Before Friday night, it was hard to imagine Bruce Jenner as an ideal spokesperson for transgender rights. The power that had fallen into his hands as the unlikely center of a national dialogue around gender mostly felt unfortunate. This groovy '70s Olympic hero, once a walking advertisement for fit, tan, white-toothed masculinity, had slowly transformed, in the shadow of the Kardashian empire, into a wilted reflection of his former self. He had become an eerie ghost dad, hapless and out of place, led by his shiny herd from one embarrassing situation to another. And even as he gamely tried to play along with the family circus, there was always something a little off with Bruce. He never looked straight into the camera. He always acted jittery, like something was burning in the kitchen and he was the only one who could smell it.
To hear Jenner tell it, that was his soul on fire. And within the first few seconds of his two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer, it was clear that those flames had finally been put out. "It's gonna be tough," Bruce said, his eyes tearing up. "I've been thinking about this day forever. What I should do with my life? How do I tell my story?" This wasn't the vague, scattered ghost dad we'd seen before. He was honest and forthright. He didn't mince words or clench his teeth or put an overly optimistic spin on things or resist hard questions. The Bruce Jenner we met on Friday night was a testament to the power of honesty. He was transformed into someone bigger and brighter and more comfortable in his own skin than he'd ever been before.
And just like that, he went from being a suspicious figure, a strange guy perhaps trying to upstage his wife's carefully constructed empire, to a strong, eloquent individual ready to fully take on his new role as transgender hero. The transformation was so radical and so stunning, it was impossible not to be completely mesmerized. The way Jenner held himself, cried, laughed at himself, and fully inhabited himself onscreen was completely at odds with the person we'd known before. There's no other way to express it: It was like watching a butterfly break out of its cocoon.
"One thing that's so important in this whole process is, we have to keep our sense of humor about this, okay?" Jenner told Sawyer early in the interview. "It's honestly, it's really pretty funny, me of all people, Bruce Jenner, has to deal with this issue, running away from all of this stuff." This was just one of so many moments in Jenner's interview that felt completely natural, like a conversation between friends.
Up until Friday night, it had been easy to assume ABC would treat Jenner just like the gossip rags have so far: as an oddity, a circus freak to ogle on the way from one Kardashian sideboob shot to the next. Even People magazine, that reliable mouthpiece of "classy" coverage, tweeted, "Bruce Jenner: Is he doing this for publicity?"
Instead, Sawyer not only let Jenner laugh at the absurdity of such a suggestion (and treated him with respect and consideration at every turn), but she wisely approached the conversation as a chance for him to explain — to her and to the viewers at home! — what the whole transgender thing is all about. She asked Jenner a few times whether or not he would still be with women after he transitioned. (Jenner's response was, essentially, Signs point to yes! And also: I'm old! That's the last thing I'm thinking about, frankly!) In another touching (and hilarious) moment, Sawyer said, "And again, it's hard to compute …" (you can almost see her reaching for America's hand at this point) "but transgender people and experts both tell us sexual desire and gender are two different things!" While this attempt to patiently walk viewers through the basics may have triggered an eye-roll or two — at one point, the words "Cross-dressing" and "Transgender" and "Different!" flashed across the screen — the truth is that plenty of viewers could use a slow, step-by-step tour through this unfamiliar territory.
ABC dove into many dimensions of the story they could've skimmed over or ignored: the rampant violence and murder of transgender women, the fact that close to half of transgender teens will attempt suicide. And Jenner himself mentioned that black transgender women have a particularly difficult time. ABC also ran footage of a transgender girl dropping to her knees and crying when her high school elected her homecoming queen, a quick snippet that had the power to bring tears to the eyes of the most skeptical or uncomprehending viewer. Equally affecting was the doctor from L.A. Children's Hospital who, when asked how an 18-month-old indicates transgender status, answered, "I a boy." ABC's courage and sensitivity in weaving a smart transgender primer into its broadcast is a testament to the enormous power of media to influence the way we encounter and metabolize a story, an issue, a human being, a subset of society. For all of the advances in public awareness over the past year — including groundbreaking portrayals on Orange Is the New Black and Transparent — Sawyer's interview surpassed them all.
The approach was sensitive and smart, but the most credit for its success goes to Jenner himself, who vividly conveyed how it feels to be a transgender woman. "So here I am, stuck," he said of his struggles to feel at home with himself. "And I hate 'girl stuck in a guy's body.' I hate that terminology. I'm me. I'm a person. And this is who I am. I'm not stuck in anybody's body! My brain is much more female than it is male. It's hard for people to understand that. But that's what my soul is." Jenner also revealed just how heartbreaking it's been to live with this lie for so long. He described agonizing over telling his children for years; he took hormones in the '80s and then stopped because he was worried about hurting his kids. Eventually, though, he knew it was time to tell them (and the outside world) the truth. "I couldn't take the walls constantly closing in on me," he said. "If I die, I'd be so mad at myself that I didn't explore that side of me."
"I want to know how this story ends," said Jenner. So do we. The goofy ghost dad we never quite trusted is gone. It's telling that Jenner was more eloquent and thoughtful and comfortable in his interview than he's ever been before. Now he's free — or at least as free as you can be when cameras are still following you everywhere. Still, Jenner says he's looking forward to living out loud — and also, to having "my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off."
Celebrity interviews and reality-TV shows aren't a realm we normally associate with enlightening the masses and inciting social change. But by allowing himself to be vulnerable and revealing himself to the world, Jenner has cleared a path for so many others who are hiding and hurting and living in fear.
"I would like to think that we could save some lives here," Jenner said near the end of his interview. Those words, which might've sounded foolish and grandiose just a few days ago, now sound perfectly believable.