The build-up was filled with suspense and high expectations. The favorite adjectives of the day–brave, beautiful, powerful–permeated the air. Then, on Sunday, “I am Cait” debuted “with a surprisingly modest turnout.”
Despite an enormous publicity campaign that included a Diane Sawyer interview, a Vanity Fair cover and a lengthy appearance at the ESPY Awards, Jenner’s new E! reality series “I Am Cait” opened Sunday with an underwhelming 2.7 million same-day viewers. Maybe the market for this sort of thing isn’t what E! was expecting. The Pauline Kaels of the world aren’t exactly known for residing in reality, after all.
One such heir of Kael is the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon. In an article published before the debut, he was effusive in his praise, writing, “I Am Cait, however, is reality TV in its highest form.” Which, honestly, is altogether possible. It’s reality TV. Arguing which reality show is the highest form is akin to arguing about who is the coolest guy at Shenaniganz, or the manliest hipster in skinny jeans.
Maybe People Can Turn Away from a Trainwreck
Amy Plitt at MTV.com waited until Monday to dish out her own praise for Jenner and all the wonderful takeaways his new show offers. From his still evolving fashion tastes, to Kim and Kanye’s support, to the lively exchanges we know that any show featuring members of the West-Kardashian clan are sure to offer, Plitt reminds us that this is a very important show. She concludes, “But on the whole, I Am Cait succeeds at what it set out to do: show the world that Caitlyn Jenner is living life on her own terms, and is happier than ever.”
Well, not exactly the world, exactly, given the show’s disappointing ratings numbers? As it turns out, regardless of how individuals feel about Jenner and all that bravery, they maybe aren’t as keen on tuning in to watch a former Olympian and Wheaties model act out his painfully stereotypical version of a woman.
Though many in the media are being honest about the ratings–while making sure to hedge and point out the comparable numbers for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians–some are outright dissembling. The New York Times, natch, described the ratings as solid. Variety tells us that “interest in Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation remains high.” CBS, while honest about the numbers, is sanguine: “But if Cait keeps on giving us her story in such a raw and beautiful manner as she did on Sunday, we can only hope that her fans stick with her journey on E!”
Bring In the Whirling Dervishes
Spin all you want, but that doesn’t change one simple fact. (Well, it actually doesn’t change a number of facts, but for the moment we’re just focused on ratings.) Back when Jenner had his interview with Diane Sawyer, 17 million tuned in. When he accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage on ESPN, a record 8.5 million tuned in for him. In 2014, by contrast, only 2.2 million people tuned in to watch the ESPYs. From those numbers and the 2.7 million who tuned in for “I am Cait,” we can infer that Caitlyn Jenner is way more popular than Michael Sam. It’s probably not white privilege, though. Jenner just has a better PR team.
Given the breathless coverage the run up to “I am Cait” was given, it’s got to be disappointing for those expecting huge numbers and a new national conversation about “bravery” and “beauty.” Instead, they got a big…meh. That’s why they should’ve read their Pauline Kael, not the shortened misattribution, but what she actually did say about the 1972 election.
“I live in a rather special world,” Kael said. “I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
The people pushing Jenner and “I am Cait,” including Jenner himself, live in a rather special world. They’re surrounded by people who share their crazy views of the world and biology. They’re not exactly the new Kaels, though. When they’re in the theater, they don’t feel us at all, as the numbers for the premier of “I am Cait” can attest.