Zackary Drucker is an independent artist, cultural producer, and trans woman who breaks down the way we think about gender, sexuality, and seeing. She has performed and exhibited her work internationally in museums, galleries, and film festivals including the Whitney Biennial 2014, MoMA PS1, Hammer Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, MCA San Diego, and SF MoMA, among others. Drucker is an Emmy-nominated Producer for the documentary series This Is Me, as well as a Co-Producer on Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Transparent. She is a cast member on the E! docu-series I Am Cait. Other recent projects include Southern for Pussy, a pilot for Open TV, which she co-wrote and co-starred in with her mother, Penny Sori.
Full disclosure: I did the nail art for Southern for Pussy. So it was an absolute delight to catch up with Zackary and discuss her relationship with her mother, the importance of face-to-face conversations and making art for the future…
Sallie Merkel: How do you articulate your relationship to feminism?
Zackary Drucker: Well I’ve always identified as a feminist. Mainly because my mother, in raising my brother and me, was a politicized feminist. She never wanted to be held back because of her assigned gender and she really instilled those values in us. And she’s always had a really inclusive type of feminism; she taught me that feminism is for everybody. She always said, I’m a feminist and you can be a feminist too, if you believe in gender equity. So it’s eternally been a surprise to me when people say that feminism is not for everybody. I’m like, wait, you can’t take that away from me! And it wasn’t until I entered my teenage years and got involved in queercore punk and riot grrrl feminism and queer youth activism, that some women told me, well you can’t be a feminist, because you’re a man, but you can be a pro-feminist man. And even then, I was genderqueer and I never identified as a boy or as a man, so it was already a language of bullying or of being told who you are and who you can be. And it’s really tricky when you inhabit a politicized identity and people start trying to take away your agency in defining yourself.
SM: And to encounter that at such a young age…
ZD: Basically to me at the time it was like someone telling me, I know what a man is and I know what a woman is, and I know which side you’re on. Those assumptions just don’t work anymore.
Most of the infighting that happens in feminist circles and trans circles is a product of, well if you aren’t representing me, then you’re wrong. I think it comes from a place of scarcity and a feeling that, if your identity as a woman is validated, it takes away from my identity as a woman. And it’s hard because it’s really in opposition to the spirit of collectivity that’s so central to feminist models of creating.
SM: The word feminism is becoming more and more bound up with marketing.
ZD: Zara has a gender-neutral clothing line. Someone asked me for a quote about it, so I was trying to figure out what people were taking issue with and eventually I realized that branding this, capitalizing on something that is happening culturally, is difficult for people… but it’s inevitable.
SM: Right, that’s a milestone of sorts for a social movement.
ZD: Yeah, it’s the moment that there is a product to sell to a disenfranchised community. It’s when a marginalized group becomes a valid consumer group to advertise to. It’s a tough thing for people in my life who are part of an older generation and were really deeply invested in a counter culture identity, or a counter cultural way of being. I was a counter culture teenager, and I feel like in a lot of ways I’ve actually embodied this cultural shift. But I believe in the work that I’m doing to make the world safer for trans people and for future generations, which is why I’ve decided to use the tools that I use.
SM: You have a hand in more artistic and entertainment worlds than anyone else I know. There aren’t a lot of people making art films and then being on a reality TV show. Do you want to speak to how those things intersect with each other in your art-making practice?
ZD: Well it’s been a wild journey for sure over the past few years. I have various criteria for what’s worth my time, and with each project it’s totally different. I think that all of the projects that I’ve chosen to participate in have integrity. I feel really disappointed sometimes when people in the trans community criticize the entertainment projects, but have very clearly never watched them. That’s such a shame to me because it’s not easy to put yourself out there and there’s enough backlash from bigots that you become a lightning rod for, but when you’re also being defamed or criticized by your own community, it feels like you’re just kind of fucked both ways.
I think it’s such a gift when you’re in a room with a person and it’s actually all that matters.
I think, on some level, that the Internet has disabled our ability to empathize with each other… even though it’s credited with mobilizing so many of our social justice movements of today. I think it’s such a gift when you’re in a room with a person and it’s actually all that matters. You know, I was talking to a young person, a twelve-year-old trans girl, and she asked me, what do you do when people bully you online? And I told her the only thing that matters is the room that you’re in. And all of the stuff that is happening on your phone—she had an iPhone—is just noise. I think as our identities get more fused with our surrogate selves in the ether that becomes more difficult.
SM: Right, especially when your surrogate self is highly visible.
ZD: Recently, a friend of mine was quoted as saying that visibility is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I thought that was so interesting because I think of visibility as like, the cross that I bear—the heavy weight of being really visible and really vulnerable. Oftentimes, there is a price to pay when you’re intercepting and fielding other people’s egos.
But I feel really fortunate and I think that it didn’t come too soon for me. You know, I graduated from CalArts nine years ago and was working really hard until Transparent came along, making my own work, teaching, bartending, usually having four jobs at a time, so I just feel really fortunate to be working as hard as I always have been working, but in areas of culture where I can have more influence. I don’t take any of it for granted. It wouldn’t surprise me if all of the progress that we’ve made gets dialed back. I don’t think that progress is absolute, I think it’s much more truncated and stop and go than that. But I think that we’re living in a time, and it may be really finite, in which difference is being celebrated in entertainment. I don’t think that applies to all areas of culture, but hopefully we’re seeing the horizon line. It’s cool to be witnessing a time when television is expanding or even our definition of television is being redefined. And I think that it will offer platforms for outsiders to tell stories. Networks used to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to reach the maximum amount of people, but the streaming services are not designed for that.
SM: Right, it’s all about niche marketing.
SM: Do you think there’s any kind of catch-22 with niche marketing? Like, yes a wider spectrum of voices are being represented, but maybe the endgame is that everyone will choose to watch only the stories that directly reflect their experience?
ZD: I think the cream always rises to the top, so the shows that are really good, hopefully will always be amplified and seen by enough people. And I always say that the more specific you are the more universal it is. It’s a misconception to think that the more generic your story is, the more people will be able to relate to it, because you can’t really get invested in something that’s not capturing your imagination. And that’s what entertainment has always done; it’s provided a space to see yourself in other characters.
SM: I feel like a lot of your work in entertainment is also educational (both I am Cait and Transparent have educated their audiences about the trans experience). So it felt really important and intentional to me that trans-ness was not an explicit part of the conversation in Southern for Pussy.
ZD: I think you just have to have different approaches. I’ve been living my life as a transitioned trans woman for almost a decade now. So the reality of my relationship with my mother is that we don’t ever talk about it, it’s something that’s totally naturalized into our dynamic—she thinks of me as her daughter and there’s no awkwardness around that. What’s interesting to me is that in writing Southern for Pussy we were not even conscious of the fact that we were not being overt. And I think in a lot ways, it’s just a direct representation of our relationship.
SM: Which is really radical in a way. I think the direct representation of any relationship is radical because relationships have been so codified by media and marketing that it is a challenge to actually represent them truthfully.
ZD: Totally. I think that is kind of the next step in trans representation. There was a really early wave of gay and lesbian cinema that was educational, that was positive, because the gay and lesbian community had felt so maligned in the history of cinema and television, that they felt the need to repair that by creating these really affirmative narratives that were really not memorable because they were so sanitized and almost reductive in their lack of complexity. And I think we’re in a similar place with trans representation, where we’re kind of undoing all of this damage. We’re barely getting started. There still hasn’t been mainstream, breakout content created by trans people. I think with Transparent we’ve gotten really close to the switchboard, just by having trans folks embedded in the production chain in every department; at this point 50 trans and gender nonconforming crew jobs and actors with speaking roles. Her Story, by Jen Richards and Laura Zak is another one. I would love to see that picked up by a network. I’d love to see that with a major studio behind it.
…it’s always been my objective to move towards a gender-free future.
I think trans politics have shifted so rapidly over the past few years and it’s always been my objective to move towards a gender-free future. And I feel like that’s where we’re going culturally, because I think that we’re all limited by our assigned gender in one way or another.
SM: Right, we’re all victims of the binary.
ZD: Yeah. And thanks to feminism and consciousness-raising, you and I know the ways in which women have been subjugated and turned on each other and objectified and been subjects of violence. But I think that the binary hurts men in less obvious ways.
And the other thing I think of is how many men are afraid to pursue their interest in trans women because of the constraints of heterosexuality and masculinity and the fear of being called out as gay. So these guys are basically shutting themselves off from their happiness.
SM: How about for you personally, what’s next artistically?
ZD: What’s next for me? I’m going to make another piece with my mom soon. We have the outline for that. And I would really like to make something with her every year. That’s my goal—it’s one of my ongoing projects that will amount to a collection of pieces after many years.
SM: Is this piece a follow-up to Southern for Pussy?
ZD: It’s in the spirit of Southern for Pussy for sure.
SM: But that wasn’t the first time you’d worked with your mom, right? You’d worked together before?
SM: Has she been a part of your art-making from the beginning?
ZD: Absolutely. She was my first muse when I started taking pictures, and the first video I ever made was with her. She’s always been my muse and my personal feminist icon.
SM: Who do you make your work for? Or is your audience different for each project?
ZD: Hopefully the work that we make is going to last longer than our bodies do. I think that artists throughout time who have made their work for future audiences have had a lasting impact on history and those are not usually the people who are understood in their own lifetimes.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint my intended audience, but I would say the future.
SM: That’s a great audience!
ZD: I just feel really fortunate to have always created optimal environments to create things. And that’s all I want. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.