I’ve refrained from writing about Bruce Jenner for a few reasons, not least of which is that there really isn’t anything to write about…yet. There has been, as we all know, much speculation about Jenner’s gender, but Jenner hasn’t actually said anything. However, since I have been unable to altogether ignore the images of Jenner that the media has been presenting for several months, I am choosing to be safe and avoid pronouns when referring to Jenner (except at the end of this post). A bit unwieldy, I know, but it seems appropriate given that Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer this Friday night is two hours and, thus, one could assume contains some significant revelation(s). If their discussion is only about a) Jenner’s divorce, b) the Kardashians, and c) how the speculation regarding gender is baseless, a lot of people are going to be annoyed that they planned their Friday night around watching the interview. So I’m taking a leap and am guessing, along with everyone else, that Jenner is going to address the issue of gender.
In any case, I wanted to write a piece before the airing of the interview, because I find myself of two minds about the whole thing, assuming Jenner is “transitioning”—which, by the way, means not that Jenner would be becoming something Jenner wasn’t before, but rather that Jenner would be choosing to present to society the gender Jenner has always been. While in the abstract, a public figure who is transgender—or genderqueer, in any way—and acknowledges as such publicly, would seem good for the transgender population/movement as a whole, I’m not convinced that’s always true—and in this particular case, I’m somewhat doubtful.
If the Jenner of the 1970s—the one revered by most of America, the one on the Wheaties box—had publicly acknowledged being transgender…well, that would have been something. That would have forced a conversation much different from the one that I imagine happening today. The Bruce Jenner who won the decathlon gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics embodied the American ideal of masculinity. Jenner was handsome, muscular, and the ultimate athlete. Jenner also came across as personable and kind. Jenner was put on the Wheaties box, because—advertisers presumably imagined—men wanted to be him and women wanted to “be with” him. It isn’t hard to imagine many minds being blown in the late 1970s if Jenner had come out as a transgender woman. It makes me wonder where we would be today in our collective attitude toward and beliefs about gender if that happened.
But that’s not the Bruce Jenner who many are speculating is about to come out as transgender. This Bruce Jenner is a Kardashian. Whatever you may think of the Kardashians, there is little doubt that they are not taken very seriously. They are a spectacle. They are a masterpiece of PR creation. I’m not sure they would refute those characterizations. They very successfully created themselves. They thrust themselves into the spotlight and became famous for being famous. Many people love to watch them and follow what they do. But I’m guessing most would not file their feelings about them under the labels “admiration” and “respect.” And most likely much of their audience—that is, those who have watched their various “reality” shows—know Bruce Jenner not as the most famous American decathlete, the embodiment of 1970s masculinity, but rather as the put- upon, exasperated, often-excluded husband, father, and step-father of the various Kardashians. Those of us who grew up admiring Jenner had likely already confronted our incredulity in the face of what Jenner had become, in addition to the plastic surgery Jenner had undergone years ago that transformed that handsome face in disconcerting ways. We had already separated our concept of Jenner (based on nothing but what was presented to the public) into the pre-Kardashian and Kardashian eras.
All this is to say that I fear that if Jenner does, indeed, talk to Diane Sawyer about making a decision to present her female identity, it will do nothing to positively impact the conversation in our country about gender and gender identity. While Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have spoken seriously and intelligently on these issues and, I believe, have done a great deal to affect the conversation in a positive way, I’m just not convinced that Jenner—even if she speaks in similar ways about her experiences—will have such an impact. By very virtue of being a Kardashian, I fear Jenner will be a target for comedians and late night parodies, among many others. She’ll be followed around and mocked for every so-called “falsely feminine” move. In other words, she’ll simply be part of the circus act that is the Kardashians. And that can’t be good for anyone.
We’ll see. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I certainly hope so. Stay tuned for “Bruce Jenner: Part 2: After the Interview.”