This week’s Season 2 premiere of Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait was a reminder that she is still a reality television star. This season, she’s taking “her girls” — the group of transgender women recruited to be her squad for the show — on the road. Like a flashback to MTV’s Road Rules (made by the same production company, Bunim-Murray), the device is a reminder that not everybody has the opportunity to fly a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, and watching other people enjoy that privilege just because they can isn’t exactly inspiring.
But privilege is the true star of I Am Cait; the road trip is just a MacGuffin. It forces Jenner into a small space surrounded by trans women who have not had access to the lifestyle she enjoys, and they do not hesitate to school her on just how uncommon her experience actually is.
In a sense, Jenner is not a hero for the transgender community, but an anti-hero — someone who helps the more she fails. Like Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Dexter’s Dexter Morgan, fictional characters that have defined the 21st century television trope, Jenner is the protagonist that has commendable motivations but sometimes terrible execution. Audiences keep watching because there’s always the lingering hope that the characters will figure out how to achieve their goals without hurting any more people.
Jenner’s commitment to raising awareness about transgender people and improving their lives seems sincere, but whether or not this season is the last (viewership was way down for the second season premiere), viewers already know that the anti-hero’s journey is not over. The show was filmed throughout the fall, but Jenner just gave an interview in which she basically endorsed Ted Cruz for president (despite claiming not to), confirming that her own conservative politics still trump what might actually be best for transgender people.
And that’s why I Am Cait is paradoxically effective — and aptly named. Jenner is the star, but she is not featured as a teacher, but as a student. In that way, she is a proxy for the audience, someone who is naive to the struggles many transgender people have had to endure. While the audience might find these stories to be unfamiliar because they are not transgender, Jenner is naive to them because of her socioeconomic privilege. The show is about her immersing herself in the community, but whether or not she learns their lessons is irrelevant, because the audience is still exposed to them.
If the premiere is any indication for what to expect, there will be a lot of harsh lessons for the protagonist. The squad is going to drag her along on the journey they think she should take, not the one that she might think she wants to take. Quickly emerging from the pack in the first episode is scholar and activist Jenny Boylan, who returns for the second season. Defining herself as the hero antagonist to Jenner’s anti-hero protagonist, Boylan is ready to call Jenner out on all of her blind spots.
In the first episode alone, Boylan leads the squad in confronting Jenner both about her own sexuality and her support for political conservatives. These conversations make for the juicy kind of confrontational television that reality show watchers love, but they also provide opportunities for the other women to share their own stories.
For example, it doesn’t matter if Jenner actually figures out whether she’s still attracted to women (and thus, perhaps, a lesbian?) or whether she might, in fact, now be interested in dating men, as she seems to suggest. The conversation about her sexuality is an opportunity for the other women to share their own journeys in candid detail. During that conversation, Boylan, who remains married to her wife since before her transition, discusses her own memory of feeling like she was “seeing men for the first time,” that “something in me, suddenly, was thrilled with men” after transitioning.
As the conversation continues, activist Kate Bornstein seizes the opportunity to share a tutorial on how ill-fitting binary sexual orientations can be, especially for transgender people. “What tickles us isn’t always the gender of our partner,” she expounds. “It might be — like, sapiosexuals are all into people who are smart. There are people who are into power, like, ‘There’s a powerful person; I don’t care what gender they are.’” She doesn’t share the statistic that nearly half of transgender people do not identify as strictly gay or straight, but she doesn’t have to. Her thoughts help Jenner open up more about the kind of people she’s been attracted to, and the lesson is learned.
Later, the women are sharing stories about their first forays into crossdressing pre-transition, and Jenner talks about being clocked by a man who explained that he loves trans women. She frames it as having found “the wrong man,” implying that as a “chaser,” the man had ill intent. Here again, Bornstein gently corrects Jenner, explaining, “You know what’s going to have to happen for more acceptance, is this whole notion of ‘chasers’ has got to get out of the field of being perverted. It’s got to become as beautiful to love a trans person as it is to love a cis person. There’s the natural leap — when our desirability is natural.”
The entire second half of the hour-long episode, it’s Boylan who’s back on the offensive. She shares the news that Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) had been defeated by voters because of the fear that the gender identity protections would somehow protect “men” who wish to violate women’s spaces. When Jenner attempts to flatly deny Boylan’s point that Republicans and conservatives are responsible for spreading these harmful rumors about transgender women, her squad forcefully pushes back.
“I don’t know anything of what they said down there,” Jenner insists, “but I’m not blaming it on Republicans and conservatives, okay?”
Bornstein jumps in and points out that Republican officials were directly involved in promoting the anti-HERO messages. “Now, he may have been a Republican. I don’t know, it might have been a Democrat,” Jenner counters, before being shouted down by a chorus of “No!”. But she persists, “It just so happens he happened to be a Republican. I wish he was a damned Democrat. It would have made my argument much easier.”
As Jenner keeps denying that Republicans have anything against transgender people, lauding their economic positions, the bus full of women all gang up on Jenner to call out her faulty perspectives. Their slack-jawed looks of shock and horror in the face of Jenner’s denials communicate to the audience just how misguided — if not delusional — she is in her blind allegiance to conservatives.
Since Jenner’s Cruz comments came out last week and the premiere aired, Boylan has been fielding complaints that she is somehow enabling or defending Jenner’s problematic positions by participating in the show. “Anyone who thinks I’m defending her kind of needs to watch the actual show,” she wrote on Facebook this week, “because all the stuff you are screaming about on the internet: those are the ACTUAL THINGS I am saying to her, in a more gentle and loving way, to her face. It’s good that someone does that, I think.” She also admitted her efforts might be in vain. “I know many of you think I’m on a fool’s errand, and I admit it: I worry about this too. But I only know one thing: we are here to love one another.”
Her comments suggest that the season will continue in a similar fashion, which means there could be plenty of more opportunities for audiences to see Jenner being corrected or called out for misrepresenting what the transgender community actually experiences. The teaser for the rest of the season shows that there will be protests against Jenner and more of these difficult conversations, as well as a few significant life experiences for Jenner — building off the theme of self-discovery from the first season.
On this week’s episode, the bus confrontations continue, as Jenner claims that Donald Trump would be “very good for women’s issues.” She also promises she would “never ever ever” vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a “fucking liar” and a “political hack.”
There’s something brilliant about the fact that this is a show with a cast made up entirely of transgender women who are speaking openly about their experiences and calling out problematic anti-trans rhetoric without it feeling like an after-school special. Even if Jenner plays the foil for these discussions, she’s also still the reason that they’re taking place and that hundreds of thousands of people are watching them.
That’s the paradox of I Am Cait. Jenner might not be a perfect spokesperson or advocate for trans rights herself, but she is still responsible for increasing trans visibility and making sure that other better spokespeople can be heard as well. Her spotlight may annoy and frustrate, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ultimately a force for good.