As POPDOSE’s resident non-gender conforming correspondent, I thought it was high time to weigh in on this fabulous summer of Trans television: I Am Cait (E!) and I Am Jazz (TLC). What started off as a traditional television review (this is POPDOSE after all) turned into a more personal exploration leading to the question, Should Caitlyn Jenner be THE voice of the transgender Community?
TV in and “on” Transition
TV has come a long way since men in dresses were the punchline (M*A*S*H, Bosom Buddies) or Trans characters were relegated to that of serial killers or murder victims. Let’s not even talk about soap operas where female actresses are revealed as trans! in a shocking plot twist. I hear CBS’s Big Brother has a trans contestant this season, but that’s just a stunt. Let’s talk about people who are actually doing something positive.
This summer, we’re being treated to two reality shows about budding icons in Trans culture. They have a lot in common; redundant titles (technically Jazz claimed the “I Am…” bit first), trans topics (“coming out” and “day in the life stories”) and captivating leads (Caitlyn Jenner, 65, and Jazz Jennings, 14). Jazz debuted the same night Caitlyn accepted her ESPY, but thankfully, reruns air frequently on TLC.
I Am Grate… ful.
When she was six, and I was in my 30’s, Jazz Jennings set my life on its proper course the night she was featured on an ABC 20/20 episode titled My Secret Self. To hear her serenade Barbara Walters with a heartbreaking song she wrote about wanting to be a girl; to see how incredibly enlightened and supportive her parents, Greg and Jeanette, were; well, it inspired me to share my secret self with two good friends — and then two more — and eventually a few dozen. In an instant, their open love, acceptance and support washed away years of hidden shame. Cut to 2015: the phenomenal fast forward momentum of the trans movement in the media and society encouraged me to finally step out, fabulously dressed, in public, a move that has elevated my happiness beyond belief. I’ll never pass like they can, I wish I could but it’s not in the cards for me. They’re on their journeys and I’m on mine. I will be eternally grateful to both of them.
In bravery alone, Jenner and Jennings have done a lot for their trans community. Now how about their TV shows? Well, let’s discuss.
I Am Cait
I Am Cait (Sundays on E!) is surprisingly sensitive versus the usual sensational fare on E! It’s frank, funny and downright human. Even Kanye West comes across as Prince Charming, faring a tad better than his wife who still appears more concerned about how this whole thing affects her brand and celebrity. Let’s not forget what Kim did to become famous as compared to Caitlyn, who as Bruce, won the Decathlon.
Two episodes in, the biggest drag about Cait isn’t Caitlyn, it’s the people who surround her (the gossiping assistant sub plot has got to go). Watching her take in bus rides, cocktails and town hall meetings with other trans women should be inspiring and uplifting. Sadly, some of the trans activists pile on her like Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid movies. While we can all be compassionate to their pain, I don’t agree with the insinuation that Caitlyn isn’t qualified to be a spokesperson because she hasn’t attempted suicide or worked in the sex trade as if it is the “right of passage” to be authentically trans.
Caitlyn Jenner should be under no pressure to tell anyone’s story but her own. She didn’t need to be a spokesperson but she stepped up.
Every trans person is special and worthy of having their story told, but let’s face it, Caitlyn Jenner is the most newsworthy trans woman of our time. She’s an Olympic icon, a bankable celebrity for some 40 years and counting despite the fact she was reduced to B-player status on a dozen Kardashian-branded reality TV shows. Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Chaz Bono and Laura Jane Grace are among the celebrities who have made amazing strides to shine a light on the neglected transgender community, but let’s face it, in the first six months of this year, Jenner’s celebrity brought more attention to the cause than all of them combined. To put this back into Olympic terms, Trans people with stories to tell aren’t opponents in the 100 yard dash, they’re teammates in the relay race.
Caitlyn’s trans story is ONE trans story. She shouldn’t be expected to be THE voice of the trans community, she should only be A voice among many.
Caitlyn Jenner’s story opens the door for everyone else in the trans community to find an audience and share their own stories. My advice to anyone who complains about Caitlyn’s celebrity, her “easy transition” or “white privilege” versus their “paying my dues” path in life: give a speech, attend a support group, go on the local news and radio stations, talk to a newspaper reporter, write a book, a blog or a screenplay. Go nuts — the door is open. The conversation is just beginning. LOTS of change needs to still happen before we can all safely live our lives proudly and openly.
Caitlyn gets a lot of heat for reinforcing cisgender female stereotypes (the ultra femme makeup, gowns, hair, boobs), but that is her choice. What I wear is my choice. Every other person (trans or cis) can make their own decisions too. Jenner doesn’t need to tone down her style to properly represent the community. She has to live her truth. And let’s face it, gowns are gorgeous, glamorous and fun.
Hopefully episodes 3-8 will lighten up a bit. It does not matter a bit that the viewing audience halved between episodes 1 and 2. If there are still 1.3 million people watching the show — and there’s an estimated total of 700,000 people in the trans community — then that’s 600,000 or more people who are getting educated; 600,000 or more people who might show compassion next time any person walks down the street expressing a non-cis standard gender identity. Even if the show trickles down to a single viewer and that person is either better informed, doesn’t commit suicide or doesn’t murder someone for being trans, the show has done it’s duty. I Am Cait makes up for the rest of the swill E! has dumped on us over the years. Now somebody get Candis Cayne her own TV show, she’s gorgeous, sharp, insightful, compassionate, flirty and hilarious.
Episode #3 aired last night; it was certainly better paced though it did steer a bit into the sensational when a trans woman of color named Blossom mentioned that she worked hard to get straight A’s and was still denied entry into nursing school SOLELY because she was trans. Caitlyn pulls her producer aside and promises to foot the bill for Blossom’s nursing school AND get her on the Ellen show; setting up this show’s equivalent of Oprah’s “you get a car” episode. While having Cait walk around like a human ATM fulfilling trans women’s dreams could be an entirely awesome spin off series, perhaps the better solution would have been to lift all boats instead of just one. If the Jennings family (see below) could marshall the legal assistance of the National Center for Lesbian Rights to get the US Soccer Federation to allow ALL trans kids to play on youth soccer teams that match their gender identity, then surely Caitlyn, Ellen, the Kardashians (remember, Robert was a lawyer), E! and Bunim/Murray Productions could marshall the resources to see A.) is the claim true; B.) was this the rejection of a scholarship or entry into the school; C.) what factors played into this decision; D.) is this a one-off event or is there nationwide institutional discrimination (step #1: find out how many trans people and trans women of color are currently in nursing school). Naturally the show could not do this within one episode or even one season, but asking these questions perhaps would have been a better way forward than some simple, feel good wish fulfillment.
Today Caitlyn shared more about Blossom’s story on her blog; read it here. I look forward to hearing a statement from the school as to why her application was never accepted and why she was never given a reasonable explanation before.
Back to the show. Next week is the obligatory Kardashian cross-over episode. Suffer through it we will.
The biggest thing missing from Cait this season appears to be joy. Cait herself asks for “happy stories” at the end of episode #3, so after the inevitable “don’t throw us under the bus” bitch fest in episode #4 (it’s hard to feel sorry for a family that argues over twitter instead of in the privacy of their homes), hopefully there will be moments in episodes #5-8 where Cait, Candis and their trans guests can share stories of the joy that came with their transitions. Their favorite clothes, role models, finally looking in the mirror and saying — “yes! that is me!” The first time I dressed without shame was one of the most moving moments of my life. Seeing the first photos of me where I truly looked “normal” for once was way beyond sensational (in a dress I picked up for $2 at a garage sale no less).
I Am Jazz
Meanwhile, over on TLC, I Am Jazz (Wednesdays) is struggling to find its legs. Even Jazz herself said, “when my sister gets home, things should get more interesting.” The Oprah Winfrey Network’s one-hour documentary, I Am Jazz: A Family In Transition (rerunning on TLC), shot when Jazz was 11, is one of TV’s finest hours on TV on this subject. To see Jazz swim in her mermaid costume because it feels natural; to hear her father tear up as he reads his impassioned plea to the United States Soccer Federation that has banned his daughter from playing soccer — it’s amazing stuff. That said, their lives don’t easily transition to series television.
When a TV crew shows up for a select amount of weeks, the producers have two choices. Shoot what happens or manufacture drama. I Am Jazz doesn’t seem know if it wants to be I Am Cait or The Brady Bunch. The rest of the Jennings are very likable, the twin boys are clearly gunning for their own spin-off series, but right now their antics are about as exciting as clicking through your friend’s family facebook feed. If I want to see over-privileged white children fight over who gets a new car, I’ll switch over to E! or Bravo.
The show needs to focus more on Jazz, her feelings, her activism, her peers, other trans children and the daily challenges she faces. I hope I Am Jazz gets a Season #2. As her critical teen years unfold, she has an important story to tell to toddlers, tweens, teens, their parents and peers. For many trans children, Jazz’s story could be a lifesaver.
Beyond the show, I hope Jazz isn’t as lonely at school as they portray. I hope she finds true love, or at least hangs in there until college when she’ll be a hot commodity. Most importantly, I hope she stays safe. Teenage boys and teenage girls — especially in Florida — can be very violent when they act out of fear. If one school in the country should be the pro-gay, pro-trans utopia we all dream of (seen on shows like Glee and MTV’s Faking It), Jazz’s high school (be it in Boca Raton or wherever) should step the hell up. And for the love of God, I hope some boy in her class is man enough to ask that beautiful girl to prom.