No, we haven’t stopped talking about Bruce Jenner. In the week since the star athlete announced that he is transitioning to female, magazines have been filled with details and reactions — and reports about an upcoming reality series about Jenner’s new life.
More television? Of course. The cynical take on Jenner’s big reveal was always the TV-ness of it all: a star of the ultimate guilty-pleasure show just got the ultimate promotional roll-out. Last week’s ABC special on Jenner drew a stunning 16 million viewers, many of whom might tune in for the next adventure.
Let’s set aside the absurdity, first: There are far less wrenching ways to get attention. Jenner is bravely using his fame to help other people in his position. So let’s applaud him for this next step. Reality TV, maligned as it is, might be the best possible vehicle for opening minds.
When it comes to social change, pop culture tends to lead the nation, and TV is best-placed to do the leading. Recurring characters, in the intimacy of your living room, force the kind of familiarity that breeds acceptance. Just look at “Ellen” or “Will and Grace.”
And while a lot of attention has gone to the transgender characters in new, edgy premium fare — Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” — mainstream television has offered positive portrayals for even longer. In the past seven years, we’ve seen a sexy transgender woman play a sexy transgender woman on ABC’s primetime hit “Dirty Sexy Money.” We’ve seen transgender contestants on “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars.”
Now comes reality TV. This summer, Jenner’s show will join a docuseries on ABC Family, produced by Ryan Seacrest, about a teenaged boy whose father is becoming a woman. Tyra Banks is producing a reality series for VH1, called “Transamerica.” And last month, Discovery Life premiered “New Girls on the Block,” about a group of transgender women in Kansas City.
Yes, there’s a danger that transgenderism will be treated like a novelty, something to gawk at. Reality TV is, to some extent, our modern sideshow, with the mid-to-outer cable orbits filled with subcultures on display. As with any genre, quality varies.
But even TLC, home to the detested “Honey Boo Boo,” has aired plenty of shows that lead to broader understanding: “Little People, Big World,” about a couple with dwarfism; the brief series “All-American Muslim,” whose chief contribution was to prove that most Arab-Americans are as boring as the rest of us. If some people tune in to stare, they still come out at least a little bit enlightened.
This is true even of shows that aren’t so obviously didactic. In the kindest light, you could see “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” as a portrait of a blended family — and now, a model for how family can outlast marriage, and love can transcend change.
This is also the underlying theme of “New Girls on the Block,” which is wonderful. Not perfect, but wonderful. Yes, the show dwells a little too sensationally on before-and-after photos, and is filled with manufactured scenarios: “We’re going on a blind double date!” But the show is also filled with models of positivity: a mother who has become her daughter’s fiercest advocate; a best friend who became a boyfriend, post-transition. The most poignant storyline involves one woman’s longtime wife, who is struggling with her own plans for the future. This isn’t the marriage she imagined — but she so deeply loves the person she wed that she feels compelled to stay, and give support.
These are true, complex emotions. And the fact that they’re conveyed through something partly artificial — real people, play-acting at times — isn’t exactly a fault. In some ways, it’s a necessary feature. To change minds, you need to attract eyeballs, whether by exploiting celebrity, conflict, or both. A show about someone living happily, accepted seamlessly into family and society, wouldn’t be particularly interesting to watch.
For most transgender people, that kind of unremarkable life is the ultimate goal. Bruce Jenner’s fame will help us get there faster — and so will the reality cameras. Ironic, but true.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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