Peggy Drexler: Bruce Jenner introduced new identity, Caitlyn Jenner, on Vanity Fair cover, using fame to bring attention to transgender people
She says it was courageous reveal, but bears little resemblance to what's experienced by most in marginalized transgender community
Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
So Bruce Jenner officially said farewell to his former male identity by introducing the world to Caitlyn Jenner Monday in, quite literally, the way only a major Hollywood figure could: via a Vanity Fair cover previewed in a tweet. As a social media connection of mine mused earlier in the week: “Sadly, this is probably the only way that (VF editor) Graydon Carter would ever agree to put a woman in her sixties on the cover of Vanity Fair.”
But, of course, there’s no way the magazine wouldn’t have run this cover. Jenner’s transition is major news, even if everyone knew it was coming: Jenner announced her transition from male to female in an interview with Diane Sawyer that aired in April and that was, Jenner said at the time, her “last interview as Bruce.” Oh, and there’s the reality TV show set to debut next month on the E! network.
What Jenner has done – both on a personal and a public level – is no small feat. She used her access to the media to bring attention to a community that has fought hard for many years to have its stories heard, without being sensationalized. In that way, she has brought important attention to an often-marginalized and misunderstood community, while also being true to herself. But let’s also be honest: Are we praising her for her courage to be her? Are we praising her bravery as a human – or as a celebrity? Or are we, well, sensationalizing?
Caitlyn Jenner was not built in a day, of course. But although the surgeries that resulted in Jenner’s newly-feminized face had already occurred, until today, Jenner had still been “Bruce.” She had asked people to continue using male pronouns.
Did Vanity Fair have the exclusive on being the first to call her “she?” Publicly, at least, that would seem to be the case. After all, it wasn’t until the magazine released the cover and its companion story preview (not the full story, of course – you’ll need to buy the issue for that) that Bruce officially gave the world the go-ahead to call her Caitlyn.
That I am pointing out the carefully stage-managed reveal of Caitlyn does not detract from the courage and import of Jenner’s decision to transition, nor even the manner in which she chose to make it known.
It is, however, an acknowledgment of a transition that is likely only marginally representative of those experienced by most in the transgender community. It’s also a transition that has centered very heavily on her looks, making her story of transition nearly impossible to separate from its physical manifestation.
Indeed, most stories about the cover photo could not help but include glowing reports of Jenner’s white, satiny corset and long, brunette locks. But, then, I guess, what else is new when it comes to media representations of women. It’s all about what she’s wearing and how good her skin looks, isn’t it?
Jenner’s coming out is a victory for many, including herself, and we should be proud of the woman she is. But perhaps we should be less proud of the fact that we had to hear such an important story from someone who was famous before we heard it at all.