"The Interview": Bruce Jenner Shares His Trans Truth
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
From its opening segment, when Bruce Jenner delivered an achingly personal account of his gender dysphoria--speaking with envy about women and men who appeared "comfortable in their own skin," describing himself as "lonely" and a person who doesn't "fit in"--it was clear "The Interview," as ABC billed it, would not be a fiasco or a publicity stunt, as some feared. Instead, it was something surprisingly new--a cultural jump no one had expected. Mixing Jenner's first person account of his identity with thoughtful passages about trans history, medicine, politics and struggles, "The Interview" was like a two-hour, national Trans 201 class for people who may not have known they'd passed--or tested out of--the introductory level. Some of the program's freshness came from what Jenner chose--and chose not--to offer. There were no new names, or new pronouns; there was no new appearance. The "transformation," so often fetishized in trans documentaries was wholly absent. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with sharing those parts of one's journey when a person is ready, omitting them made the story of "The Interview" about Jenner's honesty and courage, rather than the name and picture, which would inevitably have gone viral, and been the subject of endless scrutiny. Jenner, who's spent nearly forty years in the spotlight, appeared to know this. When asked by Diane Sawyer about a new name, he demurred, saying he wanted "a little more time" away from "the media," as though aware of the frenzy that will ensue when his social transition commences. Absent these features, "The Interview" focused on Jenner's journey: his Olympic decathlon win, three marriages and ten kids. The five years he'd spent secretly on hormones in the '80s and his stint as, what Sawyer called, "a punching bag" on the reality TVÂ phenomenon "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." The common thread to the story, returned to again and again, was his pain at withholding his secret; the loneliness he felt, and the separation it caused between those with whom he shared his life and himself. This honesty was what had been missing the past few years, as Jenner's appearance had changed, leading to tabloid speculation and transphobic ridicule. Jenner's vulnerability and candor brushed away the caricature that had persisted previously in the pop culture sphere. "The Interview" appears to have done something more, however. In the words of Janet Mock, it's given trans people their "Ellen moment," allowing the U.S. culture a chance to learn about the community through a celebrity's journey. Some have noted the irony of such a moment coming via the Kardashian family, a group often derided as being rich and famous for no reason, but Vice Media countered this claim, calling Jenner's interview "the millennial moon landing," and asserting that "the Kardashians now stand at the center of our era's TV, fashion, music and social movements." "The Interview" wasn't flawless. Sawyer presented the fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are separate aspects of a person's make up as though it were a mind blowing revelation viewers might not be prepared to accept. Likewise, unintentional cissexism seeped in here and there, as when Sawyer asked Jenner if he "was fair" to the women he married, knowing what he did about his gender dysphoria, when a more salient question might have been, was our culture, which made no place for trans identities, fair to any trans people of Jenner's, or any other generation, as they tried to make their way through life and love. That said, the program was notable for not treating trans identities as a two-sided story. Several doctors appeared addressing trans identities in children, and warning about the risks of not affirming such youth; no conservative spokespeople were given time to refute this science. Likewise, space was given briefly for stories about trans suicide, unemployment and murder--topics Jenner, too, mentioned, while noting he's not a spokesperson--and, blessedly, none was offered to conservative groups campaigning against trans equality and rights. The heart of "The Interview" was Jenner's relation to his family. His four older children all spoke effusively of their support and praise, while his mother emerged as the show's MVP, saying she was prouder of him now than she was at his Olympic victory. None of his younger children nor the Kardashians spoke on camera. Bruce told of how Kanye West helped Kim Kardashian accept the upcoming changes, which, while it may have been blatant name-dropping on Jenner's part, was still touching. Jenner referred to his female persona throughout "The Interview" as "her." Sawyer teased the idea of learning what "she" would look like about 400 times during the program, but we never did. Instead, "The Interview" was a farewell to Bruce Jenner, who said he'd "reemerge" later, after multiple cosmetic surgeries (a fact he dropped with the blase nonchalance of a Hollywood pro). In what appeared to be the darkest moment of his past few years, when the paparazzi learned about his tracheal shave and speculation about his gender grew rampant, Jenner said suicide crossed his mind, but that he resisted, because he wanted to see how his story would end. His resilience was applauded by many, who showered him with support on social media during and after "The Interview." Each time a trans person tells their story, it changes the narrative of "trans people" as an idea in our culture. "The Interview" might have been the biggest platform a trans person has ever had to share so openly. Jenner said, at the program's start, his talk with Sawyer was "going to do some good," and that they were "going to change the world." In the moment his statements sounded like hubris, but in the aftermath they sound now, in their own way, like indisputable facts.