Bruce Jenner, Mad Men & the Shared Experience of Television

Dismissed by many as a cheap ratings stunt playing to the lowest common reality-show denominator, “Bruce Jenner: The Interview” on ABC’s 20/20 drew over 17 million viewers, registering the largest audience for a non-sports Friday night broadcast in 13 years. It appears to have been one of those moments so rare in today’s fragmented media world: the network television show that is appointment viewing, which has family and friends talking the day after and asking, “What did you think?”

Most importantly, it seems to have represented a monumental shift in how our culture views the transgender community; a group of individuals that has often been perceived as existing only on the fringe of society; seen as fair targets by comedians, hate-mongers and many of us who just didn’t understand.

The broadcast was reminiscent of how television, before cable and the Internet, was the medium that enabled many shared human experiences—a theme often explored on TV’s Mad Men. Whether it’s the horror of the JFK assassination or the hope of the Walk on the Moon, TV served as the teacher and all of us were its students. Last Friday’s broadcast didn’t just have millions transfixed over a public personality who, it turned out, had been in hiding his entire life. It also educated and informed on the important issue of gender identity, and the desperate need to reach a population of young people which has an alarmingly high suicide rate.

Our first indication this transformation in perception had taken place? Many online outlets and newspapers included glowing reviews of the program last weekend, expressing an element of surprise at the substance of the interview. As Columnist Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote, “…a funny thing happened on the way to infamy. After a bumpy start, the two-hour show grew increasingly informative and progressively moving.”

Jenner, an Olympic gold medalist, was reduced to a side act on the long-running Keeping up with the Kardashians, but he took center stage with his personal drama. He projected as funny, self-deprecating, vulnerable and articulate in his explanations. Most importantly, he exhibited extraordinary patience in explaining his struggle and in responding to Diane Sawyer’s questions and comments. The veteran journalist sat back and let Jenner talk, advancing the story through her listening skills and asking follow-up questions that the audience at home were likely asking themselves.

The second indication that the effect of Jenner’s announcement would carry beyond Friday night: the jokes and wisecracks told by late night comedians. For instance, Conan O’Brien quipped, “Bruce Jenner will be getting his own reality show. Unfortunately, as a woman, Jenner will only be making 70 percent of what he made on his last reality show.”

As the Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen wrote, “The surest sign that a marginalized group is on the path to social acceptance isn’t when comedians stop telling jokes about them, it’s when comedians finally cross the critical threshold from mockery to creativity in their joke-telling” and “[Jenner] may have made cheap jokes about trans people seem mean to a mainstream audience on an unprecedented scale.”

Such a cultural shift in our collective thinking, if it is truly lasting, is proof of an acceptance and tolerance in the zeitgeist that didn't previously exist. Of course, Jenner played no small part—it took a spokesperson charismatic and familiar enough for many of us to somehow relate to. What would be possible if over 17 million of us tuned in, at one time, to a thoughtful broadcast on the drought in California, opiate drug addiction, or childhood obesity?

It makes one nostalgic for the old-fashioned shared human experience of television, and makes me wonder how much we could accomplish if they occurred a little more often nowadays.

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