Everyone loves “Transparent.” The groundbreaking series about the midlife transition of a transgender woman put Amazon on the Emmys map and raised the visibility of a group of Americans already benefiting from the courage and talent of people like Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski and Carmen Carrera.
Next month, Andreja Pejic will become the first transgender model to appear in Vogue; this summer, a series starring teen YouTube star Jazz Jennings debuts on TLC. Transgender women, it would seem, are having a moment.
Tell that to Bruce Jenner.
The maelstrom of speculation leading up to his Friday night interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/20,” in which many believe Jenner will discuss what appears to be a gender transition, seems to exist in an entirely different universe from the often self-congratulatory inclusiveness of the “Transparent"-loving, “Glee"-mourning, Jazz Jennings supportive media.
In recent months, fascination with the Olympian-turned-reality-star’s appearance has gone from stalkerish to zoological. Hair styles, makeup choices, sports bra sightings, manicure announcements and grainy photos purporting to be of Jenner in a dress have been the center of fevered and uninformed conversation. For months, Jenner chose not to publicly comment about his personal life before deciding to give Sawyer an interview, which was conducted in February.
Word of the interview sparked a whole new round of commentary and criticism, including some outrage that ABC was giving Jenner a two-hour block of prime-time touted with the sort of publicity traditionally reserved for heads of state and Lance Armstrong. A few in the transgender community have accused Jenner of exploiting a still newly visible and vulnerable community, and many more have taken the media to task for wallowing in speculation, for focusing on personal details rather than the discrimination and often brutal harassment that transgender people face.
Rumors involving Jenner’s family — ex-wife Kris Jenner threatened to sue! Some of the kids refused to talk! — added a quasi-calculated air to the proceedings. Jenner’s open acknowledgment in 1978 of wanting to (gasp, faint) leverage his Olympic medal into more than just an appearance on a Wheaties box has been mentioned more than once, because apparently the really big money these days is in outing yourself as a transgender woman.
Indeed, when Jenner was recently involved in a multivehicle accident in which a woman was killed, the conversation turned with horrifying speed to whether the incident would affect the timing of the interview.
All of which has much less to do with Jenner’s life than its context. Though some may still think of him as an Olympian, he is best known as a de-facto Kardashian. And while there is certainly plenty of hostility toward transgender Americans, the hyperbolic reaction to Jenner’s personal life, and whatever he may reveal in the interview, is all about the Kardashians and the institutionalized ambivalence we have toward citizen celebrities.
From the moment Phil Donahue (and later, Oprah Winfrey) took the microphone offstage so audience members could share their stories, personal narrative has been the definitive genre of modern storytelling. Though it is a long road from lyrical bestselling memoirs such as “The Liars’ Club” or “Angela’s Ashes” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” it is a fairly direct one.
Fueled by the unstable compound of judgmental voyeurism and a search for self-knowledge, reality television purported to provide a glimpse of how all sorts of people truly are, at home, with just each other and an omnipresent camera crew. The Kardashians were among the first to offer their services.
We watched, rapt, at the unabashed banality of their household, with its strategically self-promoting mother and Olympian-as-wallpaper father. We watched as the Kardashians became a baffling but irrefutable empire and spawned a new genre of television in which the venal was celebrated, the petty encouraged.
“Why on Earth are all these people of no particular talent or ability so famous?” we mutter during brief respites from watching. “It’s really gotten out of control.”
Just as we deride a culture of intrusion and distraction in the few moments when we can tear ourselves away from reading “a really awful but awfully funny” rant someone posted on Facebook or tweeting about “The Bachelor,” we label the Kardashians and their colleagues “guilty pleasures.” As if that somehow refutes the power we have given the genre they created.
But when something serious occurs amid our “guilty pleasures,” we stiffen. All cultural trends to the contrary, we still prefer our serious transformational narratives to be dignified and definitive.
But Bruce Jenner is a former Olympian who became a reality star, a cultural equation that appears to mean he unwittingly signed away his right to privacy, empathy and dignity. After all the strides made by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in recent years, we’re back to gawking at what appears to be the sight of someone we consider a man wearing a dress.
Only now we’re also debating whether he has orchestrated this campaign of intrusion to drum up ratings for his interview with Diane Sawyer.
Because that’s why a middle-aged transgender woman would decide to finally physically transition: for the ratings.
We pat ourselves on the back for giving Grammys to songs that combat intolerance but still gasp at the idea of a man getting his nails done. We applaud Jeffrey Tambor’s amazing, revelatory performance in “Transparent” and then gossip about a famous person’s decision to do the sort of revelatory interview upon which Barbara Walters, Winfrey and countless journalists have built their careers.
It will be great if “Transparent” wins an Emmy, but even better if Bruce Jenner, whatever he has to say, is allowed some privacy and peace of mind.
It’s his story; let him tell it if and however he chooses because it’s really none of our business and we need to just move the hell on.