I missed Bruce Jenner’s “coming out” interview with Diane Sawyer in April, the one where he still referred to himself as “him,” but declared that he identified as a woman, and that God , in what Jenner termed “His infinite humor”, had given him the “soul of a female.” I read Buzz Bissinger's subsequent Vanity Fair interview in July and viewed the accompanying pictorial by Annie Leibovitz in which Ms. Jenner comes out as her new self, Caitlyn.
Like so many of us, I was both curious and voyeuristic enough to want to peek into the life of this so called privileged individual risking so much by making her uncharted transition so public. I’d heard the ridicule, the derision, the scorn, the quips about hanging off Kardashian coat tails, and doing it all for money. I half believed it, even. I was primed and ready to watch the whole affair from start to finish.
As Bruce on Keeping Up with The Kardashians, Cait was a somewhat nondescript character in contrast to his strong, outspoken female family members. Though he played the role of supportive husband and father well enough, he was never an overly dramatic, defining sort of character. As Cait she is much the same. She is clunky; she is awkward. She wears too much make-up. She lumbers from side to side as she saunters across a room. Watching her is like watching an overgrown toddler learning to walk. She is a fledgling female. One can only surmise that 65 years of being a woman trapped in a man’s body takes its toll on the development of feminine traits, and masculine habits of that long a standing are definitely hard to break, no matter how much your female soul yearns to fly free of your physical maleness.
In any case, Cait, except for the curious, controversial situation is, well, kind of boring.
However, what Jenner, or at least her producers, have done exceedingly well, is surround the lead with a supporting cast of extremely compelling transgender women. Women like Sexy, Dirty Money actress, Candis Cayne; scholar, renowned author and political activist, Jennifer Finney Boylan; actress Jen Richards, activist Chandi Moore, and others. These are women who are successfully living a transgender life. Authentic individuals who own and believe their identities. Individuals empowered by the impetus of their spirits to make their own choice in life and live according to the calling of their spirits.
They are excellent examples, teachers, mentors and fairy godmothers to foster the ‘young’ Caitlyn. And here, within this extraordinary consortium of powerful women masquerading behind the seemingly unabashed bacchanalia of reality television, is where the meaning of whom and what I am Cait really is, begins to emerge.
The New York Post called I am Cait “an unwatchable mess,” declaring dwindling viewership and declining ratings, predicting a quick post first season cancellation, while the Los Angeles Times championed the show as a triumph “engendering genuine illumination and thought.”
The truth lies somewhere in between, for Cait, in true TV reality form, is the both a parody of a circus parade and a magical sort of evolutionary inspiration at the same time. Perhaps the most inspiring message that I am Cait brings to the world by simply being on the air though, is one that is greater in scope and harder to accept by both the cis- and trans- worlders alike, than what it means to be and live as a transgender. This is the message that asks us to dismantle and re-identify, re-define and find voice for who we really are and honor it by living it.
To live as who we are is not easy. It’s all the more difficult when the identity you would choose for yourself goes against the accepted norms of society. Harder still continuing to capitulate to that society’s expectation of you after decades of a successful public life. And how excruciatingly difficult must it be to make the decision to change that and, as Jennifer Finney Boylan said, “live your truth out loud”?
We are a culture defined and directed by labels and the language that makes up those labels. We have become a culture that now needs such labels with which to identify, communicate and bond with one another other effectively. Furthermore, in what might be a perfect illusion, our society functions under an imagined precept of order. Every day we struggle to maintain the appearance of that order that we have assigned to our lives in order to define those lives and find meaning worthy of living. Creatures of habit, we find comfort in that repetition, fear changing it, even if it means a better way, because with each change comes the necessary vulnerability and risk of examining our identity and questioning the beliefs that come with it.
We wake up, bathe, shave, put on our make-up, carpool to work, and stop by the grocery store on the way home to pick up dinner before we have a drink and fall asleep to the late night news. We cling to the ideals of organized religion, competitive capitalism, parenthood and family values that correspond to the daily schedules running our lives, keeping the societal automaton running smooth. Living by those schedules, we forget that those things are not the things that define us; they are the things behind which we hide our true selves in order to fit into a structure of living that might keep us safe, but that we get to define. So what happens when living within the comfort and confines of the society begins to leave us feeling undefined and unfulfilled, our spirits longing for something more?
What happens as we begin to realize some of those beliefs we thought were our own are just borrowed hand-me-downs we never exercised the choice to accept or reject?
"If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, 'You just blew your entire life. You never dealt with yourself,' and I don't want that to happen." Caitlyn said during the Vanity Fair interview.
“I am not doing this to be interesting,” she says on the show, “ I am doing this to live.”
In all her clumsy, gawkish innocence she is believable.
In the finale episode of this first season, Caitlyn invites her ex-wife Kris over to her home high in the hills of Decker Canyon in Malibu. They haven’t seen or communicated with each other in almost six months, since shortly before Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair article came out. Kris confesses that she wants Cait to be happy, but that she was very hurt by the things Cait said in the article, especially about her and the family. Cait’s words on how being a husband and father had been “distractions” for her were ones at which Kris and the entire family took umbrage. It’s an easily misunderstood statement. Caitlyn’s responds to Kris’s hurt feelings by saying, “We had good times, great times, and I loved and adored you, but it was a distraction from who I was.” [In being a husband and father] “I didn’t have to deal with myself, and who my soul was.”
Her soul, she says. It’s a word she uses repeatedly to give credence to her reason for action. Watching Cait will cause you to feel uncomfortable for her physical awkwardness. You may not like her brusqueness, her insensitivity, or her politics, and yet in her bumbling naivete you feel sympathy for her and believe her sincerity to be genuine. As Caitlyn told Diane Sawyer, back when she was still Bruce, “One thing we have to do is keep our sense of humor about this. It’s pretty funny, me of all people, Bruce Jenner, you know, has to deal with these issues.”
Bruce Jenner, who four decades ago was honored for accomplishing the ancient Greeks’ highest test of human endurance and raw masculine power. Now she takes on a new test of endurance, as she embraces her feminine power.
If we dismiss I am Cait as just another shallow, exploitive reality show with no redeeming qualities, or revile it because its lead is not who we might wish her to be, it’s because we’re not being honest with ourselves, because we are not listening. Besides providing another opportunity to open a window of education for the masses into the trans-world (maybe marginalized and privileged and sometimes frivolous, but still a window), what I am Cait sheds light on, is what few people want to look at: themselves. To look at Cait, to accept Cait, and the audacity of her on-screen transformation is to question ourselves, our beliefs, our purpose here, and our views on humanity.
To accept I am Cait is to allow the truth of somebody else’s idea of humanity to disagree side by side next to yours, yet understand that just because their idea is different doesn’t make your idea any less right for you, nor theirs any less right for them.
“What to do with my life. How to tell my story, that’s what I’m trying to find out. Am I going to project the right image?” a deep-voiced, bare-faced Cait asks of the camera in the the first scene of the first episode. “I hope I get it right.”
I asked my daughter what she thought was the most important thing to be gained from watching I am Cait. Her answer was simple, “‘You be you’. Because it doesn’t matter what other people think as long as you think well of yourself, as long as you are who you want to be. You can’t let other people tell you who you really are.” It’s in the fear of our own non-conformity that we disallow others their own way of conforming.
Does I am Cait have more to accomplish? Could there be less drama and fashion and more political activism? Will critics continue to praise and ridicule? Yes, yes, and yes. But, what I am Cait offers are curiosity, hope, and an opportunity to know oneself better through the narrative of others.
You be you Cait, and you’ll get it right.