Annie Leibovitz; Kevin Winer, Dimitrios Kambouris, Larry Busacca / Getty Images
Caitlyn Jenner, transgender celebrity extraordinaire, finds her comments scrutinized at every turn, and it’s almost always about her penchant for focusing on her appearance. The most recent incident involves Jenner commenting to TIME: “If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.” Cosmopolitan’s Alex Rees proceeded to excoriate Jenner, as scores of trans people and their cisgender allies followed, which prompted Jenner to issue a public apology.
But Jenner’s is not the most egregious form of transphobia in this entire affair. Even more transphobic is Rees – a cisgender man – interpreting Jenner’s comments in the most ungenerous possible way; his was the mostly widely shared perspective to circulate throughout the soundbyte-driven Internet.
At this point, it’s widely acknowledged that Jenner — who has only publicly presented as a woman for less than a year — isn’t developing fast enough as a trans advocate. It’s even more important to note, however, that cisgender people are developing even more slowly as allies. Many progressive cis people have slammed Jenner for her appearance-consciousness even as the society they dominate creates conditions that force Jenner into that position. As Feministing’s Jos Truitt has noted in a series of tweets, cisgender allies are quick to criticize Jenner for her missteps, yet almost always fail to hold transphobic cisgender people to the same standard.
Jenner’s full quote puts her comments about non-passing trans people in context. “I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease.” Here Jenner makes her comment on not wanting to look like “a man in a dress,” clearly including herself. Then she concludes: “So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well. I want to dress well. I want to look good. When I go out, as Kim says, you’ve got to rock it because the paparazzi will be there.”
Many progressive cis people have slammed Jenner for her appearance-consciousness even as the society they dominate creates conditions that force Jenner into that position.
Rees and a large proportion of online and social media commenters – both cis and trans – reacted strongly to how Jenner seemed to imply that trans people should conform to binary cisgender standards. Lost in this interpretation is the literal truth of her words. The fact is that trans people who look like cis people genuinely do have an easier time, since male-assigned people who don’t conform to gender norms are easily the most despised and marginalized in US society within the transgender umbrella. Seen through a more forgiving lens, Jenner’s comments are more easily read as candid rather than judgmental, especially when she includes herself among the people she’s talking about.
Jenner may operate in the world with an enormous amount of privilege, but this doesn’t protect her from being the object of numerous transphobic memes that loudly proclaim her to be a man. Even while she struggles to conform to a cisgender beauty ideal – still one of the major criteria for transgender acceptability – she continues to be the subject of derision and rejection. Rather than taking Jenner to task when she expresses this reality, it’s much more important to talk about how heteronormative cisgender society produces these conditions.
But while we focus on condemning beauty ideals, more so than Jenner’s part in adhering to them, we still must take Jenner to task for the right reasons: her consistently obtuse and tone-deaf comments about race and class. When we focus so much on Jenner’s appearance, we obscure much more substantial issues and overlook Jenner’s most significant shortcomings. She can’t help being a woman who’s been taught to beautify herself for the often-withheld acceptance of straight cis culture, but she can work to be less oblivious. Though Jenner is far from an ideal trans role model, cis people who are quick to criticize her should first stop and consider why prominent cisgender figures can get away with so much worse.
In November, Jenner said in a BuzzFeed interview, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.” Actor and director Rose McGowan consequently lambasted her. Apart from seemingly not taking the time to watch the accompanying video, in which Jenner goes on to say, “But it’s more than that,” and expounds on how she’s still searching for the vital aspects of womanhood that go beyond the cosmetic, McGowan’s comments are more explicitly transphobic than anything Jenner has ever said — yet a swarm of people on social media did not react too angrily (they reserved that anger for Jenner herself).
McGowan wrote in a since-deleted Facebook update: “You want to be a woman and stand with us — well learn us [sic]. We are more than deciding what to wear. We are more than the stereotypes foisted upon us by people like you. You’re a woman now? Well fucking learn that we have had a VERY different experience than your life of male privilege.”
Plenty of feminists applauded McGowan’s statement, and a number of news reports even noted that she apologized for her comments. Yet McGowan’s supposed apology led with “Let me take this moment to point out that I am not, nor will I ever be, transphobic,” a line that is recognizable to members of marginalized groups as a majority person’s classic defense against charges of prejudice.
More substantially, while McGowan stops short of calling Jenner a man, she clearly doesn’t see Jenner as a genuine woman — and sees herself as an arbiter of Jenner’s womanhood. Moreover, McGowan’s explicitly uses Jenner’s supposed “life of male privilege” to discredit her. While there’s a clear possibility that some of Jenner’s actions, as well as her affluence, have been impacted by her history of being perceived male, this doesn’t mean that McGowan can assume that this is why Jenner behaves in ways she objects to.
It is true that, while she’s made some headway in examining trans issues, Jenner has been much slower to engage with feminist thinking and learn about the various ways that women are treated unequally in society, whether cis or trans. While we can cut her some slack for her looks-consciousness, given the fact that her appearance often determines her acceptability as a woman, it would still behoove her to at least engage with the pressures all women undergo to be deemed acceptable. Yet this criticism can be easily leveled at any number of celebrities, including Jenner’s own stepdaughters, and criticizing Jenner while sparing cisgender women who propagate beauty-focused feminine stereotypes is demonstrably transphobic.
For instance, Martha Stewart recently commented in an Instagram post when she first met Jenner: “Tall and attractive with a very low voice,” pointing out how Jenner’s physicality veers from that of other women. Stewart did not experience the type of blowback that Jenner has. Prominent feminist thinker Germaine Greer has made even more explicit claims about Jenner’s unacceptability as a woman, statements that have been largely met by mainstream press with defenses about preserving her ability to speak.
We have a ways to go in understanding how trans women are constantly subjected to cis women’s standards and judged lacking. Trans women are unfairly criticized by traditional and social media, and left to either defend ourselves or suffer in silence when we are the object of attacks. Being better about intersectional feminism when it comes to the transgender community should start with Jenner herself, who, for better or worse, is that community’s most visible member.
Truth be told, trans people participate in the demonization of Jenner, in part because there are good reasons for criticizing her — particularly with regard to the consistent ways she fails to take her racial and economic privilege into account. Though Jenner says she is compelled to a position of leadership in the trans community precisely because she is so visible, it’s clear that Jenner uses her celebrity to get put in such positions, despite her lack of experience and deep understanding.
Though her TIME comments received the lion’s share of attention, it’s actually her recent video appearance with Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., that demonstrates the reasons why Jenner cannot be currently relied upon to represent the transgender community in political and policy matters. The fact that she didn’t cede the opportunity to speak on worldwide trans issues to a more experienced trans advocate – or at least share that spotlight if it was thought that her celebrity would bring more attention to the video – speaks to the ways in which Jenner continues to believe that she can represent these issues herself despite her inexperience.
There are many ways and reasons to criticize Jenner while still accounting for her precarious position as a trans woman.
Jenner’s first, most substantial comment in her exchange with Power demonstrates the degree to which she is out of touch not just in terms of the lives of trans people in the U.S., but also the rest of the world. “If you look at issues on a worldwide basis, I’m pretty comfortable with the issues here in the United States," she says. "We have come a long way, we have a long way to go. But If you look at this on an international level, these issues are huge. I mean, people are murdered, killed, hung over this issue, and it just doesn’t have to be that way.”
Dawn Ennis from The Advocate pointed out the potential insensitivity of Jenner’s comments in light of the vast amounts of discrimination and violence transgender people experience in the U.S., yet characterizes her use of “comfortable” to describe the American situation as “a slip of the tongue,” especially in light of the fact that she discusses trans suicide and murder rates later in the video. Though one would imagine that a person who is closely involved with transgender violence and discrimination on a day-to-day basis, the type of person typically called upon to speak to policymakers regarding such issues, wouldn’t make such a slip, and it would have been a better choice to allow such voices to be heard in the context of a U.N. video.
But more substantially, Jenner’s statement demonstrates her lack of understanding about transgender issues in an international context. Transgender people have been allowed to legally change their genders in Sweden since 1972, and the Netherlands has a well-known history of respect for transgender people. And even in so-called Third World countries, there are many indigenous traditions that respect and even valorize transgender people, and intolerance against trans people in these contexts can often be traced to Western colonial influence. So presenting the American situation as the superior example of transgender acceptance does not hold up even under cursory examination.
As the year of Jenner’s transgender debut comes to an end, it’s vital for everyone – cis and trans people alike – to closely and continually examine their biases whenever they scrutinize her comments or actions. There are many ways and reasons to criticize Jenner while still accounting for her precarious position as a trans woman, by focusing on issues that substantially affect the transgender community rather than devolving into squabbles about appearance and beauty.
The thing about looks is, as she’s said herself, Jenner is still learning what it means to live as a woman in public, even as she spent most of her life feeling herself to be one. Cis women have an entire lifetime to adjust to that role, and major trans celebrity figures like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock transitioned out of the public eye, which allowed their thinking to be already well-developed by the time they became representatives for the trans community. A lot of what Jenner’s doing and saying reflects both common behavior from and reactions to newly-transitioned trans women — except for Jenner, it’s happening on the grandest of scales.
At the same time, it’s also important for Jenner to be more cognizant of her position as a newly-transitioned transgender woman who enjoys enormous racial and economic privilege, not just at the level of apology but of action. She can do this by giving more opportunities to people who have both experience and expertise on the large swath of the trans population who do not enjoy her status – key thinkers like Julia Serano and Susan Stryker, or longtime activists like Monica Roberts and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. This would mean Jenner not just giving these women supporting roles as part of her entourage, but by treating them as equals. This is how, in 2016, we can chance escaping The Jenner Effect: Jenner’s every small misstep becoming fodder for a media and broader public that are subject to the encompassing forces of transmisogyny, while the worst perpetrators of transmisogyny continue to go unchecked.
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