the observer effect

I Am Cait and the Blandness of Celebrity

I Am Cait - Season 1
Caitlyn Jenner, I Am Cait. Photo: James White/E! Entertainment

Last night’s series premiere of I Am Cait was incredibly well produced — expertly packaged in every way. Caitlyn Jenner was glamorous and polished, and spoke emotionally about the bigotry that trans teens in particular face. She met with the mom of a trans teen who had killed himself, and walked a precarious line between “is this exploitative?” and “hmmm, this is probably a good PSA.” Jenner’s mother Esther hit her mark, saying, “It’s a lot of getting used to, but I will.”

Each scene felt as choreographed as a ballet, as deftly applied as the hair extensions we see Kylie and Cait giggle over: Fake, but fake for our behalf. We all know celebrities wear clip-ins all the time. But isn’t it beautiful? So full, so luxe? Isn’t that a great fantasy? E!’s brand of reality television reflects celebrity culture in general, and it’s a set of behaviors that put reality — not the genre, the actual state — in opposition to perfection. I Am Cait has chosen perfection, and that’s fine, but awfully tepid. Boring, even.

On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Jenner was often on the sidelines, more an observer than an instigator. Maybe that’s because she wasn’t living her true identity: She says in Cait that she’d been “an isolationist” because she felt that she didn’t fit in anywhere. Now that she has publicly transitioned, is she suddenly more engaging or energetic as a TV personality?

Unfortunately no, she is not. She is a brave woman, and she’s a famous woman, but that is not the same as being a telegenically compelling woman.

The central story for the pilot is Caitlyn meeting her family as Caitlyn. That’s a big deal, or it could be, if anyone had any identifiably strong reactions. Jenner’s daughter Kylie* FaceTimes her, and apparently that’s the first time the teenager has seen her parent post-transition. “I was kind of shocked, but I thought, oh, well!” Cait tells us. Oh, well, the show maintains. Kylie comes over, vacantly hugs her cousins, and then insists that the ever-present hairstylist put in green extensions for Caitlyn. Caitlyn says it’s the first time Kylie’s been to her house, but there’s so little reaction. Kim and Kanye pop by for a visit, and the focus turns to Kanye’s sneakers. Caitlyn laments to her sister that her other stepchildren haven’t seen her, but the concern is fleeting and superficial, dismissed just after it’s brought up.

That’s the perfection we want, right? The pretend-serious, the drive-by tragic. We’ve seen it, we acknowledge it, but we’re moving on! It is a net good for earth that I Am Cait shines a light on the struggles that trans teens face. Of course it is. But that segment covers six of the show’s 42 minutes. It’s a noble gesture — but it’s a gesture.

Jenner says that she wants to be a role model, and that she wants to use her celebrity for good. And good for her. It’s just not very engaging television. Part of the draw of Keeping Up With the Kardashians is its ridiculousness. Jenner’s TV persona here is placid. She mentions but does not dwell on tragedy, and she mentions but does not dwell on triumph. She hopes her family is okay with her transition, and they are.

Part of what makes I Am Cait feel so desaturated is the celebrity-fantasy culture Jenner perpetuates — and part of it is that she is in the unenviable position of having to be trans just right. Jenner doesn’t owe anyone anything, and simply being trans does not conscript one to the role of Chief Trans Press Officer. At least, it shouldn’t. But in our society, it often does. It’s the unwinnable fight oppressed people often face, that one member of a minority group must represent that entire group, and that person must be beyond reproach, lest an entire movement somehow be set back.

I Am Cait is both trailblazing and bland, a triangulation of the inauthenticity of “unscripted” programming, the inherent performative aspects of celebrity, and the unmeetable standards we have for marginalized people. The show is bland for the right reasons, and perhaps that’s for the best.

*This post has been corrected to reflect that Caitlyn FaceTimes with her daughter Kylie, not Kendall.

I Am Cait and the Blandness of Celebrity