“Perhaps the most surprising and shocking thing for me has been to learn about the number of problems the transgender community faces.”
This statement from Caitlyn Jenner, written this week after the final episode of her docuseries I Am Cait aired, encapsulates what was so successful about the show’s eight-episode run.
Here was a series about a transgender person figuring out what it means for her to be transgender — struggling with her sexuality, finding comfort with her new appearance, and negotiating changing relationships with her family. She went about this by befriending a group of other transgender women, some of the first she had ever met, who kept her in check as she proceeded on her journey of learning. And together, they went out and met a whole lot of other transgender and gender non-conforming people who have struggled with discrimination and found community with each other.
That final episode garnered 1.262 million live and same-day viewers, a dip from its 2.7 million premiere, but still an incredible number of people watching a show about a transgender woman figuring out her transgender identity with her new transgender friends. It had similar viewership as episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Total Divas that aired in the same time slots a year ago — with one staggering exception: more older viewers. Viewers over the aged of 50 watched in droves compared to the other shows in the genre.
Many transgender people did not love I Am Cait. Some felt Jenner was a poor representation of transgender people, reducing visibility of the poverty-stricken trans women of color who struggle the most. Casey Plett, who recapped the show for the New York Times, was generally bored, writing, “Praising I Am Cait as excellent TV because it puts trans people in a warm light is like giving five stars to a pizza when you’re starving: Just because it was necessary doesn’t mean it was good.”
But for Jennifer Finney Boylan, a scholar and activist who consulted for the show and ultimately appeared on it quite a bit, the impact of the show can not be overstated. “Millions of people have grasped what it means to be trans,” she told ThinkProgress. “People’s lives have been saved.”
Boylan acknowledges that, aside from being trans women, she and Jenner have little in common. “My life really couldn’t be more different than hers,” she said. “I don’t particularly care about how I look,” she said, which made “glamourpuss” Jenner’s welcoming makeover feel like a “new mysterious culture,” but the two of them hit it off nonetheless.
The single best choice the producers made, says Boylan, was bringing a group of trans women together as a posse, which she was a part of. As artificial as it may have felt for a reality show, it was really effective because it turned out that they really liked each other despite being very different — which had a huge impact on Jenner. “Here’s a show that collected people to throw shade at its star,” she laughed, adding, “I saw her change over the course of the series.”
Jenner had to learn how to interact with these other women very quickly. Boylan shared a story that didn’t make the show about the first night they met for dinner at her home. Late in the evening, they actually all passed around Jenner’s Olympic gold medal to take turns wearing it. This led to standing on risers in Jenner’s home in award-podium formation as they took turns “accepting the medal for trans woman of the year.” That may have been quite the shock for someone who had not only just come out, but just met another trans woman for the first time in the months prior.
Boylan’s favorite moment was of the same vein, when she confronted Jenner on comments she made about how she looks forward to a man treating her like “a real woman.” Boylan countered that she didn’t need a man’s approval: “You are a normal woman, right now, today.” It was one of many confrontations Jenner experienced throughout the show from other trans women with very different experiences about what it means and what it’s like to be trans.
Boylan jokes, “If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person. We’re all experts in the fields of our own lives and we have a strong sense that our own view of gender is the right one.” But including the stories of this posse — as well as the wide variety of people who Jenner meets at various camps, support groups, and community centers — helped “compassionately speak to the diversity of all people.”
No doubt, Jenner’s life circumstances are not representative of most trans women (or most people generally), but that doesn’t mean that her show could not be an effective way for people to see trans people and learn about their lives. “Only Nixon could go to China, so maybe only Caitlyn Jenner can shine a light in such a way,” Boylan said. And Jenner is “genuinely and consistently committed to changing the culture.”
She’s still figuring out how to do that. In recent weeks, she’s come under fire for various comments, including her struggle to accept marriage equality and her “I’m in on the joke” ambivalence about the offensive Halloween costume mocking her Vanity Fair cover. As Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder has written, she needs to be criticized, if only because it works. In that blog post after the final episode aired, she responded to the criticism, conceding, “Just because I think something is funny or appropriate, doesn’t mean that all trans people feel the same way and vice versa. I can only speak from my own personal experience and in no way can I represent the entire trans community.”
And Boylan has no regrets about being part of the odd prestige of a glamorous reality show. “It’s not a deal with the devil, it’s a deal with the E! Network,” she said, adding that she did the show because she’s a teacher and she feels that she successfully reached people. It was a bargain, but one worth making. “You tune in for Kanye, you stay for Professor Boylan.”
I Am Cait ended with a A Ceremony of Renaming, in which Pastor Allyson Robinson helped Jenner “mark a sacred moment: the assumption of her new name.” In a fitting epilogue, Jenner filed papers this week with the Superior Court of California officially requesting that her name and gender be legally recognized.
“To speak your truth out loud is a terrifying thing,” Boylan explains, and despite a bit of gentle ribbing from South Park, Jenner was “stunning and brave” for doing it. Her show could not be all things to all people, but it was still a lot of important things to a a lot of vulnerable people. With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter how privileged Jenner is or whether she is a perfect spokesperson for the transgender community. All that matters is whether people watched it, whether they were exposed to that multitude of transgender experience. They did, and they were. If I Am Cait is picked up for another season, that may well continue.
I Am Cait has been picked up for a second season.