Just call her Jill.
But that’s not exactly correct, when the Jill in question is Jill Soloway, the actress/writer/director behind the Emmy-winning Amazon Studios hit series “Transparent” and, most recently, “I Love Dick,” for the same television platform. Soloway no longer identifies as “her.” Or “she.” In fact, since May, Soloway has proudly proclaimed liberation from all gender labels.
She is gender non-binary (or Genderqueer), and Soloway would prefer the use of gender-neutral pronouns — they/them/their — if needed for subsequent references. The hand-wringing already has begun from grammar-sensitive journalists cringing at sentence structure that runs afoul of subject/verb agreement.
Get used to it.
“The non-binary identity for me is being able to experiment with trying it on publicly,” Soloway said. “Because of the privilege I have from ‘Transparent,’ I can be slightly whimsical about what gender is. There are so many other people who want to be able to have that non-binary ID but because of family, religion or culture, they’re unable to do it. It’s still all so new to me. It’s not as simple as a transition to ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man.’
“Being non-binary allows me the freedom to change and move and grow and try to walk that line where I feel more comfortable,” Soloway continued. “I’m seen as both and neither by the people who love me [Soloway and husband Bruce Gilbert have separated; Soloway has children from the marriage and a previous relationship]. It makes a big difference for me internally in the way I act or behave in the world because … ultimately it means I no longer have to judge myself against any expectation of either gender. I no longer have to say I’m not succeeding at femininity OR masculinity. Removing myself from those labels that connect what I do because of my gender removes me from that assessment.”
There’s no doubt Soloway is succeeding at creating groundbreaking television, treading where few writers, directors and networks dare to go. Soloway’s segue from “Transparent” to “I Love Dick” came faster than the 51-year-old Chicago native would have liked. But Soloway is not complaining.
“After success of ‘Transparent,’ I felt I was gonna take a break,” Soloway said. “Then my friend [and collaborator] Sarah Gubbins, a playwright who’s also a Chicago person, sent me an article in the New Yorker about [the book] ‘I Love Dick.’ We were just giggling over the title but after I read the book I had no idea how we had lived our whole lives without knowledge of its existence.”
Amazon, Soloway says, was quick to greenlight “I Love Dick” project, which stars Kevin Bacon in the title role as a West Texas artist named Dick, and Northwestern grad Kathryn Hahn and Griffin Dunne as the married couple who fall for him for very different reasons. It’s loosely based on the 1997 novel by artist Chris Kraus, whom Soloway praises as a “feminist, brilliant, and an intellectual superstar.” The show premiered in early May, with its provocative and rather misleading title. To be sure, there’s plenty of sex, but that’s window dressing for the storylines about female artists and female identity and chucking the rules about who a woman is or is not.
“I think because the book got bad reviews when it first came out, I think it was one of those sleeper cult things that wasn’t ready to hit the American public until now, when everybody’s sensibilities, especially feminist sensibilities, are on fire,” Soloway says.
” … As a [series] engine, a couple who falls in love with a man together felt brand new to me. [When it comes to projects] I’m always looking for ‘what is the drama here?’ With this book it was this marriage, this guy Sylvere [Dunne] who says to his wife Chris [played by Hahn], ‘You have a crush on someone else. Let’s talk about it.’ ”
All of this seems like a lifetime away for Soloway, who with her sister Faith launched the Chicago cult classic “The Real Live Brady Bunch” at the Annoyance Theater more than 20 years ago. “Sarah [Gubbins] and I will on occasion do our Chicago accents for each other,” Soloway says, laughing. “We have [so many] memories of the city. Chicago is really about people who get into the theater because of the work. … The Annoyance Theater had this style of work that said COULD instead of SHOULD; process over product.”
For now, Soloway admits being constantly questioned about identifying as a man or a woman is expected, but it’s a topic she is happy to broach.
“It would be stressful to choose, but now I don’t have to pick. … It’s very liberating.”