The most stirring moment in Caitlyn Jenner's short public life came last week when, in accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, she spoke words embodying the spirit of the honor: “It’s not just about me – it’s about all of us accepting one another. We are all different.”
Her poignant, selfless speech followed an April interview with Diane Sawyer that largely answered questions about the former athlete’s transition from male to female without veering deep into sensationalism, and a glamorous Vanity Fair cover last month that made a bold statement.
On Sunday, Jenner makes perhaps her most daring public move yet: a return to E!, home of “Total Divas,” “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills” and, of course, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
The network bills “I Am Cait,” Jenner’s new eight-part program, as a “docu-series.” The phrasing is key: It’s a hopeful signal that E! plans to present a portrait rooted more in reality than in Reality TV – in other words, keeping away from a "Keeping Up with Caitlyn" approach.
Jenner’s media choices so far offer a tacit recognition that her transition not only marks a new passage for the 1976 American Olympic hero, but also, in a sense, for fans across the country and beyond. The decathlon champion faces a major balancing act being at the center of a show that seeks to inform and inspire, while avoiding a tone of exploitation and still grabbing ratings.
Entertainment isn't necessarily at odds with the sensitive telling of a good story, and Jenner’s is a compelling one: an unlikely journey from a 1970s superstar athlete to a 2000s put-upon Reality TV dad/stepdad to a gender transition at age 65 – with every step playing out before millions.
The scrutiny of a mass audience and ever-present cameras can impact a show’s subjects, as evidenced from the odyssey of the Loud family on PBS in the early 1970s to the boisterous saga of the Osbourne family on MTV three decades later. Viewers have been conditioned in recent years by Reality TV to expect less a documentary style in non-scripted TV fare than a mutated sitcom fueled by conflict – manufactured, exaggerated and otherwise.
Conflict comes with significant life change. Jenner, as she enters perhaps the most crucial phase of her public and personal life, knows she needs to carefully share her story, cognizant that her TV show and the rest of her public life are about far more than just her own challenges. As she put it at the ESPYs: “If there is one thing I do know about my life, it is the power of the spotlight. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but with attention comes responsibility.”
Check out a preview of “I Am Cait” (above), as Jenner faces new responsibility with the courage that helped earn her the Ashe Award.
(E! and NBC are part of the NBCUniversal family.)
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.