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Caitlyn Jenner Discusses Privilege and Suicide on I Am Cait

Caitlyn Jenner Discusses Privilege and Suicide on 'I Am Cait'

Caitlyn Jenner Discusses Privilege and Suicide on 'I Am Cait'

Caitlyn Jenner once again graced TV screens across the world with the premiere of her greatly anticipated E! reality TV series, I Am Cait, Sunday evening. The Olympian turned transgender pioneer made it clear within the first few minutes that the eight-part series would be a major departure from her last reality gig on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. She earnestly discussed her desired to continue to use her experience as a teachable moment to society as well as her understanding that a lot is riding on her as the most famous openly transgender person in history.

One of the most significant statements she made early on concerned her privilege in comparison to other trans folk. With much of America continuing to tied the trans narrative strictly to Caitlyn’s experience, it’s important for her to make clear that most trans people do not have access to the wealth, health care, and more that she does. It’s great that she recognizes her limitations in understanding the larger trans community and her calling to be an ally within the community, but she continues to miss the mark in naming her specific white and socio-economic privileges as well as her “pretty” and conditional passing privileges.

Her “pretty privilege” was evident throughout the episode, particularly during her “first meets” with mother Esther; youngest daughters Kendall and Kylie; and superstar couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Nearly each time she met a new person they would comment on her appearance and how she looked, leaving me to hope for a discussion on the strict beauty standards that trans people — and trans women in particular — have to live up to. No doubt if she hadn’t had access to facial feminization surgeries or hormones and didn’t fit the cisnormative mold, her experience of acceptance would be far different. I also didn’t appreciate the spectacle that Kim and Kylie made her out to be, as they seemed concerned only with her look and persona — but should I really expect more than that from them? (Perhaps they should be nixed from the series along with the umpteen shots of Caitlyn putting on makeup and discussing clothes.)

kanye west kim kardashian caitlyn jenner

The way the episode captured the awkwardness of her family members was important. I appreciated Esther’s willingness to discuss how complicated and difficult it was to reconceptualize her child. Although she was nothing but supportive, she spoke about her qualms with Jenner’s transition from a biblical standpoint and from the perspective of having to adapt to their new mother-daughter relationship.

Seeing a black male celebrity of Kanye West’s fame embrace Jenner was also an important moment. On one hand, we should be wary to give West cookies for being the ally that he’s already called to be, but on the other hand, for him to lift up Jenner’s journey combats many of the stereotypes that plague both the hip-hop community and the black population.

Even with the majority of her family on board, Jenner’s effort to make her public transition seem purely positive was a misguided one. Jenner insists that she’s received nothing but support; however, the general public knows better. From sifting through any online comments section, watching news clips, and even having face-to-face conversations, we all know that not everyone is on board with her public transition. I understand there’s the need to put on a brave face, but I wish she would allow herself to be a bit more transparent and vulnerable when it comes to criticism. It’s important that she addresses her hardships while she steers this transgender media ship.

caitlyn jenner

In all of the bright spots of Jenner holding her family and loved one’s hands as they grappled with understanding the basics of gender transition, I felt conflicted over her inclusion of gender therapist Susan Landon. Though I understand the need for clarification, especially with Jenner still being wet behind the ears when it comes to transgender issues, Landon’s presence bolstered the intense history of pathology that continues to mark trans health care. Many trans people still have to “prove” their transness to get access to adequate health care, and often this means feeding into a one-size-fits-all trans narrative. Not all trans people know their gender identity at a young age, many don’t have anecdotes of clear gender nonconformity and, in fact, some trans people do not decide to transition by typical means. Though Landon was great in her approach and advice, I wish there was not such an implication that trans people aren’t equipped enough to explain their own experiences.

The social justice and advocacy highlight of the pilot episode was her focus on transgender youth issues and suicide in the case of 14-year-old Kyler Prescott, a young trans boy and activist who committed suicide May 18. It was powerful to watch her meet with Prescott’s mother, Katharine, and make it clear that even with a supportive family, a larger unsupportive and devaluing society and culture can continue to plague trans individuals. Another strong point in this segment came when one of Kyler's friends discussed experiencing issues with suicide. The only thing that could have made amplified the segment would have been a mention of Blake Brockington, Leelah Alcorn, Cameron Langrell, or other trans teens who’ve committed suicide to make sure there continue to be diverse considerations of these issues. 

Kyler Prescott's friend

In later episodes, it seems Jenner will move the storyline deeper into the breadth of trans narratives. This episode, although bland, worked as a great primer on her journey and trans issues in general. I appreciated that she didn’t spend the entire episode discussing Trans 101 topics; I just hope for more nuanced discussions about race, nonbinary identities, and other intersections as well as an effort to eschew essentialist notions of gender. At this point she continues to have “women are like this, men are like that” ideas, which often fall flat. Also, deeper discussion of the lead-up to public disclosure is more than necessary. Her life as Caitlyn began long before she graced the cover of Vanity Fair, and I hope she clarifies that point moving forward.

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Raquel Willis

A black trans queer feminist media maven. A proponent of all things equality.

A black trans queer feminist media maven. A proponent of all things equality.