Writing What You Know (Or Don't): On Transparent and Orange is the New Black

Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black and Jill Soloway of Transparent both see the value in open, inclusive writers' rooms—though maybe not for the same reasons.

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura in Transparent. (Beth Dubber/Amazon Studios)

Hearing about Jill Soloway and Jenji Kohan's disagreement at the New Yorker festival a couple weeks ago was a bit like seeing your moms fight for the first time: you wished there was some way both beloved creators could win. As the impresarios of Transparent and Orange is the New Black, shows that have hugely expanded our definition of what we can expect to see on television—or, at least, on the distinctly television-like corners of online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon—that they chose diversity and inclusivity as their sparring ground is reason enough to want to hold your breath until you pass out.

The fight stems from Soloway's plan to train a handful of transwomen writers, with the express goal of hiring one of them to work on the second season of Transparent, her show about a late-in-life patriarch, Maura, who finally comes out to her family as a woman. (The competition—which I'm sure isn't a word that Soloway would choose, but anyway—takes the form of work-shopping a spec script, so that the people she doesn't select still have something they can use to try to get hired on other shows, because some participant ribbons are more equal than others.) Soloway has plainly said she's doing this because she thinks the show needs a transwoman perspective—she's trying to minimize the "othering" of trans characters—and she's had trouble finding qualified writers who can pull that off.

Without actually disparaging the program itself, Kohan seems to regard its reasoning as, if not unalloyed bullshit, then at least entirely unnecessary handwringing. For her, what matters is that you're a good writer—full, it seems, stop. Specifically: "I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate." She then went on to make a joke about turning one of her writers gay so she could have more balance in the writing room, which is probably even more indicative of how serious she thinks the issue is.

Minus the joke, that is the standard push-your-glasses-further-up-your-nose response to more or less any kind of affirmative action (Soloway calls it that herself), albeit coloured by the fact that artistic permission isn't really in the same league, fundamental-rights-wise, as economic opportunity. If it seems slightly surprising coming from Kohan, though, it's only because it can be easy to forget where and how shakily we draw our identity lines in the first place.

To check all her boxes, Kohan is a white, straight, cis, Jewish woman with long-standing family showbiz ties who writes a show that is by now mostly about people who are superficially nothing like her, black and hispanic and bisexual and trans and poor and first-generation immigrant and with nothing in the way of helpful connections to media concerns. In a sense, she is just as much as a Trojan horse as Orange’s Piper herself, and, though the show hasn't been entirely immune from identity-based criticism, its success is more or less a walking argument in Kohan's favour.

It's a little more complicated than simply saying Kohan writes good, though. For a start, she's spent a long time as the only woman in the writing room—she got her start on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a show starring a ridiculously charismatic young black rapper run by the living embodiment of bland whiteness, which she characterized as "wildly dysfunctional" during an NPR interview. She bopped around for awhile afterwards, and though she's said herself that her "big personality"/tendency to not play well with others didn't help her along, her Orange is the New Black room is noted for being open and inclusive (and more diverse than the average bear, even if not, evidently, by design), which seems to suggest that that's not the only thing at play here. And she is nothing if not a ruthless pragmatist about succeeding in the biz: she talks about writing three pilots a year just in the hope that one gets picked up.

That can cut both ways—pragmatism can also be the easy way out—but it's obviously given her some insight into the fact that, in the wrong power structures, "write what you know" can pretty easily become "certain stories don't get written." (See, for instance, Lena Dunham's responses to the lack of diversity on Girls, which was essentially a claim that her white, bohemian existence was the only one she had sufficient permission to access; true or not, it hasn't stopped some critics from seeing that as laying the blame at the feet of society and whistling your way through another script.) In that world, being a great writer is the only out, insomuch as clout is the only thing that will bend ears to a different kind of story.

Though it has a certain practicality, Kohan's dismissiveness smacks of a certain failure to see the world as it is (as do most appeals to some Platonic ideal where identity is just another free-floating characteristic that gets attached to someone, and not something that fundamentally shapes your world and worldview). There's enough human likeness that a writer of sufficient sensitivity should be able to simulate almost any experience—for instance, I don't actually have two moms, but I know what it's like to see parents fight—but it's still just a metaphor, and however good or bad metaphors are, they're expressly not the real thing.

If we have a concern about that kind of authenticity, it's only because one of the foundations of culture since the Enlightenment has been that every person has certain inalienable rights, one of which is self-definition. Art, again, isn't exactly personhood, but identity is a story we tell ourselves, and there's a fairly common-sense argument for giving the people we're depicting at least some say in that depiction. In a medium as inherently cooperative as television, there's a case to be made that not having someone with first-hand knowledge of the story's subject matter to at least run some things by is a bit like a novelist writing a 17th-century love story without ever cracking a history book. Having a good imagination and a facility with words isn't much of an excuse for laziness.

Soloway, too, embodies her side of the argument in her show, which is explicitly about how Maura's family deals with her revelations, based on Soloway's experience with her own transgender father. The undercurrent of Maura's story is about the control she has over how she's seen in the world—her children get into an argument about whom they have the right to tell about the change, with one likening revealing it without Maura's permission to violence—and a significant source of pain for her is the realization that she's raised people who "cannot see beyond themselves." The trick here is that the show isn't really arguing for you to see beyond yourself; often, it implies that Maura herself has suffered from seeing too far beyond herself, from always considering the world's perspective of who she is over her own. Her admission is a source of freedom—a certain selfishness is by no means perfect, but it might be all we've got to get by.

Applied back to storytelling in general, we're in the same bind. No one really wants fiction that is only allowed to be thinly veiled memoir, and no one but the most defeated are really arguing that certain stories are entirely off limits. Acknowledging that you have a perspective is not the same as saying it's invalid; it's just saying that, selfish as we inevitably are, it's rarely a bad idea to hear someone else's opinion before we offer our own.