Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Am Cait: Reality TV Purposed

by Nani Lawrence, Writing Intern

The months of seemingly non-stop media coverage finally came to a head July 26thI Am Cait, an eight-episode docu-series, premiered on E! network. It follows the former Bruce Jenner through “his” transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, and all the healing that goes along with it. Final ratings have not yet been released, but it tied with The Last Ship for the night’s most-watched program, according to Variety.

In the first minute, Caitlyn Jenner makes it known that she accepts a huge responsibility. She even commiserates about the trans people who have committed suicide and who have been murdered for this. Repeating her words from the ESPY’s, the scene ends with, “I hope I get it right. . . I just hope I get it right.”

“I feel a tremendous responsibility here, because I have a voice, and there are so many trans people out there who do not have a voice. I can’t speak for them, because everyone has their own experience. But I am an expert on my own life,” Jenner said.

Jenner’s mother and two sisters, Pam and Lisa, had not met the authentic Caitlyn yet. Lisa relays in the car ride that she and Caitlyn talked about it years ago, but then-Bruce never mentioned it again. She thought then-he got over it. Upon their first meeting, Caitlyn’s sisters seem to both embrace her true identity fully. Her mom, Esther, must talk it through with a non-relative to initially cope. After, a gender expert comes to Caitlyn’s home to explain more about the psychological process that goes with transgenderism.

Each scene seems to water-down, if not eliminate, negative reactions to the transition. Part of that could be a family striving to stay close, but who knows? During a conversation with Caitlyn, Esther admits that it will be very hard to change 65 years of habit--Caitlyn, she, etc. “I’m very optimistic about the future, and I’m dragging you along with me,” Jenner half-joked. In fact, Jenner seemed to joke quite often throughout the episode, with lines like, “Bruce was much better at tennis than Caitlyn.” It could be her way of diffusing the stressful situation. It could also be how she shows that “Bruce” still resides within.

Pam, Esther and Caitlyn watch a YouTube video of a news report about a trans teenager who killed himself. He’s the third trans teen to take his own life in San Diego this year (at that time, May).  His mother tearfully relates how it seems the music in her life left with her son. Jenner opens up about a time when she contemplated suicide. She knows what it’s like, because she felt those feelings, quietly. She reasserts her mission to be an accurate and respectful face for the cause.

Later in the episode, Jenner visits the family of that same 14-year-old boy. Instead of the blubbering mess most might expect, Katherine Prescott calmly tells the story of how Kyler had a strong support system of friends and family, yet he still battled depression. Others, especially adults, did not respect his identity. The episode ends with a balloon-release in Kyler’s memory.

A Slate review of the premiere accuses it of being a “bad reality show.” With Caitlyn trying to be a legitimate voice for the transgender community, the show comes off as disingenuous. The sensitivity surrounding the topic and the avoidance “of any . . . non-PC feelings” serves as a disadvantage.

Apparently there’s a rule that any show involving a "Kardashian" must contain 20 percent content and 80 percent drama.

Not addressing the raw emotions of dealing with a transition may be problematic, but if the premiere reflects the rest of the series, the show appears to be exactly what Jenner wanted it to be. In her speech at the ESPY Awards, Jenner spoke of how she wants to “get it right,” to give voice to the trans experience, and to convey the community’s (still) seldom heard-of struggles.

 If you want to call the recent media circus after her transition promotion for I Am Cait, go ahead. But transitioning would be a ridiculously dramatic step just for attention. Caitlyn’s attitude in this first episode suggests that she truly cares about these issues and this community, and wants to portray the struggle with respect and dignity.

Only the first episode has aired so far, though. Perhaps the drama Slate so craves lies just on the horizon.

A more positive and favored review from The LA Times applauds Jenner’s courage, and opines that this series may transcend expectations. Mary McNamara writes:

. . . I now believe the reason ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians,’ ‘The Real Housewives,’ . . . . and all the other reality programs that celebrate voyeurism, sanctimony, schadenfreude, and general pettiness existed to create a platform for E!’s ‘I Am Cait’ . . .But Jenner is eager for audiences to understand how important acceptance is, particularly for teens. And if certain moments seem more carefully crafted and less ‘spontaneous’ than the genre normally demands, that’s the point.

This show could end up being just plain boring. It could pick up and get out of hand. No one really knows at this point. But we, as a society (especially one obsessed with reality TV), needed this first episode. We needed humanity forced down our throats.


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