'I Am Cait' Doesn't Neatly Fit Into Reality Television

I Am Cait is necessary, revolutionary but slightly flawed reality television.

Image via NBC Universal

It’s 4:30 am in Malibu, and Caitlyn Jenner can’t sleep. She looks straight into the camera, allowing us to her see her un-made up for the first time, stripped of the glamorous identity that she has had to maintain ever since she debuted on the cover of Vanity Fair last month. “I look like crap.” She says. But she doesn’t actually. She looks the way anyone would look after being up all night, thinking about all the things they can’t change.

“I feel bad,” she says, “that young people are going through such a difficult time in their life. We don’t want people dying over this. We don’t want people murdered over this stuff.”

There’s no doubt about what ‘this stuff’ is. She’s talking about trans people, about the higher murder and suicide rates in the community to which she now so publically belongs. And it’s stressing her out.

“What a responsibility I have towards this community.” She says. “Am I going to say the right things, am I projecting the right image? I hope I get it right.”

In these first moments of her new docu-series I Am Cait, Jenner hasn’t woken up from a bad dream. She’s woken up to the nightmare of the modern world—the thing she feels it to be her new and urgent responsibility to change for the better.

Ever since Caitlyn Jenner came out, painfully and radically, on 20/20 this March, she has been making promises. These promises have been a part of what she views as the responsibility of her unique power, as the first transgender super-celebrity, someone with the energy and propulsive force to give the trans movement what it has needed for so long—a pervasive, unavoidable, and powerful media presence. I Am Cait is the natural result of this very specific cultural moment, a part of the painful awkwardness that must always accompany a movement as it makes a space for itself in the media.

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But I Am Cait is only partly this. The rest of it is the very personal story of one remarkable life, an image of woman in direct proportion to the time she lives in, and to the people that surround her. For a reality show, it has a little bit too much on its plate. But then, so does Jenner.

What it becomes then—at least, in the rather clunky and painfully earnest pilot—is a sort of split-genre experience, half pure reality show and half after-school special. The part that belongs to the docu-drama format follows Jenner through her days as a newly-out, newly image-conscious transwoman, watching her relationships transform along with people’s changing perceptions of her. The second part is devoted to Jenner’s philanthropic missions—a journey to the home of the parent of Kyler Prescott, a trans teen who took his own life in May, a shoutout to The Trevor Project, fleeting discussions of what it means to persevere, to believe that the world is ‘getting better’ in its way. What the producers of I Am Cait don’t seem to realize is that the second part of the equation is superfluous. The show itself, its existence, is the only kind of cure one person can provide for the insidious problem of media misrepresentation and alienated youth communities. Flawed as it is, the show—much like the Diane Sawyer interview that heralded it—is the first of its kind in holding a mirror up to a type of existence previously invisible to the mainstream. The cracked mirror of I Am Cait is at least the beginning of a future in which trans kids growing up can see a version of themselves reflected, rather than being forced to imagine, in the absence of a mirror of any kind, that they don’t exist at all, or shouldn’t.

The personal is as political as I Am Cait can really get. The responsibility she identifies in the beginning is the impetus for the entire project of documenting her life and transition after this point. “I want to be able to create understanding,” she says, “so the next person doesn’t have to be like me.”

The first step in this process is the most personal of all: To create understanding within her own family. This is the first episode’s theme, as we see a parade of Jenner family members ushered in to “meet Caitlyn.” Jenner’s mother and sisters arrive, as well as a newly pregnant Kim Kardashian and Kanye West (whose appraisal of Jenner’s bravery is by the far the most positive response of all the family).

Yet, notably, the show still never quite feels like it’s from her point of view. We never get back to that point in the first few minutes when, make-up off and in confessional mode, she speaks to us directly. We get reaction shots, we get to gauge her response to her family’s responses, to a bunch of people in a room talking about her in the third person and often getting her pronouns wrong. But this is valuable, too. In fact, it’s perhaps the most universal reality of the very diverse and multi-fold trans experience: The instantly recognizable situation of finding yourself present in a room where a group of people are talking about you—or someone you vaguely recognize as yourself—in the third person.

This type of disorientation is the natural risk of the reality show format, that famous paradox being its lack of interest in anything resembling reality. That paradox comes to a head in I Am Cait, a show which seems far too real to be able to fit neatly into the proscribed barriers of such a highly commercial format. The pacing is awkward, the soundtrack at times cartoonishly inappropriate. Important emotional moments are given the same treatment as standard reaction shots. The story of Caitlyn in the context of her newly-adjusting family seems to fit uncomfortably within the parameters of a Keeping Up with the Kardashians format. But then, it’s possible that reality television was simply never meant to deal with anything this heavy or complex. It was meant to document the unrealistic lives of beautiful people, not the delicately interpersonal relationships of people in a state of transition. The moving parts of I Am Cait come through despite E!’s attempts to fit the show into the frame of something that it’s really not and never could be: A stylized version of life that’s campy, entertaining, and patently unreal. The strangeness of this particular story—never quite told in such a public way—is too wonderfully subtle to be treated in the same way as standard reality television. 

It’s also because this story is in its way a very old story. It’s as much about transition as it is about redemption, as Jenner goes from a liar to a truth-teller, from a shadow-dweller to the most exalted of modern-day saints. From a self-described “isolationist” to someone who feels like a part of the world as we know it. It’s something she seems constantly aware of, as she begins to remark on the subtle differences in the treatment of male and female bodies and experiences, Mostly I Am Cait is the story of a newly happy person, and it is a beautiful thing to watch, despite its growing pains. Caitlyn compares the two sides of her life, is happy to have landed on the side that is more honest. We see her happiness coming through, and it is radiant.

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