In August of 2008 on a rainy day in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, I began filming the 21st season of MTV's The Real World. At 24 years old, I was the first openly transgender person in the show's then-16-year history. Only five weeks earlier, I had undergone sexual reassignment surgery.
In the months that followed I had quite a lot to get used to: dealing with the recovery from a major operation, moving to a new city, living with seven strangers whose strong personalities rivaled my own, eschewing my autonomy and any semblance of privacy in the process, and trying to balance discovering my most authentic self while trying to contribute something positive to the transgender community. All while being under the constant scrutiny of a panopticon of cameras, microphones, and stage lights.
So, while watching the first episode of Caitlyn Jenner's E! docuseries I Am Cait, I found myself in a unique position to understand and empathize with Ms. Jenner. I also noticed some things that were quite familiar.
The show opens with a candid and soulful scene. An anxious Caitlyn Jenner sits on her bed and confides her feelings of responsibility and duty to the transgender community. "I hope I get it right," she says. In the following scene Caitlyn outlines her hopes and provides us with the overall aim of the docuseries: to shed some light on issues directly affecting transgender people and highlight organizations that help make a difference. While I'm usually rather cynical about reality television and our culturally ingrained vapid obsession with celebrity, after the first two minutes, I was atypically optimistic.
Maybe they will do it right this time, I thought.
As the show continued my optimism became short-lived. Immediately I recognized the same heavy-handed editing that is typical of contemporary entertainment television: dramatic music cues over b-roll footage of nervous hand-wringing; manufactured interactions and formulaic conflicts whose only purpose is to artificially insert melodrama; and disingenuous personalities who are more interested in playing to the camera than engaging in real dialogue. Scenes that had the opportunity to address serious issues related to transitioning were truncated and interlaced with tawdry jokes about balls and sports bras.
It's important for us to recognize and understand that no one person can or will ever be an accurate representation of a collective of diverse individuals. This is true of any community, and especially so when dealing with the transgender community where sexual orientations, gender expressions, and innate identities run the gamut from asexual genderqueer to pangender to more conventional masculine/feminine transsexual expressions to nonbinary, nonoperative, and every possible variation in between. The transgender population is an aggregate of beautiful outliers whose feelings and identities are complex, nuanced, and frequently misunderstood.
Our stories cannot be told authentically set against the backdrop of a multimillion dollar mansion on a bluff in Malibu.
"I heard that the price tag for a picture of me is worth $250,000," Caitlyn explains to her driver while ducking behind the rear seat and trying to avoid paparazzi. Meanwhile, according to the American Psychological Association, up to 64 percent of transgender people report incomes below $25,000. Stated another way, the value of one picture of Caitlyn Jenner is equal to the median annual income of 10 transgender people. And while those coveted photos of Caitlyn have graced the cover of countless national magazines, 11 transgender people have been murdered this year with very little media coverage.
To her credit, Caitlyn Jenner does her best to try to speak to the heart of real issues facing transgender people today. Unfortunately, I feel that the message gets lost in poor delivery that is more entertainment than serious documentary. At the end of the day, I Am Cait comes across as a transgender-flavored installment in the Kardashian series.
My fear is that I Am Cait will squander its rare opportunity to address issues that actually affect a large number of transgender people in Western society — that it will instead fall victim to lazy tropes that further reduce us to what we are without exploring who we are as individuals. My hope is that it proves me wrong.
KATELYNN CUSANELLI is a senior Linux engineer in Silicon Valley, and a public speaker and civil rights and social justice activist. Keep up with her at http://k8mnstr.com/