On I Am Cait, and TV’s Other Trans Family Narratives, the Drama Is Outside the Frame

Caitlyn Jenner in I Am Cait.

Photo by: James White/E! Entertainment

In her review of I Am Cait, Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin found Caitlyn Jenner’s new show, which debuted on E! Sunday night, guilty of a sin that is unpardonable on reality television: “dullness.” To those familiar with a genre that requires conflict to be manufactured in the moments before each commercial break, I Am Cait seemed remarkably drama-free: No tables were overturned, no voices were raised, and no hair was pulled—in fact, Jenner’s coiffure was augmented when her daughter Kylie gifted her with some pea-green hair extensions.

This shouldn’t have been surprising. Although Caitlyn Jenner spent nearly 25 years embroiled in the drama of reality TV’s first family, her new show is part of an entirely different subgenre from the Kardashians’ franchise: It is an educational transgender family narrative. Like two other shows currently on the air, ABC Family’s Becoming Us and TLC’s I Am Jazz, I Am Cait is an upbeat story of a woman accepting and sharing her true self, in which the necessary drama derives not from something that happens to the subjects while the cameras are rolling, but from the threat that every viewer knows is lurking in the world beyond the set.

I Am Cait begins with Jenner, wide awake at 4:32 a.m., pulled from sleep by the horrific thought of trans people being murdered and her responsibility to the transgender community. Later, even as a retinue of primpers prepares Jenner for her first meeting with her mom and sisters as Caitlyn, she frets about the suicide rate in the trans community, which, she says, is nine times higher than among the general population. The message is clear—and undeniable: Transgender individuals are some of the most vulnerable in society, so even when we’re hanging with a multi-millionaire who doesn’t even have to comb her own hair, fear and violence are never far away.

That vague but constant thrum of terror is hard to represent on television, though, so I Am Cait—like the other trans-focused reality shows—focuses instead on its protagonist’s family members. Caitlyn, of course, has some of the most recognizable relatives on tabloid television, and several of them made cameo appearances on Sunday’s premiere, but it was her mother and sisters who represented the challenges of transition. Caitlyn’s mother, Esther, and sisters Lisa and Pam, are clearly loving and supportive. They all expressed great pride in Caitlyn’s courage and applauded her new happiness, but that doesn’t mean that adjusting to the family’s new reality was without its difficulties. As Esther repeated with anguish in her voice, “It’s not easy.” It would be cruel to criticize an 89-year-old woman for failing to use the right pronouns in her first face-to-face meeting with Caitlyn, but it was still striking to note how Esther’s words revealed the extent to which she didn’t understand Caitlyn’s situation, as, for instance, when she said, “I knew he was going to be dressed as a woman. I think he’s a very good-looking woman. He’s still Bruce.”

As the therapist Caitlyn brought in to advise the visiting family members reminded them all, “Pronouns are really important.” I have no doubt Esther will come around—“I loved him with all my heart, and I certainly love her with all my heart” is just about the most supportive message a parent can deliver—but when even adoring relatives misgender and misunderstand, it’s clear the rest of the world has a lot to learn—information that shows like I Am Cait can provide.

I Am Jazz follows 14-year-old Jazz Jennings as she does a makeover on her “little girl” bedroom to make it more appropriate for the high-schooler she’ll soon become, goes bowling with friends, and shops for makeup with her mom. She also attends medical appointments to make sure that the hormone blockers she takes to prevent male puberty are keeping her testosterone levels low, discusses surgical options (she decides to postpone that decision for a while longer), and intervenes to stop her mom from chasing a couple of boys who call Jazz a “tranny freak” as they walk by the outdoor terrace where they’re eating together.

Jazz is astonishingly open and confident—she pushed to wear dresses and be treated as a girl from a very early age—but she’s also subject to the insecurities all teenage girls are prone to, especially when it comes to boys. Her parents and siblings are utterly supportive, and with the exception of the slur-slinging idiots outside the restaurant, the threats to Jazz’s happiness don’t parade themselves in front of the cameras. They are the judgment of boys who won’t come to group hangouts if Jazz is going to be there, a fear of being abandoned by her friends when they start dating, or worries, like her mom’s, that “people are murdered because they’re transgender.” Here, once again, older relatives are drafted in to stand in for the ignorant world—her maternal grandparents, whose love and concern for Jazz is obvious, are chastised by her mother for vocabulary problems—Grandpa is told to say “transgender people” rather than “transgenders,” and Grandma is told off for using the T word, which she doesn’t realize is a terrible slur. Like viewers at home, Jazz’s grandparents want to do and say the right thing, but they don’t always know what that is without being told.

Words are also a contentious topic on Becoming Us, which tells the story of 16-year-old Ben, who is having trouble adjusting to a parent’s transition from Charlie to Carly. On this show, the tension isn’t over pronouns: Ben, his mother Suzy, and sister Sutton, always seem to get them right. In part, that’s because Carly isn’t the only trans individual they know: Ben’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Danielle’s dad, a total sweetheart who lacks Carly’s physical confidence, has been transitioning for nine years (he uses male pronouns and hasn’t changed his name). Nevertheless, there’s still conflict over nomenclature: Carly doesn’t want Ben to call her Dad, a title Ben refuses to renounce. It isn’t that Ben doesn’t want Carly to be happy—he just seems overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of changes he’s facing, especially after Carly tells him she’s scheduled her bottom surgery, which Ben believes will make Carly’s transition “official.” Afterward, he says, “my dad is just gone.”

The disagreements between Ben and Carly are ultimately about coming to terms with change. When Ben finally understands why Carly can’t be his dad anymore, it’s hard to see what’s so different from all the other times she explained it to him. And then you realize: Ben finally realized it was time to leave his childhood behind. Cait, Jazz, and Carly are helping their families to understand their transition—and showing the rest of us what it means to be trans.