Why I Was Dead Wrong About "I Am Cait"

July 28th 2015

My worst fears Sunday were never realized.

The premier of Caitlyn Jenner's new E! show, "I Am Cait," was not a celebrity antic-driven spectacle, despite having the same producers as "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." Nor was it like E!'s 2013 "What Would Ryan Lochte Do?"—another fear bouncing around the back of my mind. Did we really need to watch a drunk celebrity taking molds of his abs on TV? In fact, it was barely reality TV at all, lacking the sensationalism and staged-for-the-sake-of-TV conflicts of most traditional shows in the genre.

Perhaps that's because there was less conflict to dredge up as attitudes toward the transgender community evolve. Maybe the worn old lines and 'shocking' transformation photo montages were less likely to work in this sudden age of increased visibility. Possibly being viewed as transphobic has even become a less sympathetic position, leading the voices caught on film to be more outwardly supportive at a time when a lesser stance may actually be frowned upon.

It may also have something to do with the show's consultants, like longtime trans advocate, author, and recently named national co-chair of GLAAD's board of director, Jennifer Finney Boylan.

But whatever the reason, I surprised even myself, chatting online with my significant other while watching the show Monday morning: "Hey, this is really good. Actually good. You might want to watch it, too."

Despite what I said leading up to the premier, everyone might want to watch it—and I actually hope that they do.

Getting it right

Viewers that tuned in for the premiere, myself included, were treated to a documentary-style look into the former Olympian's life as a transgender woman, led with these words from Jenner:

"What a responsibility I have toward this community. Am I going to do everything right? Am I going to say the right things? Do I project the right image? [...] I just hope I get it right. I hope I get it right."

This wasn't what I expected at all.

Waiting for the first episode to load, I had actually been thinking back to WE TV reality series, "Sex Change Hospital." The 2008 show followed the patients of a well-known trans woman and surgeon, Dr. Marci Bowers, as they came and went from her gender transition clinic in Trinidad, Colorado, dubbed by show creators as "the sex change capital of the world." Although the docudrama wasn't as cringeworthy as the title suggests, it did what many in the community collectively hopes to eschew in the media at this point: it maintained a voyeuristic focus on physical changes, like hormone therapy and transition surgeries, to the detriment of the actual lives, relationships and day-to-day experiences of transgender people.

It's apparent that I'm still mildly put-off by that show. I had feared some kind of "Sex Change Hospital" and "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" mashup, but what a difference seven years makes.

Thankfully, trans people can be boring

For the inaugural episode of "I Am Cait," not only did producer keep a keen focus on Jenner's day-to-day life rather than on often prurient details like genital surgery, they stayed off the topic of surgery completely. Picking out dresses, doing hair, and discussing the high rate of suicide among trans youth were typical of hour-long show. And as it turns out, they may not have made as interesting of television as more sensationalist topics.

Per Slate reviewer Willa Paskin:

"In other words, I Am Cait is a respectable TV show with noble motives that easily evades my worst anxieties for it. And in doing so, it slams into what I never, ever could have imagined for it: dullness."

Thanks goodness we can finally be boring.

In showing a face of the trans community that is everyday and somewhat mundane, "I Am Cait" gave an honest portrayal of the shockingly normal life of a trans person (albeit an extremely wealthy, celebrity trans person—a fact Jenner directly and repeatedly addresses during the show). Unsurprising, at least to most in the transgender community, that day-to-day 'life stuff' is just as dull for trans people as it is for cisgender individuals. And for once, we have may have a show that depicts just that, but with occasional cameo appearances by Kanye West and his shoe socks.

A different audience?

Jenner's opening monologue also seemed geared toward allaying the fears of a different audience: trans people themselves.

Although her words were easily intelligible and meaningful for cisgender viewers, they had special meaning for me. I knew at that moment of open reflection that Jenner was aware of her status as the lead public champion of the trans community. The docu-series itself may not be created for transgender people, but it may be the first mainstream series about transgender people with a transgender viewership in mind. Because of that more than anything else, I'm excited to see where the next seven episodes go.

Jenner acknowledged early on, "I can't speak for [the entire trans community] but I am an expert on my story." True, she can't speak for me. But at this point, I'm happy to say that I'm looking forward to the remaining episodes and seeing Jenner as the community's current flag-waver.

And from my individual vantage point as one trans guy: thank you, Caitlyn. You are getting it right, and I'll definitely be watching next Sunday.

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