Bruce Jenner's two-hour ABC special on Friday night was remarkable for many different reasons. The obvious is that it was the most high-profile illustration of gender identity and a life-long struggle, exploring something that's difficult for many to understand. Bruce Jenner's pain was clear, but so was his desire to tell his story and embrace the future.
The special also made the case why the reality series chronicling the next steps in his journey on a reality series is a terrific idea. E! finally announced the series Friday night, after trying to keep its existence a secret. It'll debut July 26.
That E! withheld the announcement and Jenner went on a prime-time show to disclose his transition both served as fuel for those who claimed this was just all about attention and ratings. Early in the two hours, Bruce Jenner mocked the idea he was transitioning just for publicity. Diane Sawyer pointed out that “there's a shameless selling of everything today.”
That's true, and so why not sell a celebrity's transition by turning it into a series? Why should there be shame about showing the world who you are?
Since earning fame as an Olympic athlete, Jenner has been in the public eye, though it seems like that's only been increasing recently. A reality series doesn't change that. Bruce Jenner could go off and hide as he transitions, which would certainly be his right, but why not continue to live publicly? Why not use celebrity for good? The huge ratings Friday's special earned prove that his fame — and interest, and curiosity — can draw an audience.
Jenner also talked about “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the hit E! series on which Bruce has often been the family's “punching bag,” as he said. “The one real true story in the family was the one I was hiding and nobody knew about it,” he told Diane Sawyer. “The one thing that could really make a difference in people's lives was right here in my soul, and I could not tell that story.”
Reality TV is a great place to tell that story. Really.
Yes, KUWTK is vapid and often inane, and E! does not seem like a television home for serious, thought-provoking television about important social issues. But it can be, and it can use its obsession with celebrity for good.
Those who are uncomfortable about the idea of a reality series are perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of a man becoming a woman–and witnessing that process, not just seeing him talk about it.
Actually, what reality television really needs right now is more of that, just cameras watching as someone lives their life. Curiosity about others' lives drew viewers in the early 1970s to “An American Family,” just as it draws viewers to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
Yet reality TV is now stuck in a rut of shows that are so similar and familiar that very few things are surprising any more like those two shows once were. Bruce Jenner's journey offers a chance for reality television to surprise us with a story unlike one we've seen before, telling another chapter in a very public life.
Reality TV cameras can offer the opportunity to see something happen and unfold. That makes the unknown familiar and no longer abstract. What we're watching is happening right there in our living rooms. That level of intimacy allows viewers to get to know someone, which leads to understanding and, eventually, acceptance.