For as much public condemnation as the Kardashians get, there’s something admirable about the way they’ve built their brand. Like the Rothschilds, who started out as Jewish moneylenders in the court of an anti-semitic monarch, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney have risen above their means and laid the foundation of a vast, multigenerational dynasty.
What then, will be their legacy? Kim’s sex tape? Kris’s Machiavellian reputation? The Rothschilds contributed to the architectural and cultural development of Europe. Until Sunday night, it seemed like the future artifacts of the Kardashian clan would be a series of questionable fashion choices at the Met Ball.
I Am Cait has changed all that. Almost overnight, the most uninteresting member of the family (by reality TV and pop culture celebrity standards) has become an incredibly glamorous, lauded humanitarian who has pushed trans rights to a level of unprecedented representation. Unlike the K sisters, there is nothing manufactured about Caitlyn’s rise to prominence. It is, one might argue, the result of personal bravery and a desire to live honestly.
Kris must be so mad.
Of course, it’s arguable that Caitlyn doesn’t deserve all this reverence. There have been a number of trans activists who have expressed their concern that a white, wealthy celebrity has become the face of the trans community. These points are valid.
Both Jenner and the show address her particular advantages: the fact that she has a three-person make-up team to help her get ready each morning; the fact that she could afford to replace one set of expensive clothes with another (Kim teases Caitlyn at one point that she has the same Tom Ford gown as Kris); and the fact that she’s surrounded by family that supports her. These are all advantages that highlight privileges that come with class, fame and people in your corner. But it’s the acknowledgement—this type of self-awareness—that redeems the show. Jenner knows she’s privileged and makes a point to call out her own experience as being unique.
The first episode has two major arcs: the primary being her relationship with her family. So the first twenty minutes focus on Jenner introducing Caitlyn to the family.
First come her parents and sisters. Up until the premiere this show, I wasn’t a huge follower of the Kardashians and didn’t realize that Jenner came from such a conservative family. Her mother is, at eighty, something of a grande dame. As their car ascends the cliffs to Jenner’s palace, they seem ill at ease. But once they’re in the living room, seated on her couch, they relax. Jenner’s mother has the most difficulty accepting the transition. A family therapist shows up and talks with the whole clan. Jenner’s mother quotes the bible. The siblings express skepticism. The therapist declares that Bruce is finally the person she was born as and the whole family expresses their love and support.
Kylie Jenner, Jenner’s biological daughter, comes next. Unlike her grandmother and aunts, she’s completely nonplussed by the transformation—despite the fact that she’d never before spent time with Caitlyn. Kim and Kanye are the next batch of relatives to arrive. They, like the rest of the family, express their support.
I Am Cait has the feeling of a super hero origin story. Enthroned in a Xanadu style compound on a lonely mountain in Malibu, a hero discovers she has special abilities and vows to use her powers for good.
Is there a danger in embracing a single person as the face of an incredibly diverse movement? Of course. Are there other, more informed voices that should be getting attention? Absolutely. But what I Am Cait does, is bring the struggle of trans men and women (and everyone in between) into the living rooms of Middle America.
I Am Cait tells Middle America that an eighty-year-old Christian mother can accept her trans daughter, despite conservative family values. I Am Cait tells Middle America that one of the biggest rappers in the world is totally comfortable accepting a trans woman into his family.
In spite of the Kardashian family’s reputation, even in spite of Jenner’s intentions, I Am Cait brings attention to transgender issues in a way that would be unthinkable even five years ago. Caitlyn Jenner did not blaze the path. Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, and a host of other women opened the door for her. But now that she’s here, I think it’s important to focus on the good someone in Caitlyn’s position can do. Which it seems (if the pilot is any indication of what’s to come) is what Caitlyn plans to do.
Throughout this first episode, Caitlyn’s sister Pam kept making reference to the fact that Bruce’s personality hadn’t changed. “You’re still the same person inside,” she said over and over again. Though I think she was trying to convince herself that Caitlyn was still her brother, her words took on a deeper meaning. Whether man or woman, the essence of Jenner hadn’t change—couldn’t change, in fact.
That core essence, or what others might call the soul, is the thing that should be valued—not the external. Regardless of personal feelings about this famous family, this is an incredibly powerful message for all audiences.
Leland Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste.