Today’s television is quickly evolving, reflecting a change in society’s attitudes involving LGBT issues. One of the most groundbreaking of these programs is “Transparent,” Amazon’s widely lauded foray into the streaming genre. After watching the show, however, it was difficult to reconcile the show’s praise with the recent circus show that’s been made of Bruce Jenner.
SF State alum Jeffrey Tambor dazzles as “Transparent’s” protagonist Maura, a former professor who has lead a successful professional life, fathering a brood of self-involved children along the way. It’s not until after she retires that she finds the courage to live life as her true gender.
The dichotomy of the show’s reception and the recent tabloid treatment of Jenner is unnerving. Why is one celebrated and the other scoffed? Disdain for the Kardashian family does not give the general public carte blanche to declare open season on Jenner.
After People magazine confirmed that Jenner is filming his transition into a transgendered woman, in addition to reports of a sit-down interview with Diane Sawyer, I had what Oprah calls an ‘aha’ moment. So this is why the universe, in its infinite wisdom, has inundated us with all things Kardashian for the past eight years, I thought. The transgender community will finally have a mainstream celebrity standing on their platform.
It should be disclosed that I am not a Kardashian fan. It’s true that I’ve inevitably watched a few episodes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the show’s various incarnations, but it’s always been with a certain awe at the rampant, self-congratulatory narcissism that seems to define the “Kardashian Klan.”
The show’s audience is understandably too young on average to truly appreciate the adulation that Jenner commanded in the Seventies as a handsome Olympic star. But Jenner used to be The Man, the penultimate male specimen, like a Chris Hemsworth-Michael Phelps hybrid.
“When I was a kid, ever since I was five, I felt that something was not right,” explains Maura while coming out to her daughter. “And it was a different time, and I had to keep those feelings to myself. People led secret lives, and people lived very lonely lives.”
What secrets, what loneliness has Jenner been forced to endure in his very public life? One could speculate that Jenner’s hyper-masculine pursuits were an attempt to repress his own secret feelings that something was not right. And yet, such speculation, and more specifically, the possible outing of someone mid-transition who has yet to self-identify, has understandably angered the transgender community.
Bonnie Fuller of Hollywoodlife.com recently defended the site’s coverage of Jenner, telling the New York Times, “They have a reality show about their lives. It’s not the same situation as somebody leading a private life.”
It’s hardly worth mentioning that the Kardashians will most likely exploit “Bruce’s journey,” per Kim Kardashian. After all, the willingness to commoditize personal tragedies is exactly how the Kardashians have managed to flourish under the glare of the media spotlight.
And yet, not the Kardashians, not the reality TV show, not the invitation to voyeurism, not the over-sharing– none of these aspects of Jenner’s life excuse the spectacle that has been made of what should be a very private decision.
The fact remains that the reason this story has such traction is due to audience interest. In real-life reality, Jenner has become a figurehead for “otherness”, a caricature that permits our inner child to stare, point and laugh behind the safety of our computer screens.
One might argue that the audience that watches “KUWTK” or reads tabloid websites is not the same audience that applauds “Transparent’s” Maura or extols “Orange is the New Black’s” Laverne Cox. But that thinking is a bit too simplistic. It seems our society can deal with the transgender community theoretically, as fictionalized characters or even as “finished” products, but the actual act of transitioning leaves us unsure of where to look.
“All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man.” Tambor’s Maura explains to his daughter. “This is me.”
And this is Bruce Jenner: a doting father, a world-class athlete, and possibly a transgender woman. Maybe it’s time for Jenner to stand on top of a podium and be celebrated once again. After all, it doesn’t look like he’s going into hiding anytime soon.