I Am Cait Is Not About Caitlyn Jenner

Photo: E!

We’re a little late to the party, but so excited to be here. Winter is a trans musician, storyteller, son, brother, and less notably,Original Plumbing magazine’s Mr. Transman NYC 2013. Nicole is a non-trans journalist who writes about sexuality and gender and can remember a time not so long ago when every article about trans people or issues had to include an ad hoc definition of the term. Those days are gone, and in their place we have I Am Cait, part reality show, part PSA, a landmark moment for trans visibility, and a romp through the homes and closets of a very rich woman. Ahead, we discuss last Sunday night's episode of Cait: "The Road Trip: Part One."

Nicole Pasulka: It must be awkward to be this rich and still be marginalized. The first episode was very “Trans 101” and also very much about a member of the Kardashian family. So at the beginning of episode two, I’m wondering, who is this show for? The feeling I’ve had since Caitlyn Jenner started to publicly transition is that this story is being told for “us,” a general public who will gain a better understanding of the issues if we see a relatable trans person who can normalize the experience.

Winter Laike: She refers to herself as a “spokesperson” a lot. I don’t remember getting a ballot in the mail or a Facebook invite to decide who speaks on my behalf.

N.P.: Whether or not other people find the hyperfemininity relatable or alienating, it is still on full blast in episode two. Caitlyn’s look is really coming together since she ditched that blue dress Kim hates, but her voice still doesn’t sound feminine. Before she brought this up, I thought to myself, Wouldn’t it be cool if Caitlyn is like, "Screw it, this is my voice"? But maybe it’s messed up that I want to see her dial back the full-on femme presentation.

W.L.: I don’t think so. In general, I’d really like her to reject the notion that she has to be hyperfeminine in order to be accepted as a woman by the general public. It may sound cheesy, but I wish Caitlyn spent less time on her outward appearance and more on the inside stuff like her confidence. Though I realize that a lot of trans people draw confidence from being seen by the world as the person they feel they are. Society’s expectations have fucked up everything for everybody. And by society, I mean rich, straight, white cisgender men. So I guess in a way, maybe Caitlyn’s past has done this to herself?

N.P.: Kim is back in this episode, because Kim is Kim and she’s gonna be in this show. She and her friend Malika Haqq offer some tips on femininity, which amount to: Don’t eat ribs in public.

W.L.: Caitlyn tells them she’s considering surgery to change the pitch of her voice. Kim points out that if it went wrong, Cait could lose her voice entirely. In the reaction shot, Caitlyn looks like she hadn’t considered this.

Ah, Caitlyn, I want to support you, I really do. But you have to stop acting like surgery is always the answer. With any surgery, there is risk, and surgery is not accessible to a large population of trans people.

N.P.: And then I Am Cait swerves left, introducing the highly respected writer, academic, and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan. Jenny Boylan saw you rolling your eyes, Winter, and was like, “I got this.”

W.L.: Jenny Boylan is a breath of fresh air. I was afraid the whole show was going to be about Caitlyn’s beauty tips. I really enjoy this nerdy, no-nonsense professor along with her patience and eagerness to show Cait some perspective.

N.P.: Seeing that Caitlyn is so focused on the clothes and makeup, Boylan states what should be obvious, but isn’t: “There are more important things than what you look like.” Jenny Boylan has invited a group of diverse and brilliant trans women in the hopes that Cait can glean some knowledge about how to rep the community. To get ready for the event Jenny gets … an awkward makeover. Shiny hair appears to be the price of entry here. Jen Richards, Chandi Moore, Candis Cayne, Zackary Drucker, and Drian Juarez arrive for a girls’ night. They all look amazing and happy. Because Caitlyn doesn’t know any trans women, she is amped.

W.L.: It’s like finally being invited to a sleepover with the popular girls at school. Let’s hope she doesn’t wake up with shaving cream all over her face. Cait is over the moon to share. And she should be! But, of course, not every newly out trans person gets a group of badass activist friends to immediately take you under their wings and listen to the misguided things you say.

N.P.: The public has never greeted a trans-coming-out with so much welcome and warmth, says Jen Richards. But, they remind us that Cait doesn’t have any experience in the trans community. How exactly is she going to be a “spokesperson” for them?

W.L.: I feel like instead of being the “spokesperson” for the trans community, Caitlyn could be the Barbara Walters of the trans community, interviewing and speaking with trans women who are doing meaningful work. In the first episode, Caitlyn mentioned wanting to give a voice to those that do not have a voice. Maybe this is a way to do that.

N.P.: Right, decades of activism by these and so many other women made a coming-out like Caitlyn’s possible. And now they’re here! For girls’ night! Sipping vino and dishing about structural inequality. Courtney, Cait’s hairdresser and one of the two cisgender women who have been Caitlyn’s primary support system since she’s transitioned, wonders if other trans women will accept Cait or if they’ll envy her. Envy is a funny way to say, “get really annoyed by conditions of privilege and inequality,” but again Jen Richards brings the conversation back to structural discrimination against trans women. She says, of course she can support Caitlyn as an individual, “while still calling into question a system that makes this particular story the one that we finally listen to while we’ve been ignoring the stories of black and Latina trans women and poor trans women.”

W.L.: These women are saying the things that need to be said. The closest we get to positive portrayals of trans women in the major media are Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. If there isn’t a recent book release or new season of OITNB where some heavy trans issues are brought up, we don’t hear from them in major media.

N.P.: When Drian Juarez tells a moving story about having to pay for her transition through sex work, Caitlyn is quick to bring up Janet Mock, who wrote about doing sex work to pay for her own gender reassignment surgery. But, uh oh, this knowing reference backfires. “Cait thinks that because she read a couple of pages in a book that she’s in the know but she doesn’t get it,” says Chandi Moore.

I dig that this episode has basically become a gentle callout in front of some breathtaking scenery. Caitlyn obviously wants to “learn” something, but it’s not clear what exactly. How to be a “better” woman? How to be a “leader”? Or how she can actually further the cause of trans rights? If the women she’s invited over to her house have their say, accomplishing that last goal will involve taking a more progressive view of things like sex work and government-funded social programs.

W.L.: I have to give it to Caitlyn at this point because, after name-dropping Janet Mock’s book Redefining Realness, she is impervious to Chandi’s “bitch, please” face.

N.P.: Finally the ROAD TRIP we were promised! The women want to take Caitlyn to San Francisco so they can introduce her to more trans activists at the Human Rights Campaign offices. Caitlyn hides herself from the paparazzi and joins the others — minus Drian Juarez and Zackary Drucker — in an enormous camper stocked with more vino. Cait maybe has a crush on Candis (now the tabloids speculate that they’re dating). Ronda and Courtney, the cisgender women who’ve come along for the trip, feel excluded. Ronda’s mad she has to sleep in the crappy room. In the morning, Caitlyn peppers the stunning redwood forest with golf balls and wonders how her gender transition will affect her game.

Jenny Boylan, however, is focused on the task at hand: educating Cait, the self-described “baby” trans woman, about the trans community.

W.L.: While Caitlyn has been able to overhaul her wardrobe and get procedure after procedure in a short period of time, the trans women she meets at the Human Rights Campaign have been transitioning for years. They tell her they still haven’t been able to access the resources that Caitlyn has. Transitioning is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And something that the show hasn’t really gotten into yet — and I really hope they do — is that there isn’t one way to be trans.

Some people may go on hormones or hormone-blockers. Some people may have surgeries. Some people may want one surgery but not another. Some people may not want to use hormones or have any surgery at all. A person’s process does not make them any more or less trans. There is no formula.

Unemployment, homelessness, sex work — for trans women these things aren’t unusual. Chandi wants to know what Cait plans to do about all this since what’s unusual or uncommon is Caitlyn’s perspective and experience.

N.P.: Yeah, that’s my question, too. Visibility for marginalized people is good, for sure, but visibility doesn’t automatically lead to jobs, health care, education, or safety.

W.L.: I’m watching to find out what, if anything, she’s going to do about these things. At the HRC, Blossom Brown describes being profiled as a sex worker, and Caitlyn immediately asks, “Is that what people will think of me?” It’s still all appearance, all the outside stuff, and not about how she’s developing as a person. Though Caitlyn is talking, in moments like this one, I Am Cait is not about her.