While this is in no way a criticism of Caitlyn Jenner, I find myself worrying about her initial presentation of herself and the general reaction of the media and public to it. As we have all no doubt seen by now, she has “unveiled” herself in full glamour on the cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by none other than Annie Leibowitz. Most of the comments I’ve read on social media have been quite positive, describing her as “gorgeous,” “stunning,” etc.
My concern is twofold. First, Caitlyn has, of course, had access to the best of everything—from surgeons to makeup artists to stylists for her hair and wardrobe. After being photographed by perhaps the most famous celebrity photographer in the world, her picture was very likely Photoshopped. Indeed, she looks terrific. I guess I worry for all those trans women who now, like all cis women, have another model of unattainable beauty to strive for and fall short of. Again, I don’t blame Caitlyn. Who wouldn’t make that choice? Indeed, Janet Mock and Laverne Cox are gorgeous, too, and beautifully “made up”—and I’ve expressed the same concerns. I’m not sure what there is to be done, but I think it’s something worth considering and discussing.
My second issue is that our sole focus as a culture is on Jenner’s appearance, as if this is what defines womanhood and femininity. Because she looks beautiful on this cover, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that she will pass (in our eyes) as a “real woman.” If we were seeing many traces of her “former” masculinity—suggestions that she were still partly a man, in some way—we would have had to avert our eyes in embarrassment. There are few things that make many of us as uncomfortable as those who are unable to truly “pass” as “real” men or women. Trans women who have lived most of their lives (in fact) passing as men are particularly difficult for us to watch without discomfort (or a knowing nod—or maybe even a smirk). Particularly in the past, we saw these trans women trying in vain to take on the all the supposed trappings of femininity (the clothing, the shoes, the hair and makeup), but they more often than not couldn’t shed their low voices, awkward walks, and five o’clock shadows. In other words, they were just imitators trying to pass and failing abysmally—at least in our eyes.
But Caitlyn has passed with flying colors (at least in this highly orchestrated photo)—and now we can relax. At least until her next public appearance. I have a feeling (or maybe I’m just hopeful) that as we see more of Caitlyn, we’ll have to give more thought—and maybe even devote time to intelligent discussion—to the meaning of gender.