ARTS & LIFE
It’s doggone hot out there! / D3
out of five
SO, which is it — a courageous effort to advocate for the needs of transgender people everywhere, or yet another avaricious extension of the insubstantial but effective Kardashian brand?
Based on its Sunday-night première, it’s probably fair to say the new E! series I Am Cait is at least a little bit of both. The heavily hyped series, which offers a reality-TV-style (meaning rather heavily contrived) look inside the life of transgender celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, opened with an hour-long episode that offered all the right advocacy messages and featured pretty much all the predictably tiresome Kardashian-populated moments one might expect.
From its opening moments — which showed a bleary-eyed Caitlyn Jenner in bed, fretting toward the camera about the pressure she’s feeling to make sure this show does justice to the transgender cause — I Am Cait seemed determined to establish itself as a series that will be important.
And while there was little reason to doubt Jenner’s sincerity as she talked about the high suicide rate — especially among young people — in the trans community, and how she feels a great sense of responsibility to raise awareness and advance understanding with the show, she quickly undercut her own credibility by lapsing into formulaic Kardashian-TV behaviour.
The series opener was barely 10 minutes old before its producers found a way for Jenner to receive on-camera phone calls from Khloe and Rob Kardashian, followed by an even longer exchange with Kim Kardashian West, whose sole purpose seems to be letting viewers know that Caitlyn Jenner has a Twitter account.
Jenner seemed to grasp the unique nature — and privileged path — of her journey in one on-camera moment when she observed, “You have to realize that it’s not this way for everybody; there are so many people that have struggled with family, who struggle with friends, who struggle with ridicule or not having financial resources...”
But before that seemingly sensitive observation had a chance to sink in, viewers were treated to a sequence involving a visit from Kim and hubby Kanye West. The level to which these people are disconnected from the real world was summed up by Kanye West’s praiseful pronouncement about Jenner’s bravery in the face of great adversity: “You couldn’t have been up against more — your daughter’s a supermodel, and you’re a celebrity... and it was still, like, ‘(expletive) everybody; this is who I am.’”
Oh, yeah, those are the greatest obstacles most trans people face as they try to find a navigable path to personal truth. And as if to illustrate how completely oblivious they are, that comment was followed by footage of Jenner leading Kim to a gigantic walk-in closet, where she showed off racks full of designer clothing provided, free of charge, to Caitlyn by the likes of Tom Ford and Diane von Fürstenberg. Sheesh. The première also included extended footage of a visit by Jenner’s mother, Esther, and sisters Pam and Lisa, which did offer some revealing moments about the difficulties faced by parents and siblings trying to understand and accept a family member’s trans journey.
Also featured was an interaction between Jenner and the parents of a San Diego teen who struggled with transgender issues before committing suicide at the age of 14.
“I know how these kids can feel; I’ve had some very dark moments in my life,” 65-year-old Caitlyn offered, recalling having once been at home, alone, with a gun in his hand, thinking about how easy it would be to just end the struggle.
And it’s in those sequences — which, however fleetingly, feel as genuine as reality-TV is capable of portraying — that I Am Cait feels like it might actually brush up against the higher purpose it claims to be pursuing. Unfortunately, the series opener provided far too few of them, and far too much of what viewers have grown accustomed to seeing in the extended clan’s various other E! network offerings. Despite its positioning as “unscripted” and “reality” programming, it’s likely that folks seeking to understand transgender issues would find a more balanced and nuanced portrayal of trans life in such thoughtfully scripted programs as Transparent and Orange Is The New Black.
Before anyone spends any more time assigning terms like “heroic” and “courageous” to Jenner, let’s consider how hard her extended family has worked during the past decade to get on TV, and get rich and famous without ever really doing anything of substance to merit such wealth or notoriety.
Is this happily reborn Caitlyn actually trying to help, or merely trying to maintain a celebrity lifestyle by assuming a popular and politically correct posture? Much will be revealed as the rest of I Am Caitlyn’s eight-episode season unfolds, and viewers will be able to judge for themselves whether this series represents a righteous crusade or just another Kardashian-TV con job.
Caitlyn Jenner says she’s under pressure to advocate for the transgender cause, but the ‘Kardashian factor’ strikes at her credibility.