How extraordinary is Caitlyn Jenner’s story? Midway through the first episode of E!’s miniseries I Am Cait, her stepson-in-law Kanye West answers the question in the manner that only he can: “This is one of the strongest things that have happened in our existence as human beings that are so controlled by perception.”
Wearing sock-shoes in Jenner’s sunlit kitchen, West elaborates. “You couldn't have been up against more,” he says to Jenner. “Your daughter’s a supermodel, you’re a celebrity… but it was still like, ‘F*** everybody, this is who I am.’”
This idea of fame as an obstacle doesn’t quite jibe with what Jenner herself says throughout Sunday’s I Am Cait premiere. Most trans people don’t have closets full of Tom Ford dresses or hilltop mansions in Malibu; many face disapproval from family members, threats of violence, and financial hurdles that make it hard to transition. Jenner acknowledges this fact repeatedly, taking time between scenes of her playing tennis or inspecting clothes to talk about less-advantaged transgender people. At the end of the hour, she visits with the family of a trans teenager who killed himself, shedding light in a way that’ll bolster some peoples’ contention that Jenner’s setting an example in how to use privilege for good.
But the biggest takeaway from the first I Am Cait installment is that fame interacts strangely with something as personal as a gender transition. Early on, Jenner and her stylists cheer as her Vanity Fair cover is revealed on TV; later, Jenner's mother, Esther, and Jenner’s daughter, Kylie, “meet” Caitlyn for the first time. That’s right: Immediate family members were introduced to the female-presenting Jenner after Diane Sawyer, Buzz Bissinger, and the rest of the world were, at least according to the chronology of the special. It’s especially strange when Kylie reveals she picked out turquoise hair extensions for Jenner based on Googling images of her.
Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile of Jenner revealed that Jenner’s older children objected to her decision to document her new life using the same TV producers who made Keeping Up With the Kardashians, fearing the results would “devolve into maximum mayhem and minimal social awareness.” Thankfully, that nightmare has not come to pass. With its contemplative music and sociopolitical seriousness, the show has a different feel than the one that spawned it. But there is one fundamental, distracting similarity: In its editing and with its seemingly pre-rehearsed speeches for the camera, I Am Cait mimics typical reality TV by trying to force dramatic narratives onto day-to-day life. And while spotting the fakeness was part of the fun of the Kardashians, here it verges on counterproductive.
The most emotionally moving parts of the episode revolve around the 89-year-old Esther seeing her son as a daughter for the first time. When Esther arrives in Malibu, Jenner greets her by saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Esther looks up at her newly statuesque child and replies, sweetly, “I knew it would be.” Shortly after, Esther talks about how much she loves and supports Jenner, even as she continues to think of her as Bruce. “It’s a lot of getting used to,” she says, on the verge of tears. “But I will. I will.”
This all happens within the first 12 minutes of the episode. At no point does Esther say anything mean or disapproving. She just is going to need time before she can start referring to her child as “Caitlyn” with the same ease she once said “Bruce.” And yet for much of the rest of the episode the producers keep returning to Esther’s difficulties, as if her position—loving but still processing—is a point of conflict. (There is one interesting moment, when Esther brings up the Bible’s prohibition against cross-dressing, and an LGBT-issues counselor says that Jenner’s not a man pretending to be a woman—Jenner’s a woman, period.) The story line finally ends during a contrived-seeming conversation on a couch between Jenner and Esther. “I’m dragging you along with me,” Jenner says, and her mother just laughs faintly and says “okay.”
The rest of the premiere is filled with other such redundancies—ideas aired, then re-aired, and then re-aired, either in hopes of amping up drama or filling out the hour. There are real, rarely-before-depicted challenges for Jenner to tackle: how to dress and style herself; how to recalibrate some old relationships; how to better serve the trans community. A filmmaker from the world of traditional documentary, rather than reality TV, might have found a way to make those conflicts not feel like a performance for the camera.
Of course, performance isn’t inherently bad—even documentaries are works of artifice. But when the mission is to humanize a group of people, credibility counts. Jenner, at one point, wonders whether some of her kids and stepkids haven’t yet visited her because they secretly disapprove of her transition. But the viewer may wonder right back at her whether their absence was planned, so that emotional meet-and-greets could later take place on camera.
Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps it’s heartening that even as the subject matter and Jenner’s appearance has changed, I Am Cait retains some essential Kardiashianness. As Esther observes at one point, Caitlyn still has Bruce’s soul. And for transgender acceptance to become total, it will require people to understand that someone’s gender expression might shift but their fundamental nature doesn’t. I Am Cait, in a few ways, supports that message.