Going into tonight’s premiere of I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner is in a unique and complicated situation. As a trans woman, she’s subject to both gendered objectification and the pedestal of “passing,” both of which were out in force as media outlets congratulated her for how she looked on her Vanity Fair cover. She’s subject to the assumptions and loaded language that surround discussions of trans identity—the same preconceptions that led to media calling that Vanity Fair spread an “unveiling” or a “reveal.” And Caitlyn is also a star of the E! Network, which has leveraged Keeping Up With The Kardashians into an empire built on the hypnotic banality of fame for its own sake—and since Caitlyn Jenner is part of this franchise, she’s doubtless expected to deliver.
It’s complex ground, especially since discussion of trans identity is still in 101 setting in much of the cultural mainstream, which tends to be either well-intentioned and clueless, or hostile: trans identities as the punchlines of jokes (a “Call Me Caitlyn” costume is making the rounds at Halloween wholesalers under “humorous men’s”), incorrect pronouns, assumptions about passing and presentation, or casual interview questions about genitalia that would be unthinkable to ask cis celebrities. And celebrity she is: Caitlyn’s been given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award even as she’s accused of seeking attention, not least because the Kardashian family are some of the most media-savvy people on the planet. It’s all put her in the surreal position of having to silence the critics by proving her sincerity on national television.
And Caitlyn’s well aware of the pressure. “I hope I get it right,” she says in the opening moments of I Am Cait, which is a valuable and welcome sentiment, even if by delivering it sitting in a pristine bedroom moments before the first production assistants show up for the day suggests the I Am Cait team have this narrative pretty well polished. However, I Am Cait’s first episode is largely committed to tempering any audience cynicism while still delivering a narrative that sells. Caitlyn is as aware of her privileges as of the camera, and despite the careful packaging (right down to shots of Caitlyn’s mom being touched up by makeup people between setups), there’s occasional unstudied conflict peeking through: Caitlyn is still nervous about “meeting” her mother.
Is the narrative still constructed so that every commercial break comes with a conflict? Naturally. Is the big payoff—the Kardashian daughters “meeting” Caitlyn after what Caitlyn says has been an awkward and pointed avoidance—perfectly staged? Of course. Anything else is beyond the story Caitlyn, E!, and the producers want to tell. But transgender identity has been so often painted as tragic that if there’s something to be said for the narrative value of any actual family awkwardness or complex reactions when someone transitions, there’s also something to be said for a swift and welcoming family reunion that suggests happiness.
Transgender identity can be difficult to navigate and discuss without having done one’s research and committing oneself to new vocabulary and ideas about gender and identity. To that end, the 101 aspect is alive and well here, somewhat by necessity. A counselor visits the family and touches on the “it’s a phase” fallacy to remind Caitlyn’s family (America) that transgender identity is something to take seriously and accept, and she reminds Caitlyn’s family (America) how long Caitlyn has felt at odds with the gender assigned her at birth. It’s another careful construction, but an utterly understandable one.
Some moments—usually smaller ones—feel less deliberate, if only because there’s some believable fumbling amid the high sheen, and those small mistakes and awkwardnesses suggest something more poignant than the Kardashian usual. Caitlyn’s mother using “He’s still Bruce” as a declaration of love is incorrect pronoun usage, but Caitlyn herself still refers to “Bruce” uncertainly, as if a roommate has recently moved out, making fun of “his” taste in clothes. And after a determinedly upbeat first “meeting,” Caitlyn and her mother sit down for a convenient one-on-one that becomes more interesting when Caitlyn’s mother admits, “It’s not easy.” When Caitlyn asks, “In what aspect is it not easy?”, the conversation becomes one of the episode’s more believably spontaneous moments, because of its lack of quick closure. Of course, it’s still a TV show being traded in Kardashian currency. After assuring her mother her transition was crucial for her personal honesty, Caitlyn sweetens the deal: “And the [celebrity] response has been very good!”
Kardashian requirements and E! packaging aside, Caitlyn seems determined to use her platform to speak out about her transition in the hopes of reaching the people it needs to reach. “I hope I’m in a position to turn around and help this community,” she says, a sentiment hard to fault in its sincerity. Glimpses of the series to come suggest she plans to touch on a number of issues; in this episode, she visits the family of Kyler Prescott, a transgender teen who committed suicide, and attends his memorial service. And Kyler’s mother points out that the family was supportive, and it was the continuing hostile ignorance of the wider world that drove Kyler to take his own life; it’s a sobering moment that reminds us how necessary this series could turn out to be for mainstream attitudes.
Regardless of how much you trust the balance between social messaging and Kardashian messaging, the series’ shape is clear early on, when Caitlyn tells the camera, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about life than I am right now.” This show is going to be an exploration of her new identity. It remains to be seen how the idiosyncrasies of personal experiences and the larger mainstreaming narrative affect one another. But even if it’s doomed to be as carefully-packaged as the E! empire requires (with Kimye cameos and all they suggest), we can still use even a highly-polished story about transgender acceptance, family ties, and a life joyfully lived.
- In case you’re worried this show wasn’t going to have all the PR savvy of the Kardashian brand, the phone call with Kim’s coy “You didn’t tell me you were on Twitter” and follower count comes in the first five minutes.
- Who gives anyone a phone when they’re coming off dental anesthetic?
- “You couldn’t have been up against more,” says Kanye. People everywhere answer: Uh, are you sure?
- While lying in the backseat of a van to avoid being seen: “The price tag just for a picture of me is $250,000.”
- Though the reality-TV packaging might be a bit too slick to really land yet, the message is a good one: The episode includes information about the Trevor Lifeline (866-488-7386).