I Am Jazz Explores What it Means to Be a Teenage Girl — & Trans

Photo: Courtesy of TLC.
The tone of I Am Jazz, TLC’s new reality show about transgender teen Jazz Jennings and her family, which premiered on July 15, is set in the first few minutes when fourteen-year-old Jazz is asked to describe herself. “I am a teenage girl,” she says. “I’m also a soccer player. I’m also an artist. I’d like to think I’m funny. I love hanging out with my friends. I’m also transgender and I’m proud of that.”

At its core, the show is a portrait of a truly charming family that would populate an incredibly upbeat sitcom. The parents are childhood sweethearts who joke about their shared youth, her older sister is completely game to take her little sis bathing suit shopping, and her older twin brothers are protective and teasing; they assure her guys will like her for who she is on a trip to the beach, and cover her sleepover guests in silly string that night.

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It's also a show about the unique challenges a transgender teen faces. When Jazz — who is about to enter high school — nervously goes through the bikinis her older sister wants her to try on and insists she needs material over her “pudgy” stomach, it’s a scene any girl or woman can relate to. However, while the anxiety over how her exposed body will be received on the beach is universal, her fear over what overexposure could lead to-someone accusing her of not “really” being a girl, is unique.

Likewise, a conversation between Jazz’s mother and her parents (when Jazz’s grandparents curiously ask if she’s “developing” as she’d like) could be an awkward kitchen table chat with any family reminiscent of the familial feel-up scene in Sixteen Candles. Yet, Jazz’s mother Jeanette's concern over her daughter’s blood work, which will reveal if the hormones she's taking were properly balanced for female puberty, not male, is far from the average parenting experience.

That scene also features the show's most powerful moment, when Jeanette corrects her father for saying “transgenders” rather than transgender people, leading her mother to ask whether “trannies” is an acceptable term. Jeanette's small gasp and serious tone as she explains how inappropriate the term is makes it clear it’s offensive, but she doesn’t get angry. As her father said about learning he had a transgender granddaughter, “I educated myself.” It has obviously been a learning experience for the whole family, but what’s important is how supportive they’ve been of Jazz and their efforts to learn about transgender issues to support her.

With such a happy, loving family portrait drawn, it was a jarring but important moment when the camera captures a teenage boy calling Jazz a “tranny freak” while out to lunch with her mother. Jazz handles the incident with a poise that’s heartbreaking, but it’s obvious that nasty comments have become commonplace to her now. Her mother is obviously upset. She explains her reaction to Jazz as her instinct as a mother is to protect her children from harm, but to the camera, she explains her fear comes from knowledge as well — that transgender men and women are at a much higher risk for violence.

I Am Jazz enters a TV landscape which is featuring more trans voices, from Laverne Cox's character on Orange is the New Black to Caitlyn Jenner's similarly titled show I Am Cait, but it's also joining a wave of transgender teens on the small screen, living normal teenage lives. A transgender character on the ABC Family show The Fosters was introduced to depict the serious challenges transgender youths face, struggling to find accepting housing after his parents kicked him out and being hospitalized for getting hormones off the street. Although recently he's been able to just be another teen character on the show, hanging out with his friends and others who accept him.
I Am Jazz does a good job of gently educating its audience, but more importantly, it shows Jazz as another teen girl in a circle of friends, worrying about their bodies and giggling over makeovers. Jazz has a lot of decisions ahead of her that most of her peers don't ever have to think about: Surgeries and medications, and the threat of violence her parents worry about at night. Although Jazz is proud to be transgender, it is just one piece that makes up who she is.
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