About 17 million people watched Bruce Jenner come out as transgender on “20/20 — Bruce Jenner: The Interview” on April 24, earning the news show its highest rating in 15 years. But it was hardly news.
As everyone who’s been in a supermarket checkout line in the last year knows, the tabloids, followed by the mainstream press, have been invading Jenner’s privacy for some time. It was rather like Ellen DeGeneres’ protracted coming out as a lesbian in 1997, except that in DeGeneres’ case the hype was orchestrated largely by DeGeneres, whereas Jenner hasn’t been in control of the story until relatively recently, when he signed the exclusive agreement with ABC. Still, the impact on both comings-out was the same: there was little suspense.
What we did get with Jenner, though, was a refreshingly thoughtful and self-aware former Olympic star — one who was billed as “the world’s greatest athlete” after he won the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal — revealing himself as herself at the age of 65. Jenner made a point of saying that at least for the time being he prefers the masculine pronoun. At the same time, he was absolutely clear about his core identity being female. Jenner, who refers to his female self simply as “Her,” presented America with a one-shot telecourse — Transgender 101. By and large, the class was a big success.
Jenner reported what many LGBT people understand from personal experience: he knew he was different as a child, and the feelings never went away. He told Sawyer that he focused on becoming an Olympian in some measure to distract himself from the gender dysphoria he knew to be at his heart and soul.
One of the few real revelations was that he’d discussed being a trans woman with each of his three wives; he was more or less honest with all of them. And each of them initially thought she could handle it. Wives One and Two sent supportive messages to him through Diane Sawyer and ABC News. Wife Three, Kris Kardashian Jenner, issued only a curt “no comment.” His six children appeared to be at ease with their father’s transitioning, but footage edited out of the program (but subsequently released by ABC) reveals that the four oldest kids felt that Jenner had more or less abandoned them in his effort to hide.
One big shock came when Jenner offered only grudging praise for President Barack Obama mentioning the transgender community in his 2015 State of the Union address, a remark that caused Diane Sawyer to lose her composure, reel back in her seat, and ask in a tone of utter amazement, “You’re a Republican?” Jenner was amused, but he then went on say that he was sure that neither John Boehner nor Mitch McConnell would have any problem with his being transgender. Personally maybe, maybe not. But Bruce, don’t hold your breath for an invitation to appear onstage at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
As for Sawyer, she handled the interview with characteristic intelligence — except for her insistence on using “What Does Bruce Jenner Look Like In a Dress?” as a pre-commercial-break teaser for the whole second hour of the interview. Setting up Bruce Jenner to conclude the show as a drag queen was tacky and unlike anything else in the interview. Sawyer, who was blasted with high-key lighting and whose makeup appeared to have been applied with a putty knife, seemed transfixed by the concept. (Use a tad darker shade of foundation, Diane, and a little less of it — we already know you’re white — and ease up on the mascara and eyeliner; the Kabuki look is so Tokyo 1673.) The Jenner in drag issue took on a prurient tone after being repeated so often, and as it turned out there wasn’t even any payoff. Jenner donned a black, barely feminine top and slacks for the final segment of the interview, and that was the end of it.