Caitlyn Jenner made TIME magazine's "Person of the Year" shortlist this year, eventually placing seventh in the top ten list. Alongside an in-depth profile documenting her journey and current (role model) status, TIME has now published its interview with Caitlyn in full. It's a fascinating read, with Caitlyn talking fame, family, and road trips among other topics, but not always a pleasant one, even in the context of frothy PotY acclaim. And that's because it's peppered with a lack of awareness bordering on prejudice—which Caitlyn's been taken to task for in recent months—born of her privilege and, let's be honest, an often conservative and disconcertingly gender-normative worldview.
One section of the Q&A, in which Caitlyn discusses her feminine "presentation," which she believes constitutes a "good image" for the trans community, is particularly jarring. This is a subject which featured prominently in I Am Cait's first season and, indeed, one which saw her trans squad critique her attitude frequently—to no avail, it would seem. "One thing that has always been important for me, and it may seem very self-absorbed or whatever, is first of all, your presentation of who you are," Caitlyn tells TIME. And she's correct—it does seem self-absorbed! Of course, she has every right to be self-absorbed, and to focus as much as she chooses on her appearance, her wardrobe choices, and however she wishes to conceptualize her "presentation" in terms of femininity and womanhood and, specifically, the woman Caitlyn believes she is now able to be. You do you Caitlyn; work that glam squad. Where things become problematic, however, is when it becomes clear the extent upon which Caitlyn weights appearance not just for herself, but for the trans community as a whole. She continues:
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. If you're out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable. 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.
The second thing, she adds, is "[to] be intelligent on the subject" of the trans community. She's not there yet, clearly, because while this isn't necessarily wrong as a critique of today's culture, it's certainly not the right language for a trans spokesperson to be using either, lest of all as a guideline for her peers to adhere to. There's a lot of ignorance at best, and prejudice at worst, to unpack here.
To start at the very beginning, Caitlyn's use of the word "authentic" to qualify someone's appearance, and her reinforcement that trans people "play a role" in their day-to-day lives, is a serious misunderstanding of what many in the community are still compelled to argue is a major reason behind their transitions—the desire, if not need, to be their authentic self/gender identity and stop having to "play the roles" society enforces on men and women. (Unless they want to, of course, as seems to be the case with Caitlyn's desire for a contoured, coiffed glamour WASP appearance.) "We are the rainbow, baby," Caitlyn says, acknowledging "the mixes of all kinds of people" who identify as part of the trans community; it sure seems, though, that she wishes the community could all agree to a little homogeny and just, you know, do something with their hair, a little lipstick never hurt no-one etc. etc. But a trans person shouldn't have a "role to play" because the nature of their transition, to whatever extent and/or in whatever context, should bring them to a point where they are who they are! You don't need to play act as yourself, unless, sure, you're reality TV star and the cameras are rolling.
And a trans person, or any person for that matter, should not need to worry about "putting others at ease" in how they "present" themselves to the world either. Fuck that normative nonsense. If you're going to have to counsel a trans person to moderate their appearance, it should be because of the violence they're at risk of facing simply because they're trans, and that's a shitty reason still (victim-blaming is not what we're here for). Because you're worried on their behalf about what the guy behind you in line at Starbucks thinks? Nope, not a valid concern. He'll get his latte and get over it (if it's even a factor, and, hey, maybe it won't be!). Or he won't, in which case it's really just his problem.
Caitlyn continues with the lazy stereotype of "a man in a dress" making people uncomfortable specifically, this being a long-standing slur thrown at trans women. Newsflash: there's nothing wrong with a man wearing a dress, whether it's as part of a transition or just because he would like some fresh air on his balls once in a while—but in certain contexts, the label is hurtful. And Caitlyn is a woman who has dealt with, just to pick one example, paparazzi shooting zoom lens photos of her wearing women's clothing (this in the weeks prior to her tell-all interview with Diane Sawyer), solely for the purpose of furthering the "man in a dress" narrative in all its clickbait newsstand glory; she notes earlier in the Q&A that, throughout this period, she was "getting destroyed in the rags." It's incredible, then, to hear such thoughtless criticism, borderline bigotry, really, from a woman who surely knows how wrong such terminology is. That she's somehow internalized the slur is unfortunate (but not uncommon among minority communities facing prejudice); that she's now projecting it upon the trans community at large is unacceptable.
Oh, not to mention that an overwhelming majority of the trans community cannot afford pricy feminization surgeries, designer wardrobes, and the many other things it appears Caitlyn takes for granted with regards to the face, body, and image she now presents to the world. And, hey, if a trans person as wealthy/privileged as Caitlyn still decides they can't be bothered with a manicure, blowout, or Spanx on the daily, that's fine too. Caitlyn still seems to be laboring under the impression that trans people owe mainstream society a debt, or an apology, for embracing their true selves — or at least that they must jump neatly back in one gender-normalized box having jumped out of another. Again, a trans person certainly can if they choose to, but it shouldn't be a mandate. That is flat-out wrong, and it is dangerous too.
In an essay Jennifer Boylan, a member of Caitlyn's I Am Cait squad, wrote for People magazine's special edition,The Caitlyn Jenner Story, she noted that she spent a portion of her first meeting with Caitlyn "lecturing my new friend about the dangers of defining your womanhood in terms of your appearance." "Surely, I told her, we were here for reasons more urgent, and more eternal, than what we look like," Boylan continues. "It is exactly this that feminist scholars have been trying to get through people's heads for generations now." Boylan argues that the media's fixation on Caitlyn's appearance sells her short, which is true, but in the same vein, so does Caitlyn's own fixation. It's worth acknowledging Caitlyn appears to be aware of her blind spots—at one point she tells TIME that, while she feels she's now living (and presenting) authentically, she still struggles with what it all means. "It's more than makeup and clothes and all that other stuff. And what is that? I'm working on that," she says, adding that she feels she's still learning a lot about what it is to be a woman (though really, she's learning about what it is to be herself). "Have I come up with an answer? Not even close," she concludes.
On a personal level, that's fine—and to be expected. As a reality TV narrative, it's actually refreshing, and an accurate representation of the struggles both a trans person and their family/friends go through, because it's rarely a smooth transition (let's remember that Caitlyn's stepdaughter Khloé has spoken out in less than trans-sensitive language on a few occasions, dropped the same "man in a dress" descriptor in an interview withRedbook a few weeks back too). But for a role model? It's not good enough. "Because of my position in life, maybe I can make a bigger and faster change of thinking in the world than someone who doesn't have a platform," Caitlyn tells TIME. "So why not use it?" To answer her question here, a good "why not?" would be because if you're going to use that platform to espouse language and opinions which end up marginalizing the community you're supposed to be showcasing, then it's a step back at the same time as a step forward.
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