If you’re a reality TV show personality means that whenever you do anything, cynics will question your integrity or intent. It makes things worse if you attach yourself to a crass enterprise like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Caitlyn Jenner was caught up in that showbiz mess, but once she came out as trans, it appeared as if things would be different for her: given the excellent interview she had with Diane Sawyer, as well as, her honest interviews since her transitions, expectations for I Am Cait were understandably high. Because of her high profile, advocates would love to see Jenner use her platform to highlight the issues the trans community deals with; and her detractors would assume that I Am Cait would merely be an extension of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Judging from the first episode, I Am Cait is a bit of both: Jenner’s clearly sincere about her work as a trans activist, but the show cannot transcend its reality TV trappings. In the episode Jenner films her unveiling to her family members, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West as well as her mother and two sisters. Jenner also visits the family of Kyler Prescott, a young trans teen who took his life. These scenes show the show at its best, but also exposes the reality TV genre as ghoulish.
When visiting, Jenner’s family – particularly her mother – struggle with her transition. Her mother struggles with her faith and how her conservative ideas may clash with Jenner’s trans identity; it’s also clear how much Mrs. Jenner loves her daughter, even if she continually misgenders Caitlyn throughout the episode. When Jenner’s gender expert shows up to counsel the family on trans issues, she deftly highlights the biblical restrictions on cross-dressing as archaic (though, she fails to point out that Jenner isn’t cross dressing, she’s trans).
Some of Jenner’s famous children also show up: Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kanye West appear for a cameo, in which West professes Jenner’s transitions as an act of bravery, before he shows off a pair of shoes that he’s sporting. There is a poignant moment, however, when Jenner shares her disappointment at some of her other children’s estrangement during this time (despite their words of support via social media).
These family scenes are good, though, because they show Jenner as someone who is trying to navigate these still-choppy waters, and make the journey as easy as possible for her loved ones. When a groggy Kylie calls on Face Time Jenner after dental surgery, she lovingly slurs, “you’re pretty,” when a concerned Jenner expresses worry that she would scare her daughter. It’s a touching moment – but a telling one – of how much angst Jenner feels opening up to her family. Though the show’s tone is fairly serious, there are solitary moments of levity, including a hilarious bit in a closet when Jenner and Kardashian giggle over the discovery that Jenner owns a dress exactly like her ex, Kris (they devilishly devise a prank at Kris Jenner’s expense, that would have both Caitlyn and Kris arrive at a place wearing the same dress for a ‘Who wore it best?’)
Still, Jenner’s newly-minted position as the most public trans advocate is problematic because of the wealth and privilege she enjoys. And to her credit, she doesn’t shy away from admitting that few trans women have access to her kind of privilege. She wants to use her fame to further the cause of trans rights – a noble cause, specifically addressing the high rates of suicide among trans teens. It’s unfortunate then, that Jenner drags her cameras and oppressive media presence to the Prescott family, because it feels intrusive. It becomes more uncomfortable when Jenner is invited to join the Prescotts and Kyle’s friends for a balloon release in the teen’s honor. In a moment of grief, it’s difficult to see that Jenner’s presence and the cameras’ presence tend to pull the focus away from Kyle’s story.
And that’s the problem with reality TV. Even at its most edifying, there are still elements of voyeurism and manufactured tension and drama. The editors are careful to be restraint in I Am Cait, but the soft-focus shots of Jenner as well as the musical cues tend to feel manipulative. None of this can be helped, because exploitation is integral to the nature of reality TV. That is why it’s a poor vehicle for social justice – because even when it’s highlighting important issues like trans rights, it must hew to its rigid formula of gawkerism. Jenner is certainly interested in exploring how to harness the power of television for social betterment, but she’s at the mercy of a genre and industry that is interested in ratings and headlines. I Am Cait is a powerful example of reality TV’s limited capacity for social progress.