During the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in transgender narratives on television — Sophia (Laverne Cox) on Orange Is the New Black, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) on Transparent, Cole (Tom Phelan) on The Fosters, and so on. It’s easy, though certainly dismissive, to label this a trend, but it’s definitely something television has latched on to — and nowhere is this more apparent than among this summer’s reality shows. ABC Family’s Becoming Us, E!’s upcoming I Am Cait, and, starting tomorrow, TLC’s I Am Jazz, a wonderful and poignant docuseries about a transgender teen.
TLC doesn’t exactly have a great track record with sensitive portrayals of sensitive subjects, choosing instead to go the route of exploitation and sensationalism (Toddlers & Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, The Man With The 132-Lb. Scrotum). Fortunately, I Am Jazz is a breath of fresh air for the network, a well-done and honest docuseries that treats its subject with the respect she deserves. Most of this, of course, is because of Jazz herself. She’s a smart, well-spoken, and remarkably confident 14-year-old with a charm and ease that makes the series shine, and makes the episodes feel too short.
Jazz isn’t exactly new to the spotlight — she’s been interviewed by Barbara Walters, had a special on the Oprah Winfrey Network, hosts a series of YouTube videos, and even co-wrote a children’s book — so it’s no surprise that she has a natural ease in front of the documentary cameras. She’s incredibly open about her feelings and experiences when talking to her friends, her family, her therapist, or just the camera. Jazz details the typical 14-year-old girl problems — wishing for a flatter stomach, worrying about high school, bathing-suit shopping, crushing on boys — but also goes deeper into how some of these problems affect her on an entirely different level.
When shopping for bathing suits, Jazz explains she has “to look at it differently because of my area,” meaning she has to wear a skirt or shorts over her bikini bottoms. When crushing on boys, she sadly — but calmly — recalls one boy who liked her until he found out she was trans and started calling her “chick with a dick” behind her back. Those moments, the darker and hateful moments, are few and far between in I Am Jazz, but they are there: over lunch, a peer mumbles “tranny freak” at Jazz, and her mother Jeanette is poised for attack until Jazz waves it off and calms her down, explaining that it’s not worth it.
It’s a small moment, but it’s indicative of what characterizes the entire series: Jazz’s total acceptance of herself (and total dismissal of the jerks who aren’t worth her time), as well as her strong relationship with her mother. Jeanette is at a point where she struggles to continue to be protective of her daughter while also knowing that it’s time to let go a little bit as Jazz enters high school. Jeanette helps educate the grandparents on proper pronouns, shares concerns about hormone blockers and estrogen (“This is experimental stuff. I am messing with my kid’s body”), and worries about what will happen to Jazz’s mental state (she mentions depression and suicidal feelings) if Jazz has to go through male puberty. The two are very close — scenes show them painting Jazz’s room, going makeup shopping, gabbing about boys — and it’s clear that Jeanette is a wonderful influence in Jazz’s life. I Am Jazz portrays a mother-daughter relationship that is entirely wholesome and positive, a necessary antidote to many other reality shows.
I Am Jazz also makes sure to incorporate her family, and not just their reactions to Jazz’s transition. Her twin older brothers excitedly discuss going to college the next year, while her older sister has a hard time readjusting to living in her parents’ house while back from her first year at college. But the entire family is endlessly supportive: her sister gives her advice about going to high school (and introduces Jazz to safe spaces on her college’s campus); her brothers give her boy advice and joke amongst themselves about interviewing her potential suitors.
But I Am Jazz is, first and foremost, Jazz’s story, and the docuseries tells it well. It manages to be both specific and universal — Jazz’s occasional teen insecurity and apprehension about freshman year are familiar feelings — and consistently smart and entertaining. Jazz wants to tell her story until it’s considered normal, and TLC is helping her.