Reality television is a genre with a stigma: scripted conversations, overdramatized situations and misleading editing all point to the fact that the shows aren't "reality," but cheap entertainment. In contrast to that reputation, I Am Jazz — a show that tells the story of a transgender teen girl and her family — works to give reality TV a better name. And it succeeds.
Why? Because it feels normal. Of course, some of the language feels scripted, like when one of her brothers tells her, "If a guy doesn't like you for who you are, then they don't matter, all right?" But despite the innate dishonesty created by the presence of the cameras, dramatic music and cliffhanger commercial breaks, it feels real. The family isn't a spectacle, and Jazz is no freak.
Here's a promo:
The show is built a bit like a stereotypical sitcom, with its lovey-dovey parents, prankster twin brothers, the beautiful older sister, and the protagonist: a teenage girl just trying to fit in. But who cares if some of the characters are stock? Normalizing Jazz and her family's situation is where the show leaves other reality programming in its wake.
In the first few minutes of the pilot, 14-year-old Jazz is portrayed as a typical teenager. Being transgender is clearly a big part of her life, but it's not the only thing that defines her.
She's a girl about to enter high school. She thinks her parents are overprotective, wants bigger breasts, and is crushing hard on boys.
The body-image banter between her and her older sister on the way to go bathing-suit shopping is all too familiar to any girl who's gone through puberty. "I'm mostly skinny everywhere ... and then all my fat goes to my stomach," she says. "Why can't it go to my butt and my boobs?"
And any girl with a brother can probably relate to Jazz's relationship with her older twin brothers. They nag her for taking too long to get ready, cover her sleepover guests in silly string, and are super protective of her, particularly when discussing her eventual foray into the dating world.
Of course, she has a much bigger struggle than your average teenage girl, and that's why this show is so important. Everyone needs to see what a trans person has to deal with on a daily basis. She worries constantly about whether her estrogen levels are high enough, whether signs of male puberty — hair on her face, for example — will unexpectedly appear, whether boys will ever like her back, and, worst of all, discrimination.
Toward the end of the episode, as Jazz eats lunch at a restaurant with her mother, a guy walks by and says, "Hey Jazz. Tranny freak." Jazz remains unfazed, used to this type of behavior, but her mom immediately jumps up from her seat, ready to take action. Jazz calms her down, telling her, "It's not worth it."
I Am Jazz does a wonderful job of educating its audience, while still showing Jazz as just another teen girl who loves shopping, getting makeovers and gossiping with her friends. She may be lucky to have such a loving and supportive family, but it should really be the norm. Yes, there is something unique about Jazz, but she's so incredibly ordinary at the same time.
Tune in tonight to I Am Jazz at 10pm Eastern on TLC.
Screengrab via TLC/YouTube