Caitlyn Jenner (formerly “Bruce”) wantsto tell the world her story – not surprising for someone who’s been involved with a reality TV show for many years. In the first episode of “I am Cait,” the eight-part E! series, she’s newly styled as a woman – and what a team of stylists she has. At her gorgeous hilltop Malibu home, Caitlyn gets together with her mother, sisters, and better-known family members. All this is billed as “meeting Caitlyn” – a locution you have to find puzzling, if you’re philosophically inclined. The phrase implies that Cait is a whole new person, someone never before encountered by the Jenner-Kardashian clan.
An expert on transgender issues comes to the house and stresses that Caitlyn has always been female inside. Caitlyn and her mother also agree that throughout her life, first as Bruce and then as Caitlyn, there’s been only one, unchanging soul. What’s new is Caitlyn’s open presentation of herself as a woman – now she has a feminine name, hair, clothes, make-up, nail polish; and she’s had some plastic surgery and hormones. Is she really a whole new person? If so, a philosopher on the set might point out, then Caitlyn didn’t win the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics, didn’t marry and divorce three women or have six children, etc. The change in outward presentation surely doesn’t mark a birth, a new person coming into existence, but it’s still a big change. It’s especially big for Caitlyn’s mother, who struggles to offer total acceptance and unwavering love.
Steven Colbert’s right wing alter-ego used to claim that he doesn’t see race, and I think some of us would be proud if we could honestly say the same thing. However, we do constantly see gender. We see gender and we also want to be seen as gendered. You have to take that on board and accept it to sympathize with Caitlyn Jenner and understand the drama of her family’s first encounter with femininely styled Caitlyn. You can’t be the feminist equivalent of Colbert, eschewing gender distinctions or preferring a world in which gender distinctions are muted and minor.
How we experience and react to gender is also a theme in “Tangerine,” a low-budget, high-art story about two transgender sex workers, Sin-dee and Alexandra, who struggle to survive in a run-down, seedy neighbourhood of Hollywood. The story line was suggested to director Sean Baker by the actors themselves, two trans women (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) with first-hand experience of the streets. There are no designer fashions and fabulous hairstyles here, no tennis courts, beaches, and glam furnishings.
The premise of the movie is that, while she was spending a few weeks in prison, Sin-dee’s pimp/boyfriend cheated on her with Dinah, a prostitute and drug addict Sin-dee contemptuously dismisses as a “fish” – because she’s a “cisgender” (i.e. not trans) woman. Sin-dee is furious, and she sets off with Alexandra to find and punish Dinah. An Armenian taxi driver who comes into the story is typical of the trans women’s clients: he buys sex from women who are male-endowed. When he accidentally picks up a cis prostitute, he’s appalled by what she lacks and ejects her from the car.
Gender is more complicated here than in the two-box “I am Cait” universe. Alexandra seems to welcome being desired by the taxi driver for her male equipment. Does that put her in a different gender category from “fish” like Dinah? And if the taxi driver is attracted to Alexandra, but not to cis girls or guys, does that give him a sexual orientation other than gay or straight? Or is Alexandra a woman taking whatever sex work is available; and is the taxi driver a gay man in denial?
Though more puzzling and transgressive than “I am Cait” and full of grime and vomit (literally), “Tangerine” is ultimately about love, not grubby paid sex; and “I am Cait” is about love, not fashion and glamour. “Tangerine” was shot (on an iPhone 5S!) so the LA sky is a fruity, vivid backdrop for a sort of romance between the two sex workers, who are faithful friends to the end. There’s also a hint of affection between clients and sex workers, like when the taxi driver rushes to see Alexandra sing at a bar. Even Dinah winds up receiving some tenderness from her rival. On the hilltop, Caitlyn retains the love of her family, including (most movingly) her mother, and she asks families of transgender teens to stand by them like her family has. In the show’s most moving moment, she visits the grieving parents of a trans 14-year-old who killed himself recently and participates in a balloon release in his honour.
These shows raise some complex questions about gender and sexuality but keep it simple when it comes to love and friendship. They conquer all.