What Caitlyn and Jazz’s Shows Are Doing for Trans People—and Everyone Else
It’s been a banner year or two for transgender representation on television. Most of the programs recently celebrated for shining a light on trans issues have been “prestige” dramas on streaming services—Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. These programs are preoccupied with drama, complicated people, and the consequences of bad decisions. They are good, sometimes great shows—and they’ve done a lot to help counteract decades of trans erasure in pop culture—but foremost, they are entertainment and relatively niche programs.
This summer, however, two new reality shows are telling the stories of trans women. I Am Jazz, which premiered in July on TLC, follows Jazz Jennings, a 14-year-old Florida girl and her family, as she prepares to start high school. The other, much more high-profile show, which premiered Sunday night on E!, is I Am Cait, the highly anticipated latest stop on the coming-out tour of Caitlyn Jenner that began earlier in the summer with a Diane Sawyer interview and a Vanity Fair cover story. Despite the lowbrow nature of the genre, both shows are perhaps more groundbreaking and overtly political than their critically acclaimed scripted counterparts.
Everything about I Am Jazz, from the fly-on-the-wall camera work to the “confessional,” talk-to-the-camera monologues each of the “characters” gives throughout, looks like every other show on the reality-heavy network (Say Yes to the Dress, Sister Wives, 19 Kids and Counting). But instead of being about shopping or giant religious families, it’s about a precocious, sensitive trans girl and her supportive, loving family as they navigate adolescence—which is complicated for everybody, but especially for a girl born in a male body.
In the show’s first three episodes, Jazz navigates the medical world (visiting her doctor to discuss the hormone blockers that are staving off male puberty and the estrogen levels she should be on to get the secondary sex characteristics she desires) as well as the teenage social world, planning a group hang at a bowling alley with her girlfriends and the few boys who aren’t too transphobic to come along. Jazz is strikingly mature and intelligent, someone who recognized her gender dysphoria as a toddler and has been living as a girl since kindergarten.
She is also lucky: Jazz has proud, compassionate parents who struggle to make their daughter’s life easier and fight for her rights. We learn in an episode about Jazz trying out for the high school soccer team that the family was embroiled in a two-year lawsuit so she could play on a girls’ youth team. She also has good friends, but she is not untouched by bigotry. In one scene, as she and her mother eat lunch on a restaurant’s patio, she is called a “tranny freak” by a passing boy.
Watching Jazz, you’re not only struck by how amazingly self-possessed she is but also by how typical her adolescent experience is. Regardless of your gender identity, it’s easy to identify with dreading bathing suit shopping, feeling ignored by the opposite sex, or wishing your body looked different. When Jazz tells her doctor she wishes she had larger breasts, he says she sounds like every girl her age and reminds her that she wanted a “typical” teenage experience—and is getting one. These issues are magnified when your genitals don’t match your gender expression, but they are familiar to all.
Meanwhile, I Am Cait’s first episode features the post-transition introduction of the formerly doddering patriarch of 10 seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians to her youngest daughter, her sisters, and her mother. It is also, in essence, her introduction to America as she opens up her home and her soul to the cameras.
Unlike Jazz, though, Jenner’s life, complete with a mansion on a private road in Malibu and an on-call glam squad, is not at all relatable to the masses. Jenner recognizes this, and so, in lieu of the kind of day-in-the-life dramas that the Kardashian shows are known for, she devotes half of her premiere to a visit to the family of Kyler Prescott, the third San Diego trans teen to commit suicide since March.
The visit draws attention to the startling statistics about violence against trans people by others and at their own hand. One recent study found that half of all trans youths ages 12 to 24 reported having suicidal thoughts, and about 30 percent of them had attempted suicide. Nearly one-fourth of these youths also reported symptoms of depression.
“We don’t want people dying over this,” Jenner says to the camera in the show’s opening moments. “We don’t want people murdered over this stuff.”
Jenner seems to realize that, as difficult as her transition in the limelight has been, she is coming from a place of privilege. So we see her trying to use some of that privilege to tell those grappling with their gender identity—especially young people—that it does get better, and that living an authentic life is a joy for which harassment is worth enduring.
For the rest of the show’s audience, who may have never met a trans person or even interacted with a fictional one on a show like Transparent, she is out to play “the friendly neighborhood trans woman,” putting a familiar and comforting face on an issue that some may find intimidating or confusing.
That’s the importance of I Am Jazz and I Am Cait: They give every viewer a new transgender friend. No one watching these shows can say they’ve never met someone trans, because the shows are intimate introductions, and that sort of familiarity breeds acceptance, or is at least a salve for the dual wounds of fear and ignorance that have for too long marginalized and silenced trans people.