What Can We Learn From Transparent’s #MeToo Mess?

Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

In this week’s The Hollywood Reporter, Jeffrey Tambor speaks out about being fired from Transparent following sexual-harassment allegations made by former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette. In October, Barnes accused Tambor of patting her on the butt and making sexually suggestive comments, as well as verbal abuse; later, she alleged that he watched her sleep. Soon after, Lysette, who plays Shea on Transparent, claimed Tambor had made unsolicited passes at her, and at one point thrust his genitals up against her on set. In February, after an internal investigation, Jill Soloway fired him from the show.

In numerous statements and now again in the THR piece, Tambor has insisted that — while he could often be bad-tempered and difficult to work with — he never sexually harassed anyone. He dismisses the allegations as part of a deliberate coup to oust him. He points to the fact that many in the trans community had long been unhappy with having a cisgender man in Transparent’s lead role, and both of his accusers are trans women.

The THR piece claims to be the first time a high-profile subject of #MeToo accusations has sat for an in-depth interview. Replete with glossy photos and sympathetic details, the story is inevitably tipped in Tambor’s favor, with reporter Seth Abramovitch touting the actor’s case as “one of the most complex cases of the #MeToo era” and “a dizzying tale entangled in Rashomon-like perspectives and political trip wires.”

Yet any story involving accusation and denial necessarily contains Rashomon-like perspectives — or, to put it less cinematically, conflicting accounts. Tambor would have you think that his case is a #MeToo outlier, a rare case of miscarried justice resulting from the “politicized atmosphere” afflicting his workplace (as he said in a statement). But if Tambor’s story is uniquely complicated and interesting, that’s not so much because of the nature of the allegations but rather the response from the people around him. In particular, the piece shines a harsh light on Transparent creator Jill Soloway and their sister, writer/producer Faith Soloway, who exemplify just how complicated these sorts of cases can be when they play out in real life, instead of being debated in theoretical terms.

Tambor is not a Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose–sized villain, operating in a toxic workplace designed to insulate him from his misdeeds. He’s an actor who had until recently been touted as an ally of the LGBTQ community, working in one of TV’s most liberal spaces. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a workplace more progressive than that of Transparent. While it has received criticism from the trans community, the show has also received widespread mainstream acclaim for advancing the cultural narrative about gender and sexuality. And as the conversation about trans representation in pop culture has evolved, both thanks to and in response to the show, Transparent has shown its capacity to evolve in turn. In response to early criticisms that the show elided the stories of trans characters, Soloway expanded the show’s narrative to include more trans women, as well as hiring more trans writers. On a personal level, the show has helped Jill Soloway come to a deeper understanding of their own identity; they came out as non-binary and now go by they/them pronouns.

“It really opened up all of our examinations of sexuality and gender,” Jill’s sister and co-writer Faith Soloway told me in an interview last year, saying a genderqueer identity similarly “feels right.” Likewise, as trans activism has increased over the past few years, the dissonance of having a cis man play TV’s most significant trans female character became increasingly evident, and Jill Soloway has been open about their shifting views on this subject. While they initially defended Tambor’s casting, in a 2016 Vulture interview Soloway declared, “The time has come where it’s unacceptable for cis men to play trans women. It’s pretty ironic coming from me, where I have a television show where a cis man plays a trans woman… 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.”

Yet even given all this, as we see from the THR piece, Jill and Faith’s first reaction was to stand behind their leading man. While it’s easy to say in retrospect that this could seem self-serving, try to imagine yourself in this position, grappling with allegations about someone you care about. It’s happening more and more often: avowed feminists are watching as their principles and the people in their lives crash against each other, as we saw with close friends and collaborators Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. While Adlon gave an empathetic statement coming out in support of C.K’s victims, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t hurting like hell. “My family and I are devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behavior by my friend and partner, Louis C.K,” she said back in November. “I feel deep sorrow and empathy for the women who have come forward … I am processing and grieving and hope to say more as soon as I am able.”

Soon after the allegations broke, Faith wrote to Tambor, “We are in a coup. You are fucking fantastic. You have changed the world. We have changed the world. We will get through this. Love, love, love, Faith.” Jill Soloway also sent an email in to Tambor in which they said, “They have been after Maura from the beginning.” We can’t know exactly what circumstances led them to feel this way — Rashomon is such a confusing movie, isn’t it? — other than to say that staunch principles don’t always correspond to the nuance of everyday life. As Soloway told THR, as a way to explain the email: “While much of the trans community immediately embraced the show, some vocally opposed the casting of a cis man, Jeffrey, in the lead role. This sentiment has persisted in parts of the community — coming up again on social media in the wake of these allegations. It was a text I wrote in frustration after pouring my heart into this show for years. I wanted to tell a story that brought power and visibility to trans people, and to my own family’s journey into understanding, acceptance, and pride.”

“Things were happening so quickly, with people being accused and held accountable by the #MeToo movement,” added Faith. “In the moment I felt that Jill and Jeffrey were under attack. I knew that some people disapproved of Jeffrey, a cisgender actor, playing Maura and I was upset that Jill, as the show’s creator, hadn’t had the opportunity to address the issue privately [before it went public].”

These responses — messy, conflicting, uncertain — are very different than the confident press release Jill Soloway ultimately sent out on February 15, after Tambor’s firing, expressing “great respect and admiration for Van Barnes and Trace Lysette, whose courage in speaking out about their experience on Transparent is an example of the leadership this moment in our culture requires.” Of course, it was important for Jill to say that. And yet this transforming response is what makes the story so interesting; here, we get to see Jill and Faith’s own real-time reckoning with changing political discourse, to watch their gut reactions tempered by a growing understanding of the larger cultural forces at work. Which is okay — even for those leading the culture, this is new territory. We are all still learning together.

“I was hoping, in those early days, before Trace’s initial statement came out, that it all could have been a big misinterpretation — that one person’s harassment is another person’s dirty joke,” Soloway told THR, adding that it took them a while to realize that the #MeToo movement was a “global tsunami — there’s nothing I could have done to stop it.” Soloway went on: “It’s not a simple case of did he do it or didn’t he do it. Nobody said he was a predator — they said he sexually harassed people. He made enemies, and I don’t think he realized he was making enemies. You have to be very, very careful if you’re a person in power and treat people very appropriately.” While this isn’t as clean as the statement Jill first gave to the press, it’s a more interesting one, one that shows how hard it can to square one’s broader beliefs about what behavior should be tolerated with the actions of someone you know and care for intimately.

Because the fact is, even the most enlightened progressives have difficulty squaring theory and real life, and most #MeToo stories don’t come prepackaged with outsize villains. A lot of harassment and assault and misconduct exist in a tricky gray area, which is part of what has allowed perpetrators to continue with impunity for so long. It’s easy enough to issue a blanket condemnation of sexual harassment and the conditions that foster it, but it’s almost impossibly difficult to issue a blanket condemnation of a friend and collaborator, especially when you’re aware of the many nuances and personalities and blurred lines inherent in your own workplace. The piece emphasizes the fact that Soloway had fostered an untraditional work environment that may have made room for such “blurred lines” (though the repeated references to this do feel a bit like a way to justify or excuse Tambor’s behavior). As one unnamed producer is quoted as saying: “It’s a really loose set. Everybody behaves in a sensual manner because it’s a show about sex.” This kind of environment is arguably incredibly narratively fruitful and emotionally liberating; it also has the potential to be dangerous, something Soloway is no doubt grappling with now.

None of which is to say that we should hold people like the Soloways or Adlon responsible for the actions of their male collaborators, or that it’s their responsibility to save us all from the bad men. Rather, it’s important to humanize what it means to both be a feminist who stands with victims and to be a human who feels feelings and who stands with your friends. This piece serves as an important reminder (at least for those who still need it) that #MeToo is not being championed by an army of harpies who feel un-conflicted and want to cut off men’s heads, but by people (mostly women) who stand to lose as well as to gain. As Rebecca Traister wrote in a piece called on the post-Weinstein reckoning: “The truth is, the risk of exposure that makes us feel anxious about the well-being of our male friends and colleagues — the risk of being named and never recovering — is one of the only things that could ever force change.” It’s essential to understand this because we could all be Jill Soloway and we could all be Pamela Adlon; most of us will, at some point, be forced to reckon with what our politics really look like when we have skin in the game. The fact that these conversations are hard and messy and painful just underscores how important it is to have them, and to acknowledge that complexity and culpability can go hand in hand.

What Can We Learn From Transparent’s #MeToo Mess?