Are Gorgeous Comediennes Really That Rare? Your Thoughts

Last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner stirred up controversy during his on-stage conversation with actress Goldie Hawn, a friend and former colleague of his. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber reported the remarks:


“From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” [Eisner] said. “By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you [Goldie Hawn] being an exception, are not funny. […] In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.


Below you can listen to the full remarks and the context leading up them:




Eisner emailed a response to Spencer’s piece:


In the context of a public conversation with Goldie Hawn in which I was complimenting her on being both beautiful and funny, I said such a combination is hard to come by in Hollywood. I certainly did not say Goldie was the only one. My point was simply that Goldie, unlike many, has not been defined exclusively as one or the other.


But the outrage had already spread far and wide. On Twitter, Hollywood producer Megan Ellison and comedic actresses Mindy Kaling and Elizabeth Banks slammed Eisner’s remarks. Cable news programs “Fox & Friends” and “The Ed Show” brought on panelists of female comedians to scrutinize the subject. Comedian Kathy Griffin commented at length:


Influencers and decision-makers who share the views that Eisner was stupid enough to say out loud actually decide whether or not I work, my career and sometimes my personal fate. People who share his views, and all the other men who think the things about women that he is expressing verbally, should simply be subjected to a panel of women — women of my choosing — who decide his career fate and legacy based on his physical appearance.


The panel might include Amy Schumer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette:



Schumer, by the way, recently made a whole episode, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” parodying the way men sometimes judge the beauty of female comedians. (Watch one of the brilliant scenes here.) Eisner’s comments also got a lot of scrutiny this week from writers such as Ann Friedman, Amanda Marcotte, and Catherine Rampell. The latter had the strongest original point:


If Eisner really had been hell-bent on casting comic beauties, he was, in his heyday, almost uniquely positioned to locate this supposedly missing talent. Or rather, to create it. He did after all helm Disney during its animation renaissance, when the studio churned out classics such as “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” But even in these beloved animated films, wherein female characters’ appearances could be drawn to any comely specification imaginable, the comic roles were still dominated by dudes. Where, pray tell, was the lady version of Pumbaa? Better yet, where was the hot lady version of Pumbaa?


Indeed, in this list of “Disney’s 10 Funniest Comic Relief Characters,” the only female one is Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck-It Ralph. The writer openly wonders, “Why are so few comic sidekicks female?”


Regarding Eisner’s remarks, Atlantic readers had a discussion in the comments section that was more nuanced and substantive than the public debate. Here’s SAlfin:


I could list lots of funny, beautiful women: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Sofia Vergara, her co-star Julie Bowen, Jane Curtain, Kaley Cuoco, Mary Tyler Moore, Cybill Shepherd, Jane Krakowski, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss—heck, I could do this all day. The issue isn’t “beauty cancels out funny.” The issue is that Hollywood has made roles for women one-dimensional so the ingenue can’t be funny; she just has to look pretty.


Asurbanopol adds:


Truth is, roles for women in general in movies and TV have always been handicapped by the fact that most writers are men, most directors are men and most film executives are men. The reason a lot of men were even attracted to film in the first place was to hook up with sexy girls by occupying a power position in an industry notorious for exploitation.


But many of our readers didn’t find the remarks especially offensive or simply gave Eisner the benefit of the doubt. Here’s Paxmelanoleuca:


Eisner’s observation wasn’t totally unreasonable, although you don’t see many smoking hot male comedians either. A lot of comedy comes from awkwardness and discomfort that people experience as part of their feelings of not meeting society’s unwritten expectations, socially or physically. Maybe it’s an experience that beautiful people don’t have that often.


Davis MacCaulay also looks at the issue in gender neutral terms:


Attention is a fairly basic need while growing up, so it stands to reason that physically attractive people (male or female) aren’t generally going to feel the need to strive in areas other than “being attractive,” since that gets the job done.


But kryten8 complicates that point:


It seems clear that struggling with adversity is one way to become a great comic, and being a funny-looking guy is one way, but being a woman (beautiful or funny-looking) can provide you with a good deal of adversity.


Mujokan adds along those lines:


In the counterfactual, Eisner would be having the conversation with a very handsome comic actor, someone like George Clooney. And probably the same problem would be there because not many people are that good looking and not many people are that funny in general, so it is a rare combination.


Duncan Tweedy discusses how male comedians often downplay their looks for comedic cred:


When Louis C.K. portrays himself as a young man, he invariably describes a younger version of the way he looks now, i.e. sorta fat and pudgy and kind of ugly. He apparently doesn’t want to admit that when he was a young man doing stand-up, he was a generally handsome and physically fit guy. There’s plenty of footage from those days to confirm this.




If Louis C.K. was still a good-looking guy, would half his material connect nearly so effectively? I think not. Losing his good looks was a fantastic boon to his career.


Self-deprecating humor just doesn’t connect as well when it comes from a beautiful person. And as difficult as it might be for an audience to sympathize with a good-looking man, that difficulty will be an order of magnitude worse for a woman. An “unbelievably beautiful woman”* does not elicit the same extreme reactions as a beautiful man (outside a gay bar anyway). People will trip over themselves to offer beautiful women all sorts of advantages—nor are all these reactions beneficial, as Hawn’s Al Capp story illustrates. [Listen to that disturbing story here, retold by Hawn to Eisner at the A.I.F.] People both revere and resent beauty, and that undercuts opportunities for comedy.


I don’t think Eisner should be excoriated for this comment. He wasn’t saying women aren’t funny, which is a stupid and indefensible argument. He was merely noticing that “unbelievable” physical beauty makes being a successful female comedian much more difficult. I think there’s plenty of evidence for this.


* Some complicating factors bear taking a closer look at. I think Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig are “unbelievably beautiful” (see also Lucille Ball). However, if you compare them to A-list female movie stars, you see that there’s a difference, if not in quantity of beauty, certainly in quality. I’m laughing just remembering the dopey faces Poehler and Wiig (and Ball) use to great comedic effect. Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence, great actresses though they are, just couldn’t pull that off. Most of what makes an A-list actress beautiful is very similar to a top model’s beauty. Most of what makes Poehler, Wiig, and Ball beautiful is in the twinkle of their eyes and the funny expressions they make.


Herein lies the confusing convergence: In a very real way, funny is beautiful.


What do you think? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update the post with any original points. And regarding our last reader’s point about Louis CK downplaying his looks for comedic effect, be sure to check out a piece Ashley Fetters wrote for us a few years ago, “Why Do So Many Pretty Female Comedians Pretend They’re Ugly?” Update from a reader, Beverly Haynes, via email:


Men are mesmerized by extreme female beauty. The thought process necessary to perceive humor and deliver laughter is interfered with, broken by beauty. Also, the ability to make people laugh is powerful, and women tend to not want to give drop-dead gorgeous women more power than they already have.


Update from another reader, Susan Silver, who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and asked Hawn a question about ageism at the Aspen Ideas Festival talk:


As the former Casting Director of Laugh-In, I was so happy to see Goldie again.  And I had worked for Michael a few times.  I was surprised more at the answer he gave to my question about ageism, particularly towards women in the business.  He sort of side-stepped it, saying something like “When we were young we had success …” The way I took it, he implied that now it was others’ chance. Huh?


Ageism is the new sexism. A few years ago, we members of the Writer’s Guild who were affected got a very nice financial settlement and acknowledgement that studios and agencies were ageist.  So I’m not sure what Michael meant as far as beautiful women not being funny; we know that is not true.


Oh well, Goldie was great and is involved in a very important project with education and children’s brains.


More on that project here. And below is the full audio of Silver’s question to Hawn about ageism (Eisner’s odd response starts at the 2:50 mark):



Another email comes from Dawn Sesta in L.A.:


A problem exists with our definition of beauty. Michael Eisner is defining beauty in the traditional, passive sense. It is a quality someone possesses effortlessly that is of no utility, only aesthetic pleasure. Comedy is not passive. Comedy is active and reactionary, moving, conversational, living and breathing. When a woman is funny she makes herself a player of the game, not a prize to be acquired. And I don’t think the way beauty is being defined here is able to exist in a realm where everyone is on the same field.

The Bizarre Celebration of ‘Unplanned Parenthood’

Politics

Why a pro-life Twitter hashtag—like the larger campaign to defund Planned Parenthood—is terrible for public health

A woman attends a “Women Betrayed Rally to Defund Planned Parenthood” on Capitol Hill on July 28. Carlos Barria / Reuters

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Following the release a series of pro-life sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood, Republican senators are threatening to defund the family-planning provider. A vote on their bill to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding—which accounts for 40 percent of the organization’s budget—could come as early as Monday.


On Twitter, pro-life advocates are trying to help it along, popularizing the hashtag #UnplannedParenthood on Wednesday. Many of the tweets come from people who purport to have been, or have had, accidental children.






In some ways, reading through the missives is sort of an upper—a testament to how difficult and unexpected things often work out well in the end.



But probe even slightly further, and the movement becomes disastrously illogical.


First, there is a big difference between an unplanned pregnancy and an unwanted one—and an even bigger gulf between a baby you actively choose to have and one you’re forced to carry because abortion is illegal.


Twitter hashtags aren’t exactly doctoral dissertations. Still, it’s odd how this one seems to celebrate unplanned pregnancy. Let’s recall that women have been desperate for effective birth control for centuries. During the Great Depression, women who wanted to avoid having babies they couldn’t afford used “disinfectant douches” that burned their genitals and didn’t do much to stop conception. The invention of the pill is partly credited with helping women expand their earning potential and achieve greater gender equality.


Isabel Sawhill and others has shown that high rates of unplanned births, particularly among poor and unwed mothers, contribute to poverty. When women are offered long-acting reversible contraceptives, like IUDs and implants, they overwhelmingly choose to get them inserted—and both unplanned births and abortions decrease as a result.


If Planned Parenthood is defunded, it’s exactly these preventative and family-planning services that would take a hit. Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics already aren’t allowed to spend federal dollars on abortions. The vast majority of the money Planned Parenthood gets from the federal government is spent on STD screenings and family-planning services, mostly for low-income women.



At a closer reading, though, #UnplannedParenthood seems to be more of a catchy juxtaposition to the Planned Parenthood name than overt boosterism for surprise births. (If these people were actually promoting haphazard impregnation, presumably there would be far more tweets about the glories of Bacardi and flimsy condoms than about Jesus.)


Instead, the larger purpose seems to be to put many happy faces on the pro-life movement. All those people weren’t aborted! Isn’t that wonderful?


Of course it is. But it also assumes that the only reason for an abortion would be that you’re mildly surprised by your pregnancy status, and uncertain what to do next. That fails to capture the experience of a great many women facing incredibly complex choices.


#UnplannedParenthood reflects the sad trajectory of the abortion debate. Unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned (a very unlikely event), advocates on both sides are left to scratch at the margins of abortion rights. The undercover videos released by the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, as well as the laws that legislate abortion-clinic hallway widths and waiting periods, aren’t aimed at ending abortion entirely. They’re all about worst-case scenarios. What if there were a callous abortionist who sells fetal tissue for profit? (There’s no evidence of that yet.) What if there’s a woman who is bleeding out during an abortion procedure and can’t escape the clinic because the hallways are too narrow? (It happens, but freakishly rarely.)



Similarly, #UnplannedParenthood focuses on the best possible way an unplanned pregnancy could go. It’s a surprise—a happy one—and the mother chooses not to terminate. Whether through circumstance, luck, or fortitude, the parents find a way to raise that child to become a functional member of society.


That’s a great thing. But it’s not what happens every time a woman is denied contraception or an abortion—far from it. And it’s unlikely the people behind the movement would truly like to see the return of a world where “unplanned parenthood” is the only option.


Teen Girls and the Persistence of Gender Stereotypes

Education

A new study reveals that adolescents—male and female—still largely prefer men in leadership positions.

Girls from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland practice their pushup skills. Jason Miller / AP

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When President Obama called the U.S. women’s soccer team this month to congratulate its players on winning the World Cup, he noted that they had topped their male counterparts in terms of TV viewership—and, “more importantly, inspired a whole new generation of young women” to go out and play.


If only it were so easy to open kids’ minds about women leading in other fields.


According to a new Harvard study—based on data gathered from focus groups, interviews, and several surveys, including one of roughly 20,000 11-to-18-year-old boys and girls from 59 public and private secondary schools—nearly a quarter of girls preferred male over female political leaders. What’s more, when asked about their gender preferences regarding managerial roles in traditionally female sectors, such as childcare, high percentages of the students said they preferred women in those roles. Close to half of the girls surveyed said they favored women as childcare directors, while the other half said they didn’t have a preference and virtually none of them said they favored males in that role.


The study also found that teens have similar preferences when it comes to student leadership. In roughly three-fifths of the schools explored, for example, white girls on average were more likely to support student councils led by white males (versus white females)—a finding that echoes earlier workplace research showing that more women would rather have a male boss than a female one. (The Harvard study analyzed distinctions among respondents based on their race, but highlighted the findings for white students because those statistics contained the most significant differences.)


“The extent of these findings surprised me,” said Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the co-director of the Making Caring Common Project, which conducted the study during the 2014-15 school year. “People see the gains that women have made and they just assume that the next generation of girls is going to achieve gender equality. But these biases are still pervasive and insidious.”



Less surprising, perhaps, is that it wasn’t just the female respondents who felt this way. Two in five teenage boys surveyed also preferred male political leaders to female ones, and, like the girl respondents, about half wanted to see women versus men leading childcare programs. Meanwhile, the mothers of teenage students were also more likely to prefer male-led student councils.


When I told Erica Huggins, a good friend who is a top Hollywood executive, about the findings, she was a bit taken aback. “We’ve been modeling women in leadership positions for quite some time,” said Huggins, the president of Imagine Entertainment. “I’d have thought this would have trickled down to high-school and middle-school kids as normal by now.”


But other experts said the study underscores just how difficult it is to knock down assumptions about gender and, in turn, why institutional change tends to happen so slowly—even though women today make up almost half the American labor force, are far more likely than men to earn a bachelor’s degree, lead the Democratic pack for president, and do run large companies like General Motors. Indeed, despite such gains, female CEOs head fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies overall, and women hold a mere 19 percent of seats in Congress.  


“When you look at the highest levels of power in American society it is still comprised by men,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. “What is really underlying all of this is our perception of who a leader is and what qualities a leader has. They tend to be associated with traits that we believe men have: being authoritative, decisive, and aggressive. There is a fit between our conception of what we think a leader is and who we think men are.”


Although ample evidence has demonstrated that organizations with more gender-balanced leadership teams outperform those that are male-dominated, Cooper stressed that stereotypes are hard to stamp out—and that they then fortify deeply ingrained social norms. “We have different expectations for boys and girls and for men and women, and those different expectations lead us to think that different goals are appropriate for them,” Cooper said. “This is hard to overcome because it is often automatic and implicit.”



In outlining suggested strategies for reducing gender bias among teens, Making Caring Common recommends that parents and educators identify their own biases and strive to counteract them, encourage young people to spot stereotypes and proactively confront discrimination, avoid the tendency to just “let boys be boys,” and help girls build leadership skills and self-confidence. But even for those willing to try these things, the challenge is formidable.


Jan Combopiano, the senior vice president of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit seeking to create more inclusive workplaces, notes that the message that men are leaders—and women are not—is pervasive in young people’s lives. “There is a psychological phenomenon called ‘Think Leader, Think Male,’ and American society reinforces that idea at every turn,” Combopiano said, pointing to the number of times that students attend schools named after men, play in public parks where the statues are of men, and pull out of their pockets cash featuring men’s faces. “Everywhere these kids look, the notion is being reinforced that men are leaders.”


The Harvard study has its limitations. The researchers, for instance, didn’t assess how perceptions have changed over time. So while today’s teens may have certain biases, Weissbourd couldn’t say whether or not those biases have lessened or intensified compared to what they were, say, 10 or 20 years ago.


In addition, some of the findings are open to interpretation, as the report acknowledges. For example, the study shows that more than two-thirds of teen girls (69 percent)—and more than half of teen boys (56 percent)—had no gender preference when it came to political leaders. That is, arguably, a good thing—simply wanting the best person for the job. Also notable was that teen girls expressed no significant gender preference regarding business leaders (though a third of boys favored males in this role).


Notwithstanding some of the more heartening results, Weissbourd said that the weight of the study is clear. “It is concerning that any girls or boys still prefer males as leaders in politics or business,” he said. “These biases are barriers to leadership for a generation of teen girls—the very girls who are key to closing our nation’s gender gap.”

Why Women Shouldn’t Have to Act Like Dudes at Work

Thus far, The Atlantic has posted three essays on Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, James Forman Jr., and Tressie McMillan Cottom, all of them uncritical. Among the reader responses so far, the strongest critique comes from Melvin Rogers, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at U.C.L.A.  Rogers emailed an eloquent seven-page review, but below is a shorter edited version, posted with permission:

Between The World and Me is an exquisite book, overflowing with insights about the embodied state of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Coates’s prose is capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts. I plan to teach the book for two of my courses this academic year.


But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures Coates’s senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.


The book initially seems like it will reveal the illusion of the Dream and then open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. But Coates does not move in that direction. He rejects the American mythos but also embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. For him, white supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the United States; it is an ontology. White supremacy, in other words, does not structure reality; it is reality.


There’s a danger there. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar, and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. Action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us, but there can be no affirmative politics when race functions as a wounded attachment.


What about all those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how should we read their efforts? Coates’s answer seems to appear in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police:


[N]o one would be brought to account for this destruction… The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.


But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him.  But interrogation and struggle to what end?


“It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay; Coates cannot even tell him it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn their country, may win.  


Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair”:




The reason why you can’t say there isn’t hope is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.


Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means escapes many commentators. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds that white supremacy left on his father:


When he died, I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.


Similar to Coates, Baldwin’s father was wounded and so was Baldwin. Yet Baldwin knew that wounded attachment would destroy not the plunderers of black life but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred.


So Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” writes Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and me as well.


Lastly, given the power of the book and its blockbuster success, Coates seems unable to linger on the conditions that gave life to the Ta-Nehisi Coates who now occupies the public stage. His own engagement with the world—his very agency—received social support. Throughout his book he recounts the rich diversity of black beauty and empowerment, especially at Howard. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press, which focuses on the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction, especially with writing at an early age. And yet the adult Coates seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by those examples.


Black life in America is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.

The Unbelievable I Am Cait

Television

Caitlyn Jenner’s new miniseries is moving, conscientious, and distractingly manipulative.

James White / E! Entertainment

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How extraordinary is Caitlyn Jenner’s story? Midway through the first episode of E!’s miniseries I Am Cait, her stepson-in-law Kanye West answers the question in the manner that only he can: “This is one of the strongest things that have happened in our existence as human beings that are so controlled by perception.”


Wearing sock-shoes in Jenner’s sunlit kitchen, West elaborates. “You couldn’t have been up against more,” he says to Jenner. “Your daughter’s a supermodel, you’re a celebrity… but it was still like, ‘F*** everybody, this is who I am.’”


The Paradigm Lag Around Caitlyn Jenner



This idea of fame as an obstacle doesn’t quite jibe with what Jenner herself says throughout Sunday’s I Am Cait premiere. Most trans people don’t have closets full of Tom Ford dresses or hilltop mansions in Malibu; many face disapproval from family members, threats of violence, and financial hurdles that make it hard to transition. Jenner acknowledges this fact repeatedly, taking time between scenes of her playing tennis or inspecting clothes to talk about less-advantaged transgender people. At the end of the hour, she visits with the family of a trans teenager who killed himself, shedding light in a way that’ll bolster some peoples’ contention that Jenner’s setting an example in how to use privilege for good.


But the biggest takeaway from the first I Am Cait installment is that fame interacts strangely with something as personal as a gender transition. Early on, Jenner and her stylists cheer as her Vanity Fair cover is revealed on TV; later, Jenner’s mother, Esther, and Jenner’s daughter, Kylie, “meet” Caitlyn for the first time. That’s right: Immediate family members were introduced to the female-presenting Jenner after Diane Sawyer, Buzz Bissinger, and the rest of the world were, at least according to the chronology of the special. It’s especially strange when Kylie reveals she picked out turquoise hair extensions for Jenner based on Googling images of her.


Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile of Jenner revealed that Jenner’s older children objected to her decision to document her new life using the same TV producers who made Keeping Up With the Kardashians, fearing the results would “devolve into maximum mayhem and minimal social awareness.” Thankfully, that nightmare has not come to pass. With its contemplative music and sociopolitical seriousness, the show has a different feel than the one that spawned it. But there is one fundamental, distracting similarity: In its editing and with its seemingly pre-rehearsed speeches for the camera, I Am Cait mimics typical reality TV by trying to force dramatic narratives onto day-to-day life. And while spotting the fakeness was part of the fun of the Kardashians, here it verges on counterproductive.


* * *



The most emotionally moving parts of the episode revolve around the 89-year-old Esther seeing her son as a daughter for the first time. When Esther arrives in Malibu, Jenner greets her by saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Esther looks up at her newly statuesque child and replies, sweetly, “I knew it would be.” Shortly after, Esther talks about how much she loves and supports Jenner, even as she continues to think of her as Bruce. “It’s a lot of getting used to,” she says, on the verge of tears. “But I will. I will.”


This all happens within the first 12 minutes of the episode. At no point does Esther say anything mean or disapproving. She just is going to need time before she can start referring to her child as “Caitlyn” with the same ease she once said “Bruce.” And yet for much of the rest of the episode the producers keep returning to Esther’s difficulties, as if her position—loving but still processing—is a point of conflict. (There is one interesting moment, when Esther brings up the Bible’s prohibition against crossdressing, and an LGBT-issues counselor says that Jenner’s not a man pretending to be a woman—Jenner’s a woman, period.) The storyline finally ends during a contrived-seeming conversation on a couch between Jenner and Esther. “I’m dragging you along with me,” Jenner says, and her mother just laughs faintly and says “okay.”


The rest of the premiere is filled with other such redundancies—ideas aired, then re-aired, and then re-aired, either in hopes of amping up drama or filling out the hour. There are real, rarely-before-depicted challenges for Jenner to tackle: how to dress and style herself; how to recalibrate some old relationships; how to better serve the trans community. A filmmaker from the world of traditional documentary, rather than reality TV, might have found a way to make those conflicts not feel like a performance for the camera.



Of course, performance isn’t inherently bad—even documentaries are works of artifice. But when the mission is to humanize a group of people, credibility counts. Jenner, at one point, wonders whether some of her kids and stepkids haven’t yet visited her because they secretly disapprove of her transition. But the viewer may wonder right back at her whether their absence was planned, so that emotional meet-and-greets could later take place on camera.


Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps it’s heartening that even as the subject matter and Jenner’s appearance has changed, I Am Cait retains some essential Kardiashianness. As Esther observes at one point, Caitlyn still has Bruce’s soul. And for transgender acceptance to become total, it will require people to understand that someone’s gender expression might shift but their fundamental nature doesn’t. I Am Cait, in a few ways, supports that message.