But the polarizing Kardashian/Jenner clan also has fans around the world. And Bruce Jenner’s riveting interview with Diane Sawyer on Friday night, in which the Olympic star athlete came out as a transgender woman and his family shared their reactions, perfectly crystallized the reason why they deeply connect with many viewers. Because it showed that at their core, the Kardashians — in all their infamy — are somehow a lot like you.
Really: Strip away the reality show and tabloid headlines, and the Kardashians are just a family. A large, blended family. An extremely close-knit, crazy, messy family that loves each other, is dealing with some complicated issues and doing their best to work through them. Sound familiar?
Unlike many, the Kardashians broadcast their drama to the world. Sometimes, that backfires and seems wildly insensitive, if not dangerous. But other times, like with Bruce’s transition, it hits a nerve.
Because even if you can’t relate to this specific situation, everyone knows what it’s like to have a family dynamic drastically change; and how scary it is to realize that nothing is going to be the same. Everyone has that moment when you learn that someone you love has been keeping a huge secret. You wonder if you can ever look at them the same way, if you can trust them, if you really know them anymore, if anything will ever really be okay again.
That universal fear was a major theme in Bruce’s interview. He talked at length about how terrifying it was to come out to his children. He has 10 kids in all: Burt and Cassandra with first wife Chrystie Crownover; Brandon and Brody with second wife Linda Thompson; Kendall and Kylie with third wife Kris Kardashian; and four step-kids (Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob Kardashian).
“Those are the only ones I’m concerned with…I can’t let myself hurt them,” Bruce said, recalling his thoughts at the time: “How do I do this? How do I do this and not hurt my children?”
During the interview, it was a pretty incredible scene: Bruce’s four oldest kids (Burt, Cassandra, Brandon and Brody) appeared together in support of their dad. They were brutally honest about how challenging it was to hear the news, but also emphasized it was an unbelievably brave choice.
Cassandra in particular may have caused a few viewers to reach for the tissues. She recalled a conversation that illustrates at no matter what age, when you see your parent go through something, you emotionally revert back to a kid who just wants your mom or dad to make everything okay.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want us to call you?'” Cassandra said. “And he just interrupted me and just said, “I’m dad. You can call me dad. I will always be your dad.'”
While none of the Kardashians appeared on the special, they all took to Twitter, calling Bruce their ‘hero’ and emphasizing about how much they love and support him. (They’re likely saving the in-person reaction for the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” season finale.)
Regardless of possible ratings-grab intentions, keep in mind this is a family that wields enormous influence over the culture, with hundreds of millions of social media followers around the world seeing their acceptance of Bruce. No matter how you feel about the way they got those followers, it’s an extremely powerful platform. Sawyer also noted this rarity: “In a world in which so many families reject a transgender parent or child, this family wants you to know: There is another way,” she said during the special.
One crystallizing, very human moment arrived when Bruce talked about breaking his news to the Kardashian kids. Everyone had reactions that fit with their personality. Khloe, who has dealt with a lot of loss in her life and is also extremely close with Bruce, took the news the hardest. Kourtney was worried about how her young kids would react. In a surprising moment, Kim had a breakthrough from a seemingly unlikely source: Her husband, Kanye West.
“Look, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world. And I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world. I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself. They don’t mean anything.”
Bruce explained Kim said that was the moment she saw things clearly. Now, Bruce said, Kim is the family member who is by far the easiest one to talk to about the transition. (Recently, her exact words about his new look: “Girl, you gotta rock it, baby. You gotta look good. If you’re doing this thing, I’m helping you.”)
Viewers at home were left to wonder: So, Kim and Kanye talk about…regular stuff? Maybe they had that conversation flying first-class on a private jet to Paris. Maybe they were at home on the couch. Maybe it was at a really uncomfortable-looking outdoor brunch. Either way, in that moment, Kanye was just a husband looking for the right words to support his wife.
Through it all, the interview illustrated how easy it is to forget that just because people do absurd things on reality TV, that doesn’t mean they aren’t people. The Kardashian-Jenner family specifically, for all their issues, hits home closer than a lot of skeptics realize.
Plus, now that Bruce is arguably the most famous transgender person in the world, the hugely visible family is giving others an example of how to react. “Obviously there’s parts of it that aren’t necessarily easy,” Brandon, Bruce’s third-born son, said to Sawyer. “I’m not handling this perfectly. I’m just doing my best to cope with what’s going on. And when I see my dad as a woman, it might be a little bit shocking at first.”
Later, Bruce came into the room, and Brandon told his dad the words that anyone would hope to hear in that situation: “I saw a sense of bravery that is, for all of your previous accomplishments, I think far exceeds all of them. And I’m just honored and more proud than ever to be a part of the family.”