Writer Jill Soloway has been behind some of the best queer television we’ve seen in the last few years. She may be straight, but she’s a smart, funny feminist with a lesbian sister, Faith Soloway, with whom she frequently collaborates. The sisters got their starts together, creating the theater production The Real Live Brady Bunch at Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre in 1990. After the production grew and went on tour, Jill got a gig writing for The Steve Harvey Show, which led to other gigs on TV that have helped with lesbian visibility.
On the 2004 lesbian storyarc of Six Feet Under, Jill wrote the scripts for some of Lauren Ambrose and Mena Suvari‘s love scenes.
"It was funny because the actress, Mena Suvari, was much more femme than the way I had imagined Edie when I wrote her," Soloway said. "I felt like Claire would be much more into a butch girl, especially because she wasn’t gay. So I definitely had to do some adjusting. At one point I tried to get Alan to change the storyline so that Claire could hook up with Anita, played by Sprague Grayden, because I thought she was much more the type Claire would like. It was one of the few fights Alan and I ever got into. Edie and Anita were, by the way, the names of my two best friends in college and Edie was gay and Anita was straight. So it was fun to get calls from them asking, ‘Was that us?’"
Soloway said she is interested in penning scripts about lesbian characters because she wants to write "women’s stories — particularly ones that subvert traditional notions of good/bad or heroine/villain."
"And yes, there is tons of resistance," Soloway said, "more cultural than professional. People want to work with women writers, but then we get notes wondering if the women can be more ‘likable’ or ‘rootable,’ meaning, don’t have them do anything that makes them seem slutty or effed up or damaged or different or broken or risky, which is basically where all of the fun stuff is."
She said that since her sister Faith is gay and also works as a writer (mostly plays and rock operas like Jesus Has Two Mommies), she feels like she has "something of a lez-pass."
"Meaning I took on the responsibility of getting good gay characters and scenes on TV as part of saluting my sis as well as honoring starting out in this business by sharing a voice with her," Soloway said. And she’s done well so far. Besides Six Feet Under, Soloway served as the showrunner of United States of Tara when last season’s queer Pam/Buck storyline was unfolding. Buck, Tara’s male alter-ego, fell for Pam, a bartender, making this majorly complicated for Tara and her husband — especially when her husband slept with Pam later on in the season.
"The writing of Buck was definitely informed by this idea of what would it feel like/look like if Tara was secretly gay," Soloway said. "And what if she couldn’t control this part of her that went out at night and picked up chicks, and then started to have feelings for one of them. When we revamped Tara’s alters’ costumes for the season, we wanted Buck to look like a butch girl instead of a woman in a man costume, so that it would be reasonable that Pammy would think she had been with a lesbian instead of a person with a personality disorder."
The sexual identities of Pam, Buck and Tara were all up for interpretation after last season, and that’s something you don’t normally get from a TV drama. With Soloway gone from the show, though, it’ll be interesting to see if next season is a different story.
Soloway is currently working on a few projects that also might help increase actual lesbian visibility on television. One is a network show based on her family, so one of the characters will be a lesbian named Faith. Another is a pilot for HBO about "women living in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s." Naturally, that would seem like a breeding ground for women exploring one another.
"My hope is to shine a light on all the ways that womens’ sexuality was opened up in the late Sixties so yes, it will definitely be an element," Soloway said. "How could it not?"
But Soloway is only one person, and while we have a few other writers creating lesbian storylines and characters on television today, the only way we’ll get the representation we want is to be the change. Soloway’s advice? Do it yourself.
"Write, get into the business, write plays, make films or internet videos, start making content with gay people as protagonists, lead characters," Soloway said. "The culture needs to change so that it becomes something people are used to seeing. Gay protagonists are so rare. Gay people are always to the right or to the left of the protagonist, the brother or sister or roommate or friend. It’s so annoying. But the more I think about it, the more I think all of us are conditioned to see story through straight mens’ eyes — so even a story ostensibly about a woman needs to satisfy what a straight white man would feel comfortable with."
"I have no idea how to change this except for, as I said, just getting women and gay people and people of color to work, work, work to get their voices out there," she continued. "As we speak, there are hordes of straight white men continuing to shape what television and movies look like. Maybe someone needs to just stop all of them while all the gay girls and weird women and people of color get a hold of the airwaves. Internment camps?"
Keep up with Jill Soloway and her upcoming projects at jillsoloway.com.