‘I Am Cait’: Staging Empathy for Social Change

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Reality TV is indelibly formulaic and beholden to its target audiences. It goes without saying that it seems impossible for it to ever truly document reality, and as a genre, it can even surpass surrealist fiction in its dizzying servings of unreality. This notion arises for different reasons than usual when watching I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner’s E! series about embodying her authentic self — the show presents Jenner publicly, and demands (rather politely) that people describe her on her own terms. The majority of reality shows are uncomplicated excursions into the American absurd; they’re either morally abhorrent exploitations of the underprivileged or lifestyle porn-y aggrandizements of American social imbalance that one can hate-watch while getting one of the most lucid glimpses into what’s wrong with the country. (The paradox is that this “hate-watching” is just another form of inactive participation.)

In those shows, it’s implied that much of the drama is staged or at least facilitated by producers, and that’s accepted, and even desired, because it amplifies the slice-of-histrionic-“life” quality of the viewing experience. But as Willa Paskin pointed out in one of the first reviews of the series, that is not the case for I Am Cait, which works entirely in the opposite direction.

Had one of the first reality TV shows about a transgender public figure eschewed the very grave issues facing the highly underrepresented minority in favor of the usual mode of nihilistic kitsch, it wouldn’t have been seen as just another charmingly useless part of the reality TV machine. Rightly, it would have likely been received as somewhat appalling. People would have accused it of trivializing the experience just as reality TV does with issues that aren’t quite as sensitive.

Luckily, I Am Cait does no such thing. As highly empathic television that’s also strategically hitting all the right notes to be accepted by all parties, it’s a fascinating specimen of a new form of social justice oriented reality TV. It’s also a spectacle of publicity savvy innocuousness. Its existence is both highly optimistic and full of genre complications and contradictions.

The first episode follows Jenner as she prepares to introduce her family members to Caitlyn. Until this point, everyone’s been supportive from afar. Kim Kardashian calls and fittingly quantifies the experience by talking about how Caitlyn beat a social media record with her Vanity Fair shoot. The rest of the list of expected characters also call, but Caitlyn notes that they’ve been physically scarce, and have not actually ventured over to see her since she became Caitlyn — until now.

As her relatively accepting sisters, less accepting mother, daughter-bearing-the-gift-of-blue-hair-extensions and step-Kimyes file in through her door, Jenner finds herself surrounded by acceptance in transition. They’re all “supportive,” they all share champagne and words of encouragement, but there’s some inevitable, unspoken reservation. In one of the last scenes, Jenner visits the home of someone who had a harder time fighting societal expectations: trans teen Kyler Prescott. His mother shares his experience. She discusses how her son committed suicide after feeling ostracized by other adults, despite acceptance from his family and even schoolmates. The episode ends with the phone number for The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline.

I Am Cait is dealing in firsts. It thus bears the burden of having to be important, and having to enlighten the ignorant. Because it’s aimed at a wide audience and not just the people who hashtagged “CallMeCait” when it appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, it’s trying to very carefully and meticulously explain the experience. And it’s astounding and encouraging to see any reality TV show try to elucidate something with what seems like actual heart and actual ambitions of social enlightenment.

It is a wake-up call to such people and a means of representation for people grappling with transitioning. Not only is Caitlyn Jenner a completely affable, relatable figure, she’s also far less narcissistic than most reality stars. She makes sure that her exorbitant wealth will not alienate those who need shows like this the most: I Am Cait is very deliberately not just about Cait. She lives the privileges of getting to have her particular journey with her particular pocket book while ensuring that another half of the show is focused outwards, on the often less supported journeys of less fortunate trans people.

These moments simultaneously read as necessary and forced. Those of us who do not align ourselves with Jenner’s more set-in-her-old-ways mother don’t need the primer. Notions of reality TV as even mimicking reality deteriorate rapidly here. For example, Caitlyn Jenner lying awake in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because she’s thinking of suicidal teens, seems stiffly like a scenario cooked up in a writers’ room, albeit one where the aim is empathy over drama.

There seems a synesthesia here between an “it gets better” mentality and the fact that everyone surrounding Jenner is a public figure. If anyone had actual qualms with Jenner’s transition, their publicist would likely ensure they remained silent about them. A show like Transparent, which is obviously beholden to none of its fictional characters’ publicists, perhaps more accurately displays the complex emotional life of a whole highly privileged family surrounding the transition of a patriarch. That fiction does not need to censor itself as even the most thoughtful reality TV show might, and it’s hard not to ponder how this would play differently within a less media-hyperaware family.

The support given can therefore seem a mixture of these things: a crucial desire to make the trans experience not read as an inevitable tragedy, a desire among all involved parties never to say the wrong thing, and a desire to never ignore the fact that, even with all of that, the suicide rate is nine times higher within the trans community than society at large.

I Am Cait is a watchable experience about something that’s often tumultuous, a reality partially staged by people who know how to be watchable. It just so turns out that this partially staged reality contributes immensely to trans visibility. And trans visibility is a reality this country could certainly use. If a sentimental new form of reality television will get us there, all the better.