WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE CAITLYN?
Around half five UK time on Monday 1 June, we experienced Bruce Jenner’s big reveal as Vanity Fair released their July cover image of the former athlete and reality star formerly known as Bruce, with the catchily alliterative coverline ‘Call me Caitlyn’. Jenner is pictured, perfectly styled and posed, expertly photographed by Annie Leibovitz and lovingly post-produced. The magazine itself promises a 22 page cover story penned by Buzz Bessinger, which also reveals details of Jenner’s uncertainty following 10 hours of facial surgery and the reaction of Jenner’s children upon seeing their father’s breast augmentation. There is even a video documentary of the ‘emotional two-day photo shoot’.
The image itself is masterful. The initial impact, with neutral colouration, emphasises the sheer amount of flesh on display; Jenner is depicted in an elegant corset, standing in the corner, arms behind the back and a cutesy ever-so-coy submissive look; what have we caught naughty Caitlyn doing? This is a pose designed to lead the eye on a journey, to explore Jenner’s body, to admire this 65 year-old’s marvellous physique. This is the new image this incredibly wealthy and successful Republican-voting reality superstar has wrought from the millions of dollars they have earned over the last four and a half decades.
So, what does this all mean?
Make no mistake, Jenner’s story is extraordinary; a life of hard work, dedication and seizing every opportunity for fulfilment and fame has, by all accounts, meant it has taken half way through Jenner’s seventh decade to announce to the world ‘this is who I am’. To reach this point, there have been years of speculation, as well as facial (and likely hairline) surgery and breast augmentation. (It is interesting to note that, apparently, Jenner is yet to ‘go all the way’ and has not as yet had genital realignment surgery.) Within this context, how are we supposed to view Jenner’s suggestion that ‘this is the real me’, that this is the person they always have been?
High-profile ‘coming out’ stories are applauded by columnists proclaiming the new transitioner has ‘always been a woman’, this happened last year with Kellie Maloney and is happening now with Caitlyn Jenner. Between them, Jenner and Maloney have been married at least five times and fathered eight children. Both have made enormous fortunes as men, each enjoying over six decades of male privilege before so boldly staking their claim to womanhood. If each these trans women have ‘always been a woman’, how does this relate to the lived lives and experiences of that 52% of the population who are born and raised as women?
In April’s interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, Jenner claimed ownership of a ‘female brain’. The existence of inherently different male and female brains is hardly a settled matter and there is no significant generally accepted evidence that points to neurological differences in males and females that would explain, for example, an affinity for pink or wanting to wear a dress or makeup. These, of course, are all cultural artifacts and are meaningless without context. Society has a set of rules which governs what is acceptable for men and women to do, and this is called ‘gender’. Gender is not something we ‘have’, rather it is a set of behaviours that we are expected to follow based on our birth sex. These same rules apply in Jenner’s apparent shift from the powerful male role-model, to the shy, deferential seductress we see in Vanity Fair. Gender is not a civil liberty, it is a set of social codes, and this is what gender does; gender disempowers women. Jenner is not a ‘gender outlaw’ breaking down boundaries and a mechanism for positive change, Jenner represents the status quo, in opposition to the positive, progressive force and changes that decades of women’s suffrage and activism have fought for.
We can view this image of Jenner as being not ‘a man becoming a woman’ (itself a contentious and somewhat counterfactual statement) but as ‘a man becoming a man’s idea of what a woman should be’. This is writ large over the Vanity Fair cover: an idealised body is presented clothed only in lingerie, the makeup is done to perfection, and every flaw is magically photoshopped out of existence. Pandering to the male gaze,the body language is coy, seductive, submissive. This is not liberation, this is not revolution, this is not life-affirming; this is the crass stereotyping of what it means to be a woman, meeting every reactionary, culturally conservative ideal of what a woman should be; passive, objectified, dehumanised. Can we honestly say that this is someone who has come to terms with themselves, with who they are, if to attain this takes so much surgical intervention? Is the sum total of what this image is, representative of what it means to be a women?
Although it is 2015, we still inhabit a society where women are earning barely 75% of male colleagues, the woman’s world is full of permanently locked doors, locked for no reason of ability or aptitude or lack of hard work..Women are still expected to defer to men, who themselves are conditioned to believe every woman exists to make their life more comfortable. The dehumanisation of women is ritualised in porn, strip bars, and ‘sex work’. The very existence of these is not some kind of edgy, funky empowering movement that makes women’s lives more meaningful, liberated and comfortable, rather these are the very tools that male supremacy uses to keep women poor, needy and in their place. Jenner’s life has, for the most part, been privileged. So why then do we have this image that all but fetishises sexist ideas of what it means to be female? Is this what it means to be Caitlyn? Where is the strong, successful role model that Jenner surely once was?
There is much talk in the transgender movement about liberation, although how this is supposed to be attained through dehumanisation and objectification is beyond me. In a time where women are fighting to be taken seriously and be seen as human beings rather than sex objects, Jenner now appears anachronistic, a relic of a bygone age. I seriously question the value of Jenner as a role model, with means and methods of transition that are, like Jenner’s life, stellar distances from the resources of most human beings. The sincerity of this whole stage-managed affair diminishes given Jenner’s political allegiances, presumably equality for gay people did not figure highly enough when Jenner was deciding for whom to vote. Let us not forget also that Jenner is facing a wrongful death lawsuit following a multi-vehicle collision in February this year, which left a woman, Kim Howe, dead.
There are many opportunities for trans people to live happy, fulfilling lives and to contribute positively to society. We do not need to depend on sexist concepts like ‘female brains’ to be loved or accepted, or to conform to damaging stereotypes. More so, we are not required to pander to the male gaze to obtain validation of who and what we are. A struggle we do share with women is the need to be taken seriously and seen as human beings, not novelties that exist for the entertainment of others. Self-acceptance is not something we get from a surgeons knife or from hypersexualisation, we attain this by coming to terms with who and what we are. As people, we can be forward-looking and meet the challenges that life gives us, be ourselves, be happy and be successful. We do not need Caitlyn Jenner to enable us do this.