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…[pagebreak]
Slowly, other guests arrive for a ladies’ night that Caitlyn has organized for her transgender friends. As soon as we meet Candis Cayne, the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character in primetime, and a group of activists, writers, and artists that include Chandi Moore, Jen Richards, Zackary Drucker, and Drian Juarez, it’s clear that these ladies aren’t just here to guzzle Chardonnay and chat about their book club selections. Candis talks about what it was like to transition a few decades ago, without access to the money or the fame that make things easier for Caitlyn now. When conversation turns to Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover, feelings are mixed. Some were jealous of Caitlyn. Some were worried that the world wouldn’t take other transgender women as seriously. But this is a loving group, and Jen Richards steps in quickly to prevent Caitlyn from feeling attacked. She suggests that you can support Caitlyn while still fighting against the system that glorifies her story at the expense of other transgender women whose stories might be less glamorous.
This is the moment when you might step back from your TV and realize that, in its own small way, E! is fighting the same system that Jen is talking about. It’s taking Caitlyn’s story, and using it to draw attention to other transgender women’s stories. That might not sound too mind-blowing until you realize that the transgender community was practically invisible on television just ten years ago, except for The Jerry Springer Show.
Obviously, visibility on television isn’t the biggest struggle transgender women face. Just last year, Candis says, she went to a friend’s doctor for hormones and he told the friend, “You’re not going to bring any more of those people in here, are you?” Drian says she was forced into sex work when she couldn’t find a regular job that would help her make the money for her transition. When Caitlyn appears shocked by the words “sex work,” the others patiently explain that it’s all too common for transgender women. Some of them seem frustrated with the fact that Caitlyn’s the de facto spokesperson for transgender women, and yet she still has so much to learn about the people she represents.
Jen suggests that it’s time for a field trip to the Human Rights Campaign in San Francisco, to educate Caitlyn about transgender issues. Suddenly, the tone lightens up. “We could rent a bus. Like Pricilla!” Caitlyn exclaims. Later, she packs a suitcase, confessing to her assistant that she might have a crush on Candis. It’s a nice scene, not only because it clears up the fact that, yes, some trans women are attracted to other women, not men. It’s such a sweet confession, I want to start shipping Candis and Caitlyn (Canlyn? Caitdis?) right now.
The ladies stay overnight in a beautiful house and drink from massive Amy Schumer-sized wine glasses. Jenny wants to go naked into the hot tub, but decides against it when she’s the only one. It’s a much-needed moment of fun in a very serious episode. The only misstep comes when Jenny tries to persuade Caitlyn to make her grand debut in a swimsuit (it’s still too soon for Caitlyn, who’s feeling shy) and the camera lingers on Jenny’s body, looking her up and down. Here they are at this body-positive ladies’ weekend, and the cameraman is creeping everyone out.
And he’s not the only one who could use a lesson in sensitivity. Caitlyn could use one herself. When the group suggests that activists should concentrate on getting entry-level jobs for transgender people, Caitlyn replies, “You don’t want them to get totally dependent on it,” not realizing that many transgender women need social programs to survive. When they talk about their heavy suitcases, Caitlyn brightens up. “You know what the other good thing [about being a woman] is?” she asks. “We get guys to carry our bags for us!” Before anyone can give her a lecture on institutional feminism, the group arrives at the HRC, where there are even more lessons to learn. One transgender woman gets emotional, claiming that people accept Caitlyn because of her “socio-economical stance,” and another tells Caitlyn that she should use her spotlight not just to spread acceptance, but also to correct people who are wrong about transgender issues.
These are powerful conversations to hear, both for Caitlyn and for the rest of us. Debates about transgender issues are too often fought by cisgender (or non-transgender) people in the media. (I’m thinking in particular of this New York Times piece about Jenner, which got so much wrong.) It’s so important to hear transgender women discuss these issues themselves, amongst one another. This week’s I Am Cait reminds us that just being transgender doesn’t make you immune to criticism. Caitlyn gets plenty of it in this episode, and judging by the sneak peak of next week’s episode, she’ll get more. But she’s open to being criticized on television, so that she can learn something along with the rest of the country. That’s what makes her an inspirational figure, not looking beautiful on the cover of Vanity Fair.