The Word That Divided Viewers of "I Am Cait" This Weekend

August 17th 2015

There is no doubt that some viewers found Sunday's episode of "I Am Cait" more entertaining than the ones before it. The fourth installment in the docu-series, titled "Family Interference," hewed the closest to the expectations set by its television predecessor, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," with more eyelashes, handbags and angry family group texts from Khloe Kardashian and Kim Kardashian West than any other episode.

Although the conflict on screen was the E!-ticket for most entertainment critics, the conflict off the screen says more about the alternating brilliance and awkwardness of the line that "I Am Cait" straddles—attempting to be equal parts ground-breaking educational series and entertaining E! reality show.

The "Freak Factor"

Besides spending time with the Kardashians, in episode four, Jenner visits Children's Hospital of Los Angeles to talk with a group of parents of trans and gender non-conforming kids, which includes a short cameo by fellow trans celebrity Chaz Bono. She later attends a slumber party hosted by Candis Cayne. It's at the slumber party that writer and previous show guest Jen Richards introduces Jenner—and most viewers—to author, gender theorist and trans activist Kate Bornstein.

A transgender community trailblazer

I was looking forward to this interaction with Bornstein since last week's teaser. I've met Bornstein, affectionately known in the queer community as "Auntie" Kate, multiple times. She facilitated a half-day gender identity workshop that helped me clarify what I wanted out of my gender, which was also the first time that I admitted to myself that I truly wanted top surgery. Her books like Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook are seminal texts, and were some of the first that I read in my personal transition journey. Sidenote: she also gives great hugs.

It's clear that Bornstein means a great deal to me. She also means a lot to many other queer, transgender and gender non-conforming people as a role model for owning what life gives you and finding ways to survive happily. (She addressed this most recently in her Lambda Literary award-winning book, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws.)

So when Bornstein immediately jumped into a frank conversation about how Jenner was dealing the attention from her public transition within 30 seconds of coming on camera, I wasn't surprised by her boldness or by the unvarnished language that she used.

"Have you been dealing well with the freak factor? We are freaks to a lot of the world," Bornstein bluntly asks Jenner.

Way to just put it out there, Auntie Kate.

Jenner's response was predictable and safe, as are most of the talking points that come from the trans community's newly minted advocate-in-chief, "What I feel like we're really trying to do here is normalize this as much as we can."

But Bornstein didn't let it go:

"Well, part of the reason you want to is because you don't want to be a freak. And who does? [...] The only way I've gotten through it is to own it. Owning the freakdom with heart, and going, 'Yeah, I'm a freak, and I love you, and I won't hurt you, and I won't be mean to you, and you have my word on that.'"

Responses from the trans community and allies were rapid and varied on Twitter, falling into the same two camps that often surround gay and lesbian conversations about pride parades: should we stop the over-the-top floats to be seen as normal in order to advance our legal equality, or should we take pride in difference and demand equal treatment regardless of 'freak' status?

Even Blossom from episode two and three weighed in:

One commenter in particular suggested that Bornstein's views were "outdated":

But are they? By trolling Twitter's #IAmCait hashtag and other show-related accounts, it's not hard to find that exact language in use against Caitlyn Jenner. It's also at the heart of many of the memes that have circulated against Jenner in recent weeks, particularly against her show and her ESPY award.

With the death toll of trans women in the U.S. this year exceeding 2014's homicide numbers against trans people, it raises the question of how views of the transgender community have changed overall in response to unprecedented visibility in popular culture. This also leaves big questions about what that means for the show: who is watching it? And what are they taking away from it?

Cancelation rumors may point to an answer.

While Caitlyn Jenner's Diane Sawyer interview debuted to 17 million viewers, only 3.9 million tuned in to see "I Am Cait" within the first three days of of the show's original airing. By the second episode, viewership has dropped to 2.1 million according to Nielsen, which measures how many people watch television shows. Last week's episode saw original numbers drop by half—garnering just 1.3 million sets of eyes over the key live-plus-three-days period, less than half of which were in the 18 to 49-year-old target demographic.

Per RadarOnline, "[e]xecutives and producers for the show feel that Caitlyn is being overexposed," possibly leading them to pull the plug.

Accusations that the show is boring have plagued it from the outset. In fact, the majority of the vigorous conversations that I have read about "I Am Cait" or that I've engaged in personally have been with other queer or trans individuals. Could this mean that the insider conversations that cisgender populations are supposedly having via the show are actually happening in an echo chamber? Is "I Am Cait" actually more successful as trans-focused TV for the trans and queer community than as reality TV for the masses?

The lack of prurient details, such as surgical information or other typical sideshow flare that's been common in attempts to depict the trans experience, could be what is causing average viewers to tune out. I wonder: If you watch to see the freak show and don't get it, will you keep watching? Times are changing, but if how normal (and boring) the trans people on the show are becomes the show's own undoing, it makes Bornstein's point about being seen as freaks seem all the more relevant.

We won't know until later this week how episode four faired, which feature a stronger presence of the Kardashian clan that may help it achieve higher viewership. What we do know is that the debate around episode four points directly to the balancing act that is intrinsic to the show that is trying to be entertaining for the cisgender masses, while a large segment of that same audience may also discriminate against the entertainers themselves. It's that complex mouthful that is also the crux of awkwardness of "I Am Cait."

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