Serious news headlines and tabloid magazine covers alike have traded in the transition of Caitlyn Jenner since she told Diane Sawyer in a late April interview seen around the world that she identified as a woman and her early June Vanity Fair cover in which she asked to be called Caitlyn and to be addressed using female pronouns. Reality TV is the next frontier that Caitlyn Jenner and, by extension, transgender awareness will attempt to tackle.
Reality TV is no stranger to dabbling in issues network and/or scripted TV won’t touch. Laverne Cox is best known as prison inmate Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, but one of her first television roles was as herself on the VH1 reality competition series I Want to Work for Diddy, a far cry from the transgender sex worker roles she was relegated to on Law & Order. Closer to home, The Voice and My Kitchen Rules have featured contestants with disabilities, while reality TV as a whole has been more accepting of (or at least providing a platform for) this demographic.
The same could be said for people of colour (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop), people of sexual orientations and genders other than straight and cis (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The Prancing Elite Project, Brave New Girls, America’s Next Top Model), the plight of refugees (the returning Go Back to Where You Came From, airing tonight on SBS) and people living below the poverty line (the ill-fated Struggle Street).
Not all of these portrayals are positive, to be sure, but Margaret Cho once said, “something is better than nothing,” right?
To many people’s minds, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its myriad of spinoffs are the scourge of culture today, but it is one of the only reality series—and certainly the one with the most reach—to look in depth at gender transition. On a two-part episode of KUWTK entitled “About Bruce” that aired in May when she was going by her birth name and male pronouns, the Kardashian-Jenners’ were challenged by Caitlyn’s coming out. The episodes were prefixed with a statement from Caitlyn:
“Families of trans people often feel like they need to grieve the loss of the person that they thought they knew. My family’s feelings are included here in the hope that other families will know that they are not alone…”
Caitlyn’s transition and her family’s reactions were dealt with sensitively and honestly. In a revelation that will irritate Kardashian haters, two of the most reviled cast members Kim and Kourtney’s partner Scott Disick responded with acceptance and in a well adjusted way when they have more right than the naysayers on social media and around the water cooler to struggle with Caitlyn’s truth.
To many people’s minds, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its myriad of spinoffs are the scourge of culture today, but it is one of the only reality series—and certainly the one with the most reach—to look in depth at gender transition
That acceptance extends to I Am Cait. The first episode focuses on Caitlyn’s mother and sisters meeting her for the first time. Mum Esther continues to use male pronouns and her birth name to address Caitlyn, which can be grating, but seeing Caitlyn’s family’s conflict normalises her transition. Even the gender expert they brought in to counsel the family slipped up: “I meant he then. Pronouns are very important.”
After the first twenty minutes I was hard pressed to see the bumbling and disrespected patriarch of the Kardashian clan I’ve watched for eight years. Caitlyn draws comparisons to this as well, saying “Bruce was never this much fun” and marveling over the enjoyment of getting her hair done with her sisters and Kylie versus talking about sports.
The more we watch, the more understanding Caitlyn as a woman—and thus, other trans people—becomes the norm. And that’s why I Am Cait isn’t just your stock standard E! fare. Despite Kim, Kylie and even Kanye’s appearances on the inaugural episode, Caitlyn takes pains to highlight the plight of trans people who don’t have the privilege and support she does, visiting the family of a trans teen who committed suicide. “I feel a responsibility here because I have a voice and there are so many trans people out there who do not have a voice,” she says. It’s part “exploitat[ion]”—as all reality shows are to some extent—of Caitlyn’s position as a bastion of American heroism and part “PSA”.
In her interview with Diane Sawyer and, more recently, accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s, Caitlyn further drew attention to the high rates of discrimination and crime trans women—particularly trans women of colour—experience. Just last week the eleventh trans woman, not including those who are misgendered or go unreported, was murdered this year in the United States.
In “About Bruce”, Caitlyn says she “can’t die and not experience her,” and in the opening scenes of I Am Cait, its star films a message on her webcam after a sleepless night: “We don’t want people dying over this, murdered. What a responsibility I have toward this community…” As I Am Cait heads into its eight-episode first season, all eyes will be on whether it continues to uphold this duty.