I Am Cait, the new E! series that follows Caitlyn Jenner in her new life post-gender transition, premiered last night. If you’ve been following the story on magazine covers and angry dudes’ Twitter feeds and so forth, nothing that happens in the first episode was much of a surprise: As promised, Caitlyn meets her daughter Kylie for the first time, and reveals herself to her mother. What is refreshing is that the network behind such progressive entertainment as What Would Ryan Lochte Do? could offer us a dignified, uplifting look at a real transgender person’s day-to-day existence.
It’s also a chance for Caitlyn to claim her life as her own for the first time, and not just in terms of gender. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which this show mercifully does not resemble at all, Bruce Jenner was presented as a bumbling dad and an easy punchline. But Caitlyn is in control now. Now identifying as a woman and presenting her real self, she is able to live what she says is an “authentic life,” which has made all the difference.
But it still isn’t easy! Seeing the challenges of gender identity is actually an amazing and revealing part of I Am Cait. In the premiere, Caitlyn’s mother and sisters meet her as Caitlyn for the first time: It’s a carefully orchestrated scene (this is still TV, of course), but it’s not carefully orchestrated in that reality-TV “What do you think of her?” and “Could you repeat that for the camera?” and “Hey, free alcohol!” kind of way. Even amid the setup, you can’t hide the raw emotion. It’s hard for Caitlyn’s mom to see her child become a different person, even though Caitlyn is her child’s true self; she admits that. But she’s also proud! More proud, she says, than when Caitlyn won a gold medal in the Olympics and became one of the most successful athletes of all time.
To the show’s credit, it also promotes education about transgender issues. Caitlyn brings in Susan P. Landon from the Los Angeles Gender Center to talk to her family about gender identity: “Acceptance is the most important thing,” Landon says. (Pronouns are also very important, she adds.) If that’s the only point the show is able to get across, it’s probably worth it. Beyond that, Caitlyn, recognizing the privileged position she’s in as an insanely wealthy and famous person, wants to help others. Forty-one percent of transgender individuals will make a suicide attempt in their lives; last night, Caitlyn visited the family of a transgender teenager who took his own life at 14, and talked to the mother to see what she can do to help. There is no healing that kind of heartbreak, but showing the long odds and terrible tragedies that often befall transgender people makes this issue real for people. And one would hope that sort of visibility would make a difference in the long run.
I Am Cait is not reality TV in the stereotypical sense: There’s no manufactured drama or forced confessions and such. It’s not TV for TV’s sake, or melodrama for ratings. Sure, everyone’s still perfectly made up (and Kanye West shows up at one point), but the result is more or less subdued, and dare I say, educational, especially for viewers who are completely unaware of transgender issues, and even for those who are. It’s “reality TV” in the best possible sense.