Transgender activists have expressed understandable concern about the “spectacle”-like coverage surrounding Bruce Jenner, which will be punctuated by ABC News’ two-hour Diane Sawyer interview on April 24.
Yet whatever else is happening in Jenner’s life, the publicity must be viewed through the prism of the Kardashian-Jenner Industrial Complex, where virtually nothing happens by accident and the circus is always in town. The frenzy that perpetually surrounds all things Kardashian — having chosen to live entirely within the spotlight, dispensing with any notions of privacy — renders Jenner an imperfect spokesperson or icon for an issue that requires seriousness or sensitivity.
Using their E! series as the centerpiece of Kardashians Inc., the family has embraced a “Famous for being famous” mentality that has become as lucrative as it is unavoidable. Moreover, everyone who passes within their sphere gets drawn into this maelstrom, where it appears to be ordained on high that at least one member of the clan is featured in the pages of US Weekly in every single issue.
In terms of the Kardashian sisters, the men within their lives all come with pop-culture or public resumes of one degree or another. The carnival-like atmosphere is never-ending, with 10-week marriages, relationship strife, run-ins with paparazzi (through a veil of crocodile tears) and rehab all part of a gumbo that has spawned four spinoffs beyond “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and where weddings are viewed as made-for-TV stunts.
Jenner participated in that as the often seemingly detached husband of matriarch Kris Jenner, a role that in this context carries more currency as a claim to media fame than winning an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon nearly 40 years ago. Attention and notoriety via reality TV has also extended to the Jenner kids, such as son Brody, who is described as a “sex enthusiast” in E!’s announcement of his upcoming call-in talkshow “Sex With Brody,” which at least exhibits creativity in turning an avocation into a full-time job.
Against that backdrop, the Sawyer interview — which ABC is promoting with a sense of urgency one wishes the network brought with any regularity to, well, news — isn’t merely representative of Jenner’s journey but will inevitably be filtered through the public-relations machine over which the Kardashians preside. And that can’t help but enhance perceptions of Jenner as an object of tabloid curiosity, becoming just one more unexpected plot twist in the ongoing Kardashian soap opera.
From a distance, Jenner would be an ideal candidate to bring transgender issues into focus, as a widely recognizable celebrity who parlayed his flag-waving athletic accomplishments into a media career. But the years spent marinating within the Petri dish of Kardashian-land virtually ensure that this story will be infused with the kind of tabloid tenacity that governs everything else pertaining to the family. Nor would ABC News be handling the interview in such a breathless manner — and devoting such a sizable chunk of primetime to it — if the network didn’t recognize its value in rippling through the ecosystem devoted to chronicling the extended clan’s every hiccup.
In ABC’s latest 30-second tease, Jenner expresses concern about his family, which can’t help but sound laughable under the circumstances. Given their symbiotic relationship with media, it’s hard to envision how anything that generates scads of attention about the Kardashians could possibly damage them.
As the New York Post noted, Kris Jenner has been especially shrewd in monetizing her progeny (hence the odious term “momager”), tapping into an appetite for sensationalism that’s certainly not new but is more inexhaustible and hungrier in this fast-paced modern age, turning it into a gold mine as profitable as it is toxic. Bruce Jenner might have been just one player amid that cast of characters, but if the coverage already is any indication of what’s to come, there’s simply no way to gracefully pull oneself out of the Kardashian quicksand.