When “I Am Cait” became, as Perez Hilton noted, “I Am Cancelled,” the demise, after only two seasons, of the series that chronicled Olympian Bruce Jenner’s transition to transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner, the inevitable reason given was: the ratings fell of the cliff. Last summer, when “I Am Cait” debuted, 2.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the show E! hailed as “groundbreaking.” By the end of season 2, the ratings had dropped by more than 2 million from that blockbuster open.
As tends to be the case, there are myriad reasons why “I Am Cait” took a ratings nosedive. It may have been that the huge sampling from the series was driven by fans of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” who soon discovered it was a somewhat more substantive and less salacious tabloid escape than the series that gave birth to it. Maybe Caitlyn Jenner herself, with her support of Donald Trump, was a turnoff to the E! audience that can’t seem to get enough of “The Kardashians,” “Total Divas” and whatever network brass seems to touch.
Looking for answers, I reached out via Twitter to Jenny Boylan, the bestselling author of the memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Boylan, a well-regarded LGBTQ activist and Barnard College professor, had been part of the cast of “I Am Cait.” Far from seeing the series as a failure, Boylan says the fact that the show had two seasons at all should be deemed as a success.
Two seasons of “the most radical and progressive show in TV,” said Boylan, should be considered nothing less than “great.” When I asked Boylan if she thought Jenner’s GOP leanings and support of The Donald turned viewers off, she thought it hadn’t been much of a turnoff for those who tuned in early and didn’t think it was much of a factor, tweeting that “about 25%” of the transgender community in the U.S. throw down with the GOP. “We are not a monolith,” said Boylan. “I’m a progressive and accept that our community is diverse.”
Good points all. Certainly, there are important takeaways from “I Am Cait,” what it tells us about the TV Everywhere ecosystem and how by its nature it creates more diversity, understanding and tolerance. There’s a reason “I Am Cait” won a GLADD Media Award for Best Reality Series. Diversity in platforms leads to diversity in programming. These things happen in steps. It’s hard to imagine, for example, in a pre-Netflix and Amazon Prime universe that you would have Laverne Cox be the first transgender woman nominated for an Emmy for her wonderful work on “Orange Is the New Black,” or see a show like “Transparent” win multiple Emmys, including Jeffrey Tambor’s Best Actor nod for his brilliant performance of a middle-aged man’s journey to transgender woman.
Given the extreme success of “Kardashians,” I’m sure E! was expecting “I Am Cait” to have legs beyond a second season, with the bean counters envisioning more gold to match the kind Bruce Jenner won in 1976 in Montreal. Still, even if only hundreds of thousands watched each episode of its second season instead of the millions who tuned in at its debut, Boylan’s point is a very sound one: The mere fact that it had a couple of seasons on a mainstream network to begin with was “rad.” It takes years for something “radical” to move from “impossible” to “probable” and then “successful,” and “Cait” and “Transparent” have helped push the wheels of acceptance forward. Ratings are impatient and relentless; change takes a bit more time.