If Caitlyn Jenner's advocacy is what we've got, so be it: On "I Am Cait," trans issues and the beauty of imperfect activists

Jenner's new E! series isn't going to eradicate trans discrimination -- but it is going to change a lot of minds

Published July 26, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

Caitlyn Jenner  (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Caitlyn Jenner (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition this year was not something I really got behind from the beginning. I don’t like admitting this, but it’s not because it’s at all analogous to admitting I’m a transphobic bigot; on the contrary, my criticism has more to do with my being a progressive idealist, who simultaneously happens to be a cynic and a skeptic. I don’t trust the Kardashian empire or its apparent motivations (specifically, to get rich/famous). I didn’t trust Jenner because I believed she shared them.

But lately, Jenner has pressed me — and likely numerous other LGBTQ advocates who questioned her new role as spokesperson for trans issues — to change my tune, or at least to reevaluate my skepticism. Her recent ESPYs acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award displayed, with an impressive vocabulary, a call for trans activism that was nascent but still so clear in her April interview with Diane Sawyer, when Jenner came out publicly as transgender. Since then, she hasn’t backed down from an opportunity to educate or try to change minds, contrary to what some (myself included) might have expected or feared.

And at first glance, it seems the reality star’s widely talked about E! docu-series, “I Am Cait,” is no different. The premiere, which airs on Sunday, outlines trans issues from its opening, addressing the realities of discrimination, violence and gut-wrenchingly high suicide rates upfront. What is clear from the start is that Jenner, who acted as the series’ executive producer, understands the burdens and blessings that come with being an ambassador for a marginalized group. What is also clear is that she knows her audience.

In addition to being straightforward, “I Am Cait” is also extraordinarily palatable, especially for an audience that is most certainly not dominated by the likes of me — which is to say, it’s not composed primarily of outspoken feminists with degrees in women’s studies and copies of “Gender Trouble” on their bookshelves, who tend to have inordinately high hopes for the public faces of social issues in which they’re deeply invested. While I might have wondered ever-so-critically what Judith Butler would make of Jenner’s show as I watched it, the fact is that many of the people who will tune in to “I Am Cait” have no idea who the hell Judith Butler is. They might never have met a transgender person or known someone close to them who transitioned, and they might not have known the difference between sex and gender until Jenner herself explained it so aptly earlier this year. They might require the sort of gentle spoon-feeding the show provides by way of introduction to the horrors of trans marginalization — so it’s good that the unfamiliar are for whom “I Am Cait” was clearly made.

That’s what makes the series so vital and so frustrating at the same time. The issues the show raises, specifically about the transgender community’s excessively high rates of murder and suicide, are far too pressing, far too urgent right now for the wider conversation around them to be so … basic, for lack of a better word. Of course, the fact that such a massive audience requires a Gender Studies 101 lesson from a reality show (for reference, Jenner received over a million Twitter followers within the first four hours of creating her account, a moment captured in the show’s premiere) is precisely why trans violence is such an immediate threat, and why trans people face disproportionate rates of imprisonment, unemployment, homelessness and poverty. It is also why those problems are not going to be fixed overnight, despite the fact that they very much need to be — because, as Jenner conveys on the show, people’s lives depend on it.

During one of the show’s numerous confessional moments, Jenner recalls when her own life depended on it, at a particularly low point when she was still living as Bruce. And while “I Am Cait” does a fine job of acknowledging the way in which privilege has mitigated many of the struggles Jenner might otherwise face as a transgender woman, it is also keenly attuned to the struggles that are so often cornerstones of the trans experience. At multiple points during the premiere, Jenner expresses her feelings of isolation and depression growing up male, and the overwhelming despair she felt at leading an inauthentic life. A preview of the season as a whole reveals that some members of Jenner’s family have not been quite so accepting as they seem, and the first episode deals at length with Jenner’s mom, Esther, trying to cope with the loss of her son.

It is especially affecting to see Jenner’s 88-year-old mother, who admits it is difficult for her not to see Caitlyn as Bruce, work so hard to get it right. What’s more, it’s critical to see the nuances of Esther’s journey to acceptance, as well as that of Jenner’s sisters and children and even stepson-in-law Kanye West. The show portrays a family experiencing confusion and apprehension mingled with pride and love, which is not only heartening to watch, but what our culture so desperately needs.

“I Am Cait” is not going to eradicate violence and discrimination against trans people, and neither is Jenner. There is no single reality show or ambassador that could. Whether or not one had (or has) low expectations for Jenner’s advocacy, it’s safe to say that nobody had set the bar that high — but there’s still room to be pleasantly surprised at how much change “I Am Cait” might affect. The show will, undoubtedly, help open a lot of people’s minds. There is still so much more work to be done to secure the safety, equality and acceptance of the transgender community, and there’s no wrong in wishing change could happen faster or even with a different spokesperson. Caitlyn Jenner isn’t all we’ve got, but for much of her show’s prospective viewership, she’s all it takes. If this is the way change has to happen, so be it.

By Jenny Kutner

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