Let’s go back in time for a minute. Pretend it’s 2014. If someone told you that there would soon be a groundbreaking docuseries that explored how socio-economic privilege, race, and patriarchal gender norms affect women, and it would be a big hit, would you believe them? What if they told you that it would air on E!, the same channel that made the Kardashians famous?
I know. The 2014 version of me would never believe it. To be honest, the 2015 version of me was initially doubtful, too. Every week, I worry that I Am Cait will do something to exploit transgender women and try to make them look cartoonish, or else it will swing too far in the other direction, taking on an all-too-serious voice that somehow turns the fabulous life of Caitlyn Jenner into a grim gender studies lecture. But for the second week in a row, I was thoroughly impressed with how thoughtful and compulsively watchable this show is, without resorting to the cheap stunts that so many reality TV shows rely upon. Who would’ve thought that E! could drive a group of transgender women on a party bus through California, inspired by Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and the tone would still be educational and classy?
The episode begins with a sobering reminder of just how much women have to put up with, whether they’re transgender or not. Caitlyn’s personal assistant Ronda shows her a video, and Caitlyn flinches while hearing her voice, because it still sounds more masculine than she’d like. “I never felt feminine, but I always felt female,” says Caitlyn, quoting the transgender activist Jenny Boylan. “All I want to do is to slip into society.”
Listening to the complaint, it’s hard not to think about how often we police women’s voices as a society. If women’s voices are too low, they’re accused of “vocal fry.” If their voices are too high, they’re accused of “sexy baby voice” or “upspeak.” Transgender women have the added problem of worrying that their voices will “out” them when they speak. Caitlyn admits that she used to practice her voice while ordering room service at hotels. If the person on the other end of the line called her “ma’am,” she’d feel like she’d gotten her voice where she wanted it, but it never happened. When Kim Kardashian drops by, she helps Caitlyn practice, with help from a vocal coach app. Meanwhile, a friend of Kim’s gives Caitlyn advice about being a woman. Apparently, she has to think twice about eating ribs in public, and she should wear high heels, but they can’t be too high. Ugh. If you have to follow this many rules to qualify as a woman, I don’t think I qualify as one myself.
It’s a big relief when Jenny Boylan herself drops by and instantly becomes like the most self-assured person in the room. “What’s your favorite way to wear your hair?” Caitlyn’s stylist asks her, and she replies, “Kinda like this,” pointing to the natural, product-free hair she’s already sporting. You tell ’em, Jenny. You don’t need a damn stylist to feel great about yourself.
“Caitlyn is a person of tremendous privilege and power,” Jenny says, as if explaining the differences between them. She admits that she’s worried about Caitlyn meeting others who don’t share that privilege.
NEXT: Oh yes, it’s ladies (and learning) night…