Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I Am Cait

I don't know about you, but when I think "ground-breaking documentary series addressing sensitive issues of identity and culture" I immediately think of the E! network.

Wait, I meant PBS. Did I say the E! network? I must have had a brief seizure or something.

Except that's what E! is trying to sell us. I am of course referring to the new reality series, I Am Cait, chronicling the gender transition of Caitlyn Jenner and how her transition affects her life and relationships.

I applaud Jenner for taking the steps to live her life as a woman. I can't imagine how scary something like this must be--it takes a lot of bravery to transition, and it can't be easy to be the subject of such scrutiny. And I am talking about scrutiny above and beyond what we normally subject celebrities to. As an Olympic athlete, Bruce Jenner's body was under constant surveillance, but what Caitlyn Jenner has to endure is intrusive on a wholly different level. And while that adds to the pressure Jenner must face, it's also kind of the problem with the show.

But before I rain all over the parade, let's talk about the good parts of the show. I will tell you with all sincerity that I was surprised and gladdened by the way the subject of gender transition is addressed in I Am Cait. It's clear that Jenner and the producers take this topic very seriously. Jenner talks extensively about how she understands how her position as celebrity has made her a role model for other members of the trans community. And I appreciate her honesty in expressing fear and doubt that she will live up to the pressure and expectations placed on her. I also thought it was very truthful the way Jenner's family, especially her mother, react to her transition. Everyone was supportive and loving, but her mother admitted it would take time to get used to to the change.

I read an article a few months ago in a magazine (I wish I could remember which one, and I googled for a long time looking for the article) written by a woman whose brother transitioned to a woman. The author loved her new sister, but she also missed her brother and went through a grieving process for his loss. This is an aspect of the relationships between trans people and their families that isn't usually addressed, but the article really resonated with me. And I appreciate that the E! series showed Jenner and her family openly discussing this part of their lives.

I Am Cait also uses a significant chunk of its airtime to clearly and unflinchingly portray the challenges and heartbreak that many trans people, especially trans youth, face in our current culture. Jenner sits down and talks with a mother of a trans teenager who recently committed suicide. It didn't feel cheap, it just felt honest--especially since Jenner was there to simply listen to a mother's story and shine a national spotlight on the sad fact that trans teens have a significantly higher suicide rate than other member of our society.

So what is there to bitch about? Despite all the good stuff I just mentioned above, this is a celebrity reality show. It doesn't detract from Jenner's struggles to live her honest life, but it does mean that half the time she's being interviewed, she's sitting in a makeup chair getting her hair, makeup, and clothes professionally styled. It means her coming out as female is done on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. And it means Kim Kardashian and Kanye West drop by for a chat about half way through the episode.

Jenner is rich, white, and privileged. One of her best friends is her hair stylist. But almost every other transgendered person in the world doesn't have the luxury (literally) of these resources. Many can't afford gender reassignment surgery, or hormones, or a new wardrobe. What are their lives like? You're not going to find out on I Am Cait.

Before writing this review, I asked my cousin Alyson (my Mom's first cousin) what were her thoughts on the show. Alyson is herself a member of the trans community and has been for some time. She's also a lawyer who has used her knowledge and skill to fight for the rights of those who don't typically have a voice in our society. Here is what she wanted to say:
"I decided, quite a while ago, not to watch I Am Cait. The basic reason is that I don't believe Ms. Jenner has enough experience and knowledge in the trans community to be either a spokesperson or a role model. Her economic gain from doing a reality tv show when there are so many unemployed, and underemployed, individuals in the community is disheartening. While I think there are many trans individuals who are excited about her sudden popularity, I am not in that group. There have been too many trans individuals who have either abused or wasted their 15 minutes of fame at the harsh expense of the community. 
This is broader than Caitlyn Jenner's situation. People like Martine Rothblatt, the prior owner of Sirus radio, and Rikki Swin, the inventor of the variable speed windshield wiper, have not given back or assisted others in the trans community even though they had the opportunity, and/or ripped-off, used, and abused those who assisted them or with whom they had professional relationships... myself included. My advocacy in the legal arena has been largely uncompensated yet well known, and yet those advances have benefited the likes of Ms. Jenner. So she goes on to make money without compensating those who blazes the trail ahead of her. Chutzpah!"
So at the end of the day, I am of two minds about I Am Cait. It's wonderful and exciting to see a trans woman chronicling her journey and living proudly and openly on national television. But it's still a celebrity reality show. And you can bet she's making a lot of money.

I Am Cait airs on E! Sunday nights at 8PM EST.

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