The Price of Caitlyn Jenner’s Heroism

A NEW goddess has emerged like Botticelli’s Venus rising from the sea. Caitlyn Jenner gazes out from Annie Leibovitz’s July Vanity Fair cover, bare save for a satin bodysuit. Her auburn curls tumble over alabaster shoulders. Can she really be the avatar of personal freedom and self-expression the media claims her to be?

Caitlyn Jenner’s transition is more than a private matter. It is a commercial spectacle on an enormous scale, revealing some disturbing truths about what we value and admire in women.

Inside the magazine, Ms. Jenner poses in skintight dresses, a cinched black lace corset and two different gold evening gowns — the kind of outfits favored by her voluptuous stepdaughter, Kim Kardashian. She lounges on a sofa, peers into mirrors or reclines with her head thrown back, eyes closed. In keeping with the classic iconography of female stardom, Ms. Jenner appears languid and glamorous, her body still and on display rather than performing any activity.

Ms. Jenner is 65 years old, but Caitlyn “codes” many decades younger. Her features are tiny and doll-like, her lips plumped, her skin lineless. Even her new chosen first name feels bizarrely girlish, conjuring more a college student, or maybe a sixth Kardashian sister, than a grandmother.

We have known for months that Bruce Jenner was becoming a woman, and we rejoice if this brings her happiness. But were we prepared for thiswoman?

What does it mean that Ms. Jenner’s newly revealed “true self” (in her own words) comes packaged like a 30-something starlet along the lines of her famous daughters and stepdaughters? She is even likened to “an elegant starlet” in the Vanity Fair profile. Like her children, Caitlyn will soon allow her life to be minutely chronicled in a reality television show, produced by the same team responsible for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” — that docudrama devoted to makeup, hookups, breakups and, of course, plastic surgery and clothes.

Long ago, Ms. Jenner was a hero, admired for dazzling athletic skills. Even on the Kardashian show, Bruce often distinguished himself as the voice of reason amid a circus of vanity and consumerism. But as Vanity Fair’s Caitlyn, Ms. Jenner has morphed into a consumable commodity — a strangely static, oddly youthful and elaborately adorned body that is, rather than does. This seems less the liberation of a true self than a reminder of the straitjacket requirements of acceptable, desirable womanhood.

That Ms. Jenner makes an excellent icon of fashion is unsurprising. Not only has she long lived within the corridors of Hollywood celebrity, but her physique — still the slim-hipped, sinewy body of a male Olympic athlete — actually lends itself (with a few tweaks) more easily to the female modelesque ideal than do most genetically female bodies. And certainly, very few transwomen could achieve this aesthetic ideal either, as the actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox has pointed out in a widely read Tumblr post.

What of the millions of other 65-year-old women, whether born female or trans, who deserve attention? The millions of women who become invisible with age and could never successfully mimic a Kardashian (and would not wish to)? They remain offstage and out of mind, their own accomplishments unknown to us.

The French writer Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” She was referring to the innumerable embellishments, codes of behavior and self-censoring acts required by femininity, the turning of the self into a prestige commodity. In becoming a woman before our eyes, Caitlyn Jenner proves that little has changed since 1949, when de Beauvoir wrote those words. To be admired in the public eye, to be seen, a woman must still conform to an astonishingly long, often contradictory list of physical demands — the most important being that she not visibly age.

While the fanfare around the emergence of Caitlyn may advance our acceptance of transgender individuals, it does so, in this case, at a price: the perpetuation, even celebration, of narrow and dehumanizing strictures of womanhood sustained by the fashion and entertainment industries. True liberation of gender’s vast spectrum should ask more of us than that we simply exchange one uncomfortable, oppressive identity for another.

4 comments

  1. What a brilliant post! I wish Bruce/Caitlyn only happiness — and someone else’s gender identity is none of my business. But you (and Rhonda Garelick) have eloquently described something I’ve been struggling to articulate: That Jenner’s transition “… seems less the liberation of a true self than a reminder of the straitjacket requirements of acceptable, desirable womanhood.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Speaking of straight-jacketed, we have become so hyper-sensitive these days that any sense of unease about M. Jenner is immediately construed as bigotry and hate. For that reason alone, I was glad to see this article in the New York Times, (hardly a conservative paper.)

      Liked by 1 person

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