You may have never watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians before, and you might not be able to sort out Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie without making a mistake. Nevertheless, the show was worth watching this week, as the Kardashian family reacted to patriarch Bruce Jenner’s announcement of an impending gender transition.
On Sunday and Monday nights, E! aired a two-part episode called, “About Bruce.” The entire first hour was dedicated to Jenner speaking to the girls about being transgender and intending to transition, while the second episode featured conversations with more of the extended family, including ex-wife Kris. These episodes were filmed weeks before Jenner sat down to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer — and thus months before that special aired. It would be hard to characterize the scenes as scripted or affected in the way reality television is often accused of being; each of the daughters/step-daughters responds a bit differently, and expresses different honest concerns and feelings. To those who might be concerned that Jenner’s coming out process is a publicity stunt, this episode confirmed that the Olympian, the family, and E!’s producers intend to handle this with sensitivity and integrity. Not only will society learn about being transgender from Jenner, but viewers will also learn a lot about having a transgender family member. It’s true: the Kardashians have a lot to teach us.
We already know that the whole family embraces Jenner in the end. A disclaimer from Jenner at the beginning of the episodes explains, “In these family specials, we captured a specific moment in time, many months ago, as our family had intimate and emotional conversation about my decision to live publicly as the woman that I’ve always been on the inside. Families of trans people often feel like they need to grieve the loss of the person that they thought they knew. My family’s feelings are included here in the hope that other families will know that they are not alone, and to show that families move on from this grief. Today my family loves, supports and accepts me as I am — and I am so grateful.” The specials show how the family gets to that point, and in this regard, they are not all role models. Their pain, fear, and grief are all real, and demonstrate the significant challenges of the coming out process for everybody.
As Jenner quips near the beginning, “Sometimes it’s tougher for them than it is for you… Sometimes it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know about this issue than it is your kids.” Every single coming out guide advises LGBT people to remember that they have had all of the time to make sense of their identity up to that point; other people begin that journey at the coming out moment. Khloé, who clearly struggles the most with Jenner’s disclosure, aptly explains in the second episode, “I am okay with what’s happening. I just need a moment to like — I have to transition as well.”
On her journey to acceptance, Khloé struggles to reconcile her own expectations about how Jenner has talked to her about this issue with the new information she receives. The father figure in her life held back on the details, she feels, and wasn’t fair to the family about what was happening when — particularly the decision to live full-time as a woman. “You have to be honest with us,” she pleads, “even if it hurts you, because it’s going to hurt all of us, but this hurts us more.” She even makes accusations of lying, expressing outright anger about how the situation has been handled. In response, Jenner can only concede, “There’s no right way to do this.”
This feeling of broken trust seems quite mixed together with the sense of grief Khloé feels. “It’s scary when someone says Bruce is going to be gone,” she says at one point. As she works through it, she admits to herself, “He’s transitioning and wasn’t telling us. I’ve never been through something like that before.” Grief is a natural experience for some family members of transgender people, who see transition as an erasure of the person they knew. Khloé talks of missing out on the “opportunity to say goodbye,” later telling Jenner, “You were robbing me of having the opportunity to let go on my own.” The two arrive at a better place by the special’s end, but not before enduring a lot of pain trying to understand and support each other. As Jenner tells the girls during one of the last group conversations, “I’m always going to be your dad, no matter what I go through.” They joke about adopting the moniker “mad,” as in “mom and dad and you’re a little bit crazy.”
Kris similarly struggles with a combination of grief and confusion, accusing her former spouse, “Your truth in your head is different than the truth that came out of your mouth. Your truth in your head is different than your actions.” In this context, she’s talking more about sincerity — the extent of the truth disclosed — than honesty, the notion that Jenner was outright lying. Nevertheless, these are often conflated, and accusations of dishonesty are something that transgender people — and even the greater LGBT community — struggle with in the public light. This is because of the assumption that if they are capable of hiding something about who they are, they are capable of hiding other aspects of their lives as well. Such accusations in the public space are problematic because they erase the stigma that often keeps people from coming out. Among loved ones, however, they symbolize a pain that the individual couldn’t be honest in the first place.
When Kris suggests that the reason their conversation is so difficult to have is “because I’m the one you lied to the longest,” this is only true if Jenner’s own self-denial isn’t counted. Grief, not distrust, is what underlies her reaction. “I just miss Bruce,” she explains, “and that’s going to take a minute for me to mourn that relationship… I’m confused what happens to Bruce, because I miss Bruce… I feel like you died. Bruce died.” The person known as Bruce Jenner isn’t dying, but her perception of that individual is. She never fully knew that person, and her mourning reflects understanding that Jenner is growing beyond who she ever knew to be her husband.
This is evident in her well wishes at the end of the conversation. When Jenner asks what else can be done to help her, she offers, “Live the happiest life you can live. That’s all I care about… that you can find the peace you were searching for for so long.” Jenner, in turn, repeatedly expresses a profound happiness to be taking these steps toward transition, warmly offering at one point, “There’s nothing like freeing your soul and surrounding yourself with people that make you feel good about yourself.”
Jenner may teach all of us a lot about what a person might experience transitioning, but the Kardashians are similarly doing an effective job of showing us how to support someone who is going through that experience. They may have their own struggles processing the new information or figuring out how to talk about it with their friends, their children, or the press, but even in their struggles, their commitment to what’s best for this important person in their lives shines through above all else. If there are two episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians that are worth watching, it is these two.