Caitlyn Jenner, at age 65, is getting ready to introduce herself to her mother for the first time. She’s nervous because her mother, Esther Jenner, knows her—as we all once did—as Bruce Jenner. And nervous because the former Olympic gold medalist and Keeping Up With the Kardashians dad is also reintroducing herself to the world as the most visible and thus scrutinized transgender person in America. “I hope I get it right,” she sighs.
I Am Cait (July 26 on E!), very un-Kardashians-like in its earnestness, is always conscious of its dual purpose: it’s a personal story played out for an audience of millions, on behalf of a much larger community. The premiere episode is emotional but controlled, much like Jenner’s carefully media-managed coming-out, from her Diane Sawyer primetime interview to the sultry cover of Vanity Fair magazine to her heart-tugging acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN.
But at its most affecting it’s about something that can’t be massaged and mediated: a woman trying to live an honest life with her family, trying to close the decades-long distance between her self-image and her self presentation.
In a way, Esther is as important to the opening hour as her daughter, serving as a surrogate for viewers new to transgender issues. At 89, she turns out to be open and willing to adapt. She has trouble with the pronouns—”He’s a very good-looking woman,” she says at first—but she wrestles with the complexities by holding to the simple fact that her child remains her child. “I loved him with all my heart,” she says, “and I certainly love her with all my heart.”
It’s not easy for her, nor is it easy for Caitlyn—herself, after all, a senior citizen who’s spent a lifetime absorbing gender assumptions even as she chafed against them. But Caitlyn, who could come across awkward and guarded as Bruce on Keeping Up—living a secret, she says, made her “an isolationist”—now seems comfortable, free and funny. “Now I know why girls need a sports bra!” she exclaims while playing tennis with her sister.
The lighter moments in I Am Cait come via drop-ins from the extended Jenner-Kardashian clan. Caitlyn gets green hair extensions from daughter Kylie; later, stepdaughter Kim Kardashian stops by with celebrigod husband Kanye West, to consult on Caitlyn’s wardrobe. When Caitlyn shows off a little black Tom Ford dress, Kim says that her mother—Caitlyn’s ex-wife Kris—has the same one in chocolate brown. It’s service for Keeping Up fans, but it also serves I Am Cait’s theme of presenting transition not as a tragedy but an opportunity.
Of course, as Caitlyn acknowledges, she’s been privileged. Most people transitioning don’t have a stylist to prepare them to greet their mothers. (“I don’t think I can be too much in la femme mode,” Caitlyn says.) Most don’t have Diane Von Furstenberg sending them couture outfits, or get messages from the head of Twitter that their new accounts may hit a million followers faster than President Obama’s.
So I Am Cait builds in a sense of mission beyond its star subject. (The show comes from Keeping Up maker Bunim/Murray Productions, whose The Real World introduced MTV audiences to activist Pedro Zamora, one of the first gay men with AIDS portrayed in primetime.) The premiere announces itself with an Armistead Maupin quote—”The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives”—and ends with Jenner visiting the mother of Kyler Prescott, a 14-year-old transgender boy who committed suicide in May. At times the tone can be stiff and cautious, like a public-service announcement. But it’s a service nonetheless, lending celebrity’s un-turnoffable megaphone to the voiceless, especially kids.
That’s different from TLC’s I Am Jazz, which simply hands the microphone directly to one of those trans kids. Yet despite their similar titles, I Am Cait and I Am Jazz don’t feel like competitors so much as complements: a senior citizen entering a brave new world and a girl who has never known another world, the peculiar bubble of celebrity and the ordinariness of the ‘burbs. Neither reality show can be as poetic as Amazon’s scripted series Transparent, in which Jeffrey Tambor plays an elderly parent who comes out as female to her grown children. But as reality shows–however edited and self-consciously presented–they can send a message of authenticity: that people like Caitlyn and Jazz exist in the world; they are parents and children and siblings; and they, whatever anyone says, are real.