Nothing has surprised me more, in all of the pop culture that I’ve covered, than this turn of Kardashian events. I’ve always been an apologist of theirs, of their branding and business acumen, but this has now reached a human level.
People have a common knee-jerk reaction to the Kardashians: a scoff, a groan, and a “who cares.” These past few months have shown why we should be so glad that we do.
With their vulnerable, sensitive, intelligent, and honest handling of Bruce Jenner’s transition, the Kardashian family, previously beacons of pop culture’s nadir, has become the essential, enlightened role models for us all.
Keeping Up With the Kardasians: About Bruce, a two-part special dealing with how the First Family of Reality TV is handling the transition of their patriarch, Bruce Jenner, into a woman, reiterated how brave and respectful the Kardashians have been in this process. And more, it solidified how important they’ve become as figures in a watershed moment in the LGBT movement.
The Kardashians are changing the world. And, who’d’ve thunk it, they’re changing it for the better.
The special, which aired three weeks after Jenner publicly came out as trans in a widely watched and surprisingly nuanced and educational TV interview with Diane Sawyer, began with a note from Jenner.
“Families of trans people often feel they need to grieve the loss of the person that they thought they know,” he said. “My family’s feelings are included here in the hope that other families will know that they are not alone, and to show that families move on from this grief. Today my family loves, supports, and accepts me as I am—and I am so grateful.”
As one might expect from that introduction, the hour that followed was filled with tears. Tears that were earned, because they reminded us that an experience we've disgustingly turned into a tabloid story is a very personal one that affects real people.
And because the Kardashians are reality TV stars, they’ve signed their deal with the devil: to grapple with every emotion that accompanies such a dramatic experience in front of the entire world. The refreshing thing about all of it is how the Kardashians aren’t viewing that duty as a chore, but as a responsibility and, more, as an opportunity.
And though there were tears and though there were arguments, the most abundant thing in this Keeping Up With the Kardashians special was an abiding love for Bruce Jenner, and an acceptance—albeit some more tentative than others, and some more confused than others—of what he’s decided.
Brilliantly, and touchingly, the first scene of the special was Khloe, who Jenner himself has said has had the hardest time with his transition, wrapping some extra-large pairs of high heels to gift to her stepdad.
An act of love. Then, quickly and frequently, came the tears.
Kendall wiped her eyes as she recounted finding makeup when she was growing up and thinking that her father was having an affair. Once, she walked in on him at 4 a.m. dressed as Her, the name Jenner told Sawyer he is using publicly to talk about himself as a woman. (Jenner has said that he wants the media to continue, at least for now, to use male pronouns when referring to him.)
“I just feel bad,” Kendall said, sobbing. “Like, if that’s really what makes you happy and you had to sneak around at like 4 a.m. because you didn't want to like scare me and Kylie?”
Kim talked about how she kept Jenner’s secret for 12 years after catching him in woman’s clothes over a decade ago. Khloe, right off the bat, showed the value of a special like this. She tripped up using “he” versus “she” to talk about Bruce, just like many of us have and will.
“I don’t know if I’m saying the right thing, if I’m using the right terminology, if I’m offending somebody,” she said.
That’s the thing. This is very much unfamiliar territory for all of us, especially someone like Khloe who is very personally being affected by a trans person. It requires education, and conversation, and talking through confusion and frustration and naiveté. That begets progress and acceptance. It’s something you’re seeing with Khloe, and, thanks to the openness of the Kardashian family in the past weeks, with society, too.
Khloe is actually the most combative in the episode, upset that Jenner has decided to transition fully within the year, but has kept it from his kids. “I don’t think it’s fair that you don’t tell us how close this is in the near future,” she said. “We’re still your kids.”
“But I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “It’s not the same person!” she shouts.
Home videos of Jenner raising the Kardashian clan were shown, and may be one of the most important segments of the special.
They showed Bruce Jenner as these girls’ father. It’s such a simple, but necessary, thing to remember, and the thing that so many of us have forgotten as we’ve voraciously consumed as much gossip-y reporting as we could get on our hands on of Jenner’s transition and circled the Kardashian girls like vultures to get them to spill on what it’s been like to have Jenner come out as a woman.
The home videos reminded us that this is a father, that they are his kids, and that this is a relationship that we haven’t respected—and need to more. They also introduce the excellent point, and the point that the girls find themselves grappling with throughout the course of the episode: Bruce Jenner may be transitioning into Her, but he’s still their father.
Those memories and moments aren’t gone. They aren’t tarnished, and they aren’t lies. It’s a complex thing to handle, and something we’re watching five brave girls handle in real-time. What an unbelievable thing to do.
There’s a lot of humor in the episode. After Bruce revealed that he has gone to the movies dressed as Her, Kourtney ribbed him about his wardrobe. “What’s your casual style like? Is it like denim on denim?” Bruce showed Kim a pedicure that he did on himself. “Your feet are actually way more feminine than I ever imagined,” she said.
These moments hint at why Jenner choosing E! to do his docuseries with this summer is more than just loyalty to the network that helped build his family's empire. It’s a smart programming choice.
Maybe it will capture more of the humor in the transition, like those exchanges above. Maybe it will show him having fun and living his life with this kooky brood of people. It’s lighthearted, carefree moments like those that humanize what’s become a news story. When we view Bruce and Her as human, it’s a step toward tolerance and acceptance of the trans community—a community that also loves fun and loves humor, too.
About Bruce wasn't the pageant of infallible acceptance that I think many of us expected it to be, a parade of Kardashians acting like high-minded angels with no qualms about Bruce. They all spoke about the struggle they’ve had with his transition, and the tension they’ve all felt balancing their acceptance and love for the man who raised them with understandable feelings of betrayal. They all wept as they talked about feeling resentful toward him and sad over what this experience has been like for their mother.
Still, Kim encapsulated the goal of the episode, which I’d say it achieved marvelously. “We want to understand his struggle,” she said. “We want to learn about it. We want to relate to it in some way.”
Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians have been criticized, and perhaps rightfully so, for grossly exploiting Jenner’s transition for ratings and publicity, first with the Diane Sawyer interview and now with this two-night special. Sure, these things are ratings gold. But they’re not gross. And they’re not exploitative.
The family is seizing control of the story and the message from the tabloids. They are doing what we’ve demanded of them—spill about how this experience is affecting them—but they’re doing it on their own terms, and they’re doing it sensitively and with nuance and with respect to an entire community whose lives their actions and comments will affect.
Of course the Kardashians are living this moment out on TV. And thank god they are.
Monday night’s second half of the special will include Kourtney talking about not wanting to tell her kids, Kris and Bruce having a highly emotional conversation about the whole thing, and Kim helping Bruce pick out clothes. Raising important questions, speaking raw and uncomfortable truths, and all with a little humor: Who knew Keeping Up With the Kardashians could be such quality viewing?
Toward the end of Sunday night's episode, Jenner said, “Maybe this is my greatest calling in life.” I think he’s right.