Getting it right?24 February 2015
In the opening scene of I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner’s docu-series, the heroine sits up in bed in the middle of the night and addresses the camera: “What a responsibility I have to this community. Am I gonna do everything right? Am I gonna say the right things? Do I project the right image? I just hope I get it right.”
Now that the first season of I Am Cait has concluded, and the initial reactions to Jenner’s public coming out have dissipated, we can begin to ask – is she getting it right?
One half of the series is a reality show – Caitlyn rifles through her new wardrobe with Kim, and bickers with Khloe.. The other half is education – Caitlyn meets with GLAAD’s CEO (an organisation that monitors the representation of LGBT people in media), attends support groups for trans youth, and speaks with volunteers at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
The first episode focuses on Caitlyn’s first meeting with her mother and sisters since her transition. It takes place almost entirely in Caitlyn’s Malibu home and explores the Jenner family dynamics (with appearances by Kim, Kanye, and Kylie). Part way through the episode the family gets a visit from Susan Landon from the Los Angeles Gender Center. The discussion that follows is an opportunity for Jenner’s mother and sisters to ask all their burning questions. It functions as a three-minute crash course in trans identity for the punters at home.
The subsequent episodes follow Jenner as she becomes a part of her newfound community. In attempting to effectively advocate for this community, Jenner’s main obstacle is her extraordinaryprivilege. Here is a woman who can access and pay for all the medical care she needs, charter private planes to New York, use an endless chain of black-windowed SUVs to ferry her away from the paparazzi, and have other people carefully protect her personal safety whenever she leaves the house. Her experiences are so far removed from those of most trans people (and indeed, most cis people) it begs the question: can she effectively advocate as a representative of the trans community? The producers of I Am Cait – Jenner included – are all too aware of this.
Caitlyn surrounds herself with trans women activists, entertainers, writers, and academics who act as a foil to her naivety about the lives of her trans siblings. At one point Caitlyn asks this group of women if poor trans people can make more money on welfare payments than in an entry level job. “You don’t want people to get totally dependent on it,” she tells the group. After Caitlyn has stated her almost too-stereotypical-to-be-true Republican politics, there are cuts throughout the episode to the other women addressing the camera and pointing out Caitlyn’s privilege and lack of awareness. Writer Jen Richards explains, “We can support an individual trans person and celebrate their authenticity …and what they do with their privilege whilst calling into question a system that ignores the stories of Black and Latina trans women and poor trans women.” The show attempts to include a variety of trans women’s voices. Episodes two and three includes a visit Caitlyn and some of her new activist friends make to the HRC offices in San Francisco to meet with a group of trans women volunteers. The group discusses employment rights, violence, and sex work in an attempt to educate Caitlyn and the audience about these issues. One of these women, Angelica Ross, is the CEO of the company she started, Transtech Enterprises, which works to improve the economic landscape and wellbeing of the trans community. In a post on her blog following the airing of the episodes she is featured in, Ross describes her disappointment in the way she was presented on the show. She was given the impression that she was invited on the show in her capacity as the CEO of Transtech Enterprises, yet the editing framed the conversation around her history of sex work. “I felt silenced – a feeling all too common for trans women of colour,” Ross wrote.
The producers and participants of the show are at great pains to point out Caitlyn’s privilege, and almost every person featured on the show gets their fifteen seconds to explain that privilege in their own terms. It would make a great drinking game: take a shot every time someone calls out Caitlyn’s privilege, take a shot every time there is a conversation in Caitlyn’s wardrobe, every time someone uses the phrase “authentic self”, every time someone has to explain that gender and sexuality are different. This is not to be dismissive of the importance of acknowledging Jenner’s position, but rather to say that doing so is still making the story about Caitlyn Jenner. The amount of time devoted to addressing Caitlyn’s privilege could be better used giving voice to more marginalised people.
The editing has privileged Caitlyn’s story over Angelica’s, the very phenomena that the incredible activists on the show continuously decry. The show attempts a tricky balance between highlighting the very real and serious problems faced by trans people, and highlighting their successes and triumphs – as well as their every day lives. In this case they got the balance wrong. The series successfully humanises Caitlyn, but not necessarily other trans people.
However, Jenner’s celebrity and the amount of media coverage surrounding her coming out have raised the profile of the trans community. Journalists no longer have to start articles with an explanation of what transgender is. Activists can address a wider audience with issues they have been trying to get traction on for years. And arguably Jenner is able to reach that wider audience. An advocate who is white, Republican, Christian, and conventionally feminine will, sadly, speak to an audience that might resist hearing a gender-nonconforming, Jewish intellectual like Kate Bornstein, or women of colour like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, or CeCe MacDonald. The producers have specifically stated that the audience they hope to capture are those who followed Jenner’s Olympic career and her time on the Kardashians. They want to speak to middle America.
Jenner’s privilege is the obstacle to her effective advocacy, but it is also the reason she has become a de facto advocate in the first place. She is not necessarily the ideal advocate, but for the moment she is the one with the microphone. “I feel a tremendous responsibility because I have a voice and there’s so many trans people out there who do not,” Jenner says.
Part of this responsibility includes ceding the mic to those she seeks to represent.