, you are changing the culture, and the culture can lead in terms of laws and policy.

You can write a million pamphlets about trans people, and you can write books about what it means to be trans, but when you watch one scene with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor’s character) and feel your way to an emotion aligning with Maura, you can be transformed. Art is being present to an unfolding story about somebody’s soul. I think art is not just a thing that can save us, but it’s the thing. —As told to Rachel Hurn