Jen­ner’s story is his to tell, so let’s move on

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

Ev­ery­one loves “Trans­par­ent.” The ground­break­ing se­ries about the midlife tran­si­tion of a trans­gen­der woman put Ama­zon on the Em­mys map and raised the visibility of a group of Amer­i­cans al­ready ben­e­fit­ing from the courage and tal­ent of peo­ple like Chaz Bono, Lana Wa­chowski and Car­men Car­rera.

Next month, An­dreja Pe­jic will be­come the first trans­gen­der model to ap­pear in Vogue; this sum­mer, a se­ries star­ring teen YouTube star Jazz Jen­nings de­buts on TLC. Trans­gen­der women, it would seem, are hav­ing a mo­ment. Tell that to Bruce Jen­ner. The mael­strom of spec­u­la­tion lead­ing up to his Fri­day night in­ter­view with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/ 20,” in which many be­lieve Jen­ner will dis­cuss what ap­pears to be a gen­der tran­si­tion, seems to ex­ist in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent uni­verse from the of­ten self-con­grat­u­la­tory in­clu­sive­ness of the “Trans­par­ent”-lov­ing, “Glee”-mourn­ing, Jazz Jen­nings sup­port­ive me­dia.

In re­cent months, fas­ci­na­tion with the Olympian-turned-re­al­ity-star’s ap­pear­ance has gone from stalk­er­ish to zoo­log­i­cal. Hair

styles, makeup choices, sports bra sight­ings, man­i­cure an­nounce­ments and grainy pho­tos pur­port­ing to be of Jen­ner in a dress have been the cen­ter of fevered and un­in­formed con­ver­sa­tion. For months, Jen­ner chose not to pub­licly com­ment about his per­sonal life be­fore de­cid­ing to give Sawyer an in­ter­view, which was con­ducted in Fe­bru­ary.

Word of the in­ter­view sparked a whole new round of com­men­tary and crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing some out­rage that ABC was giv­ing Jen­ner a two-hour block of prime-time touted with the sort of pub­lic­ity tra­di­tion­ally re­served for heads of state and Lance Arm­strong. A few in the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity have ac­cused Jen­ner of ex­ploit­ing a still newly vis­i­ble and vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­nity, and many more have taken the me­dia to task for wal­low­ing in spec­u­la­tion, for fo­cus­ing on per­sonal de­tails rather than the dis­crim­i­na­tion and of­ten bru­tal ha­rass­ment that trans­gen­der peo­ple face.

Ru­mors in­volv­ing Jen­ner’s fam­ily — ex-wife Kris Jen­ner threat­ened to sue! Some of the kids re­fused to talk! — added a quasi-cal­cu­lated air to the pro­ceed­ings. Jen­ner’s open ac­knowl­edg­ment in 1978 of want­ing to (gasp, faint) lever­age his Olympic medal into more than just an ap­pear­ance on a Wheaties box has been men­tioned more than once, be­cause ap­par­ently the re­ally big money th­ese days is in out­ing your­self as a trans­gen­der woman.

In­deed, when Jen­ner was re­cently in­volved in a mul­ti­ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent in which a woman was killed, the con­ver­sa­tion turned with hor­ri­fy­ing speed to whether the in­ci­dent would af­fect the tim­ing of the in­ter­view.

All of which has much less to do with Jen­ner’s life than its con­text. Though some may still think of him as an Olympian, he is best known as a de-facto Kar­dashian. And while there is cer­tainly plenty of hos­til­ity to­ward trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans, the hy­per­bolic re­ac­tion to Jen­ner’s per­sonal life, and what­ever he may re­veal in the in­ter­view, is all about the Kar­dashi­ans and the in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized am­biva­lence we have to­ward cit­i­zen celebri­ties.

From the mo­ment Phil Don­ahue (and later, Oprah Win­frey) took the mi­cro­phone off­stage so au­di­ence mem­bers could share their sto­ries, per­sonal nar­ra­tive has been the de­fin­i­tive genre of mod­ern sto­ry­telling. Though it is a long road from lyri­cal best­selling mem­oirs such as “The Liars’ Club” or “An­gela’s Ashes” to “Keep­ing Up With the Kar­dashi­ans,” it is a fairly di­rect one.

Fu­eled by the un­sta­ble com­pound of judg­men­tal voyeurism and a search for self-knowl­edge, re­al­ity tele­vi­sion pur­ported to pro­vide a glimpse of how all sorts of peo­ple truly are, at home, with just each other and an om­nipresent cam­era crew. The Kar­dashi­ans were among the first to of­fer their ser­vices.

We watched, rapt, at the un­abashed banality of their house­hold, with its strate­gi­cally self-pro­mot­ing mother and Olympian-as-wall­pa­per fa­ther. We watched as the Kar­dashi­ans be­came a baf­fling but ir­refutable em­pire and spawned a new genre of tele­vi­sion in which the ve­nal was cel­e­brated, the petty en­cour­aged.

“Why on Earth are all th­ese peo­ple of no par­tic­u­lar tal­ent or abil­ity so fa­mous?” we mut­ter dur­ing brief respites from watch­ing. “It’s re­ally got­ten out of con­trol.”

Just as we de­ride a cul­ture of in­tru­sion and dis­trac­tion in the few mo­ments when we can tear our­selves away from read­ing “a re­ally aw­ful but aw­fully funny” rant some­one posted on Face­book or tweet­ing about “The Bach­e­lor,” we la­bel the Kar­dashi­ans and their col­leagues “guilty plea­sures.” As if that some­how refutes the power we have given the genre they cre­ated.

But when some­thing se­ri­ous oc­curs amid our “guilty plea­sures,” we stiffen. All cul­tural trends to the con­trary, we still pre­fer our se­ri­ous trans­for­ma­tional nar­ra­tives to be dig­ni­fied and de­fin­i­tive.

But Bruce Jen­ner is a for­mer Olympian who be­came a re­al­ity star, a cul­tural equa­tion that ap­pears to mean he un­wit­tingly signed away his right to pri­vacy, em­pa­thy and dig­nity. Af­ter all the strides made by the les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der com­mu­nity in re­cent years, we’re back to gawk­ing at what ap­pears to be the sight of some­one we con­sider a man wear­ing a dress.

Only now we’re also de­bat­ing whether he has or­ches­trated this cam­paign of in­tru­sion to drum up rat­ings for his in­ter­view with Diane Sawyer.

Be­cause that’s why a mid­dle-aged trans­gen­der woman would de­cide to fi­nally phys­i­cally tran­si­tion: for the rat­ings.

We pat our­selves on the back for giv­ing Gram­mys to songs that com­bat in­tol­er­ance but still gasp at the idea of a man get­ting his nails done. We ap­plaud Jef­frey Tam­bor’s amaz­ing, rev­e­la­tory per­for­mance in “Trans­par­ent” and then gos­sip about a fa­mous per­son’s de­ci­sion to do the sort of rev­e­la­tory in­ter­view upon which Bar­bara Wal­ters, Win­frey and count­less jour­nal­ists have built their ca­reers.

It will be great if “Trans­par­ent” wins an Emmy, but even bet­ter if Bruce Jen­ner, what­ever he has to say, is al­lowed some pri­vacy and peace of mind.

It’s his story; let him tell it if and how­ever he chooses be­cause it’s re­ally none of our busi­ness and we need to just move the hell on.

Gon­zalo Bauer-Grif­fin GC Images

MASS SPEC­U­LA­TION over the pri­vate life of Bruce Jen­ner, shown with Kim Kar­dashian, may come to a head Fri­day in a “20/20” in­ter­view.

Mark Von Holden As­so­ci­ated Press

FOR MONTHS, Bruce Jen­ner has made no public re­marks on his life.

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