12 June 2015

My Problem with the Caitlyn Jenner Story

Take a deep breath before I take you and myself into a controversial post.
The reason for me addressing a story that is first and foremost a pop culture publicity stunt (and has frankly nothing to little to do with the theme of this blog) is because it is a very important one and one that should be talked about.
Another reason is because I was moved (from various personal reasons) to write about the subject of the portrayal of trans* people in the media after reading about Caitlyn´s story, especially after reading Julia Serano´s book Whipping Girl which deals with the a similar subject. I wrote shortly about the book in my May Favorites post and how it has moved me greatly, and Caitlyn´s coming out sensation painfully and directly connects with it.

A post like this deserves a big fat disclaimer, so here we go:

  • I cannot in any way speak for any trans* person out there, since of course I am not a transgender person myself. I do however have questioned my own gender for a lot of years and identify as both female and male at times, and have difficulty deciding which between the two speak to me most. I wrote a little about my gender questioning before (hopefully more to come), which has made me wonder about gender roles in our society and what femininity and masculinity means to me and how do I connect with the two. It has also inspired me to educate myself on the subject. Moreover, having my partner explore his gender identity has put the subject a lot closer in our every day life and relationship. I tend to see myself both as a woman and a man sometimes (variously) and to some degree, the story I am about to address today did speak to me.
  • I do not of course know Caitlyn Jenner personally nor was I familiar with her personality (as well as before the transition) up until her coming out. All speculations are based on the information that I found on the internet and what Jenner has said herself.
  • I cannot provide any authority on the subject nor do I mean to. While reading the post please keep in mind that this is a personal blog where I share my personal opinion. My opinion is based on the people I have come to know who had alternative gender expressions and the literature that I´ve read on the subject.
Courtesy to Vanity Fair
When I first came across Jenner´s story, it made me very excited. I remember seeing an article about then Bruce Jenner coming out to the world as a woman a few months ago. Then came the photo shoot reveal in June. 
The first this I thought of was that it must have taken a lot of courage to come out to the world as transgender at such a late age, and especially as a celebrity, where everyone is constantly talking about you regardless. I imagined it to be quite a journey in the life of a person to hold themselves back from their true identity for so many years, and the support that person needed from his family and loved ones throughout (needless to say that transitioning is evidently a complicated process where any person regardless of age, gender or color would need great love and support). So coming to terms with her own identity must have lifted a great burden off of Caitlyn shoulders and I was sincerely happy for her.

However, the story demands an observation, and a lot came to my mind the more I thought about it.

Before taking any stand regarding the story, one must admit that this is a celebrity we are talking about. This is clearly a person who had his personal life in a spotlight since his success as an athlete. And inevitably this person is very rich, and therefore is in comparison to most people- privileged.

So my next thought after being happy for Caitlyn was: oh, getting access to an optional medical procedure one can chose to do must have been a lot easier for Jenner than most trans* people. And by "most" I mean those people who struggle for every penny to get access to hormone therapy; people who are forced to prostitution in order to get the money for surgery, or simply- people who might have lost their family because of identifying as transgender. 
The list goes on and on, and it is most important to understand that no trans* person is a representative of all trans* people. Generalizing women is wrong, generalizing a race is wrong, so any kind of generalizing will bring little understanding to one person´s intimate world.

Needless to say that you and I cannot assume the identity of any person whatsoever, straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans*, intersex or whatever. Each person has his own world, his own life and understanding of himself, and no one knows you better than you know yourself.

Now you can ask yourself- did I keep that in mind when introduced to Caitlyn Jenner? This is where the media comes in, and this is where my problem begins.
I have decided to sum up my opinion in titles in order to have it more organized:

1. Everything is very subjective

As mentioned before, every person is different, as well as every person´s transition would be different. So when Jenner talks about how being a woman is having "girl´s nights" and putting on dresses and nail polish, I only pray that the common idiot will not assume that this is what womanhood feels like, to all woman alike. It is such a dangerous subject, because it grounds society´s sexist views on women.
On the other hand, every person is different, so you can imagine people describing being a woman in many different ways, and Jenner is entitled to her point of view as much as anyone of us. 
But do we think about it when reading the interview with her? I deeply wished to know more about the struggle she must have been through, about finding out what womanhood meant for her personally and her connection with herself. But you cannot expect every person, trans* or not, to talk about this matter because again- everything is very subjective, and people who identify as women or men may express that as they wish. 
I just found it dreadful that it´s all the impression that we get from Jenner, and in my opinion it´s a very flat point of view on what womanhood is about. 

2. The photo shoot

Which brings me to my next point: we get to see the perfect finished product- beautiful hair and skin, feminized face- a person who looks like a supermodel. While it must be very empowering to present yourself to the world as you truly are, and it definitely must have felt like the true freedom Jenner was talking about, it made me feel like this was another freak show coming; or should I say reality show, since it´s a major difference you see. The grand reveal, everyone goes "Oh! Ah!".
I feel like this is targeting another very banal point of view- that one needs a fancy photo shoot in order to feel like a woman; that the point of transitioning is investing millions on surgery in order to look a certain way. 
I can very well assume that a lot of people who identify as transgender don´t feel the need getting any kind of surgery, nor "revealing" themselves as the new me. I imagine coming out in any way is a scary experience in many cases, and most people wouldn´t want to make a theater out of it.
The "making a theater out of it" is another point which centers on a problematic perspective the media likes to position trans* people: as exotic beings shedding their skin in order for us to marvel at the "before and after" (and the legitimacy to ask about what´s in between their pants as a result, because everything is so revealed that question would come very naturally).

3. Woman? What woman?

Speaking of the photo shoot and the way transsexuality is being positioned through it, it can shed a very negative light on transsexual people (especially FTM) and femininity in general.
How? In the way that looking feminine and becoming a woman (in a case of the sex assigned at birth) is presented to us in a very artificial way: you can buy your face, you can buy your boobs, and we see a photoshopped picture in the end.
Going from the speculation that femininity is exaggerated and being made as something artificial in our modern society. the way Jenner´s transition is presented won´t change how society views women in general, and transsexuality in particular. In fact, it will again ground a sexist point of view on women (and what it means being one): that women need to appeal as some mannequin from a fashion magazine; that being a woman means having your hair and nails done; it means wearing red lipstick and wearing heels.
I would beg to differ on that, since how many of us women, of every gender identity and sexual orientation, don´t feel like we need all those things, nor do we feel like those things make us women in the first place.
I would go further and speculate that MTF transsexual people don´t need their femininity reassured by all those things, and that the average idiot will think that for a MTF transsexual person to feel like a woman would mean "fixing" and "reconstructing" through surgical and other procedures the things they were born with- out with the old, in with the new.
Do you think society will perceive Jenner as a woman after her transition is being presented that way? Would people regard her as a woman and not as a product?

Courtesy to Vanity Fair
4. Money makes the world go round

Look the truth in the eye: we have a rich person being able to not only afford surgical procedure, but a photo shoot and a reality show. Caitlyn is entitled to do with her money whatever she pleases, but this is a very one-sided way presenting a transition to the public. It is majorly important to make the world aware of trans* people and their journey in order to make the world a better place where everyone can be accepted (even just slightly with a sensation targeting the western world more than anything. And you would probably be more accepted if you´d make a scenery out of yourself and nothing else). 
But do you really think the article about Caitlyn doing it the right way? I would rather wish people would speak about making the journey within themselves rather than focusing on the way they look. Moreover, could one really expect to get a deep insight what a person´s like from a reality show? This is fast food info we are getting here, which might get the viewers to be more open about trans* people, but only from a very shallow perspective. Of course it is a lot easier to sell the people something pretty and not talk about the difficulties getting there.

So after all argumentation, is Caitlyn Jenner´s story wrong? No, it is not, but the way it is presented in the media is. It is presented in a way that makes you believe in a sort of fairy tail regarding transition, featuring the polished finished product. It does not touch the tip of the iceberg (nor have I in this post) of the different stages of transition and the difficulties transgender people face in their everyday life. In Jenner´s story we see a rich white person being literally transformed in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible, and automatically accepted in western society just by being a celebrity. And you and I can very well assume that in 99% of the time it is not the case.

I found this video very educating as well, where some of what I wrote is being told by transgender people:

Transgeder people react to Caitlyn Jenner´s coming out

I hope that I´ve summed my opinion respectfully in this post, it was truly important for me to share it. I would love to hear your opinion on the matter as well, and thank you for everyone who found the time to read this post.

N. Finsternis


  1. I have a difficult time with the whole transgender thing, I noticed you brought up questions about womanhood and what defines it, and I agree it is subjective. I have known a few trans people. What has surprised me is the differences among them. There are those who claim to feel inherently female and wish to dress and be addressed that way. They're much more sensitive about it, they don't advertise that they are transgender. Then there are those that like to make a spectacle of themselves, they think being female means big boobs, big hair and excessive makeup and being overtly sexual (all of which seem awfully sexist to me... it boggles my mind that someone would want to be objectified and embody the more negative stereotypes about women). Maybe I'm a b* but I can't take the ones that make a show of themselves seriously. They're not women to me, they're just...something else entirely. I feel this way about this Jenner person.

    Admittedly I hardly know who he/she is, but it pisses me off that he's turned his (or her) transition into a spectacle. Has she opened doors for other transgenders? Has she made being trans more acceptable? Probably not. Instead she's set a ridiculous an unachievable standard for all aspiring trans youth, who will lament the fact that they can't afford to get breast implants, genital surgery, hormone therapy, hair implants, or a fancy new wardrobe. And because she's a celebrity, they've photoshopped her promo image to hell, so she's not even showing the true version of herself anyways. It all seems like some awful joke. I sincerely hope the trans youth of today will find a much better role model than this.

    1. You have pointed out the subjectivity- some transgender people express themselves in a certain way, some in a different way. I cannot speak for transgender people about this in any way, but from my experience knowing transgender people I have noticed that being objectified, being placed into a certain category, oversexualized and being regarded not as human is one of the things that transgender people hate, which only separates them from society. I have watched a dozen youtube videos of friendly transgender people who love educating the world about their experience. I have met people in real life who won´t even talk about anything that connects with that subject, and will scold you for trying to bring it up.

  2. These are some very valid points. Personally, I am happy for Caitlin yet I feel like this shouldn't be an issue. Good for her, she is a woman. Now move on. I think the media and people in general are putting way too much emphasis on this. Seriously, we are in 2015 - issues like these should no longer be an isue. Again, I am not trangendered either so I cannot speak for them and I have NO clue what they go through. I have some friends who are transgendered and they tell me stories but I hate being that person who says "well i have trans friends and they say it is this way so it must be that way". Everyone is different. I just wish that we lived in a world where things like this shouldnt be an issue.

    1. This shouldn´t be an issue in the western world in my opinion, where everyone allegedly has the opportunity to learn about such things and be open minded and accept everyone. I have no idea how this story was presented in russia for example. they probably think it is a freak show based on the HUGE publicity this story received.

  3. yeah. you echoed my thoughts with this whole thing. sure would be nice if every trans person had a million-dollar public-relations machine to help them feel accepted.

    1. exactly. I do not set my hopes high for Jenner doing something in the community, but her manager might advice her that.

  4. I think there are as many right ways to talk about one’s experience as a trans person as there are trans people, and Caitlyn Jenner’s way is just as valid as anyone else’s. Her approach especially makes sense to me as a countermeasure to all the negative media attention she was getting for being trans before she came out publicly. She should not have to represent all trans people (or all women, or all trans women) just because she’s in the public eye and she’s part of a frequently misunderstood minority. There are plenty of other trans women in the world who are able and willing to tell their story in a less “shallow” way, and perhaps more people will actually pay attention to them and read their stories with open minds because of the coverage of Caitlyn’s transition.

    I also think that it’s important to see how much surgery can help with physical gender dysphoria. Because so few people can afford gender-affirming surgery, it can be easy for young trans people to think that it’s physically impossible for them to be comfortable in their bodies. When you know that it is in fact possible to change your body into something you can live with, it becomes that much easier to fight for better access to the healthcare you need (in the form of more medical professionals that specialize in transgender healthcare and in broader insurance coverage for hormones and gender-affirming surgery). While there are plenty of trans people who are fine without surgery, there are others for whom gender-affirming surgery is medically necessary—there is no other way for them to be mentally healthy. Media coverage like Caitlyn Jenner's photoshoot may give some of them the courage they need to stay alive.

    I can see why you might find the ways Caitlyn expresses her femininity worrying, but the presence of idiots who will treat her like she represents anyone other than herself is not a reason for her not to express herself. And the same goes for any woman, regardless of how different her expression of her femininity may be from those of other women.

    1. I agree with what you wrote, and I do not think the way she expresses herself is wrong. She is entitled to her life as any one of us, and her transition is subjective to her life.
      The totality of it all is what worried me. Exactly because she is a famous person and having this story being talked about will indeed imprint a certain opinion in people´s minds, which can be a very specific point of view on trans people: that you NEED to modify yourself, that you need to be feminine and wear makeup. Traits that seem stereotypically feminine, but do not apply to all trans people, nor to all woman. The story also does not show the process of transition, and yes I do agree she got hate before coming out aesthetically looking like a woman. That is what I wanted to convey in my post.

      I agree a lot that there is no wrong way to be trans, but the media pretty much shows that there is only one way to be one, as I personally see it through Jenner´s story.

    2. But even if Jenner's story does end up setting a precedent that becomes problematic, it's also a marker of progress to better media representation of trans women in the future. It sets a standard for more respectful treatment of trans women by the mainstream media, and for me, that outweighs any negative effects it may have.

    3. That is true, and that is what´s left hoping for! Not saying her transition is bad or anything, I just kind of take the publicity of it with a grain of salt. But well, if this is the way to teach the world about trans people then so be it, it is definitely better than ignoring them altogether or refusing to talk about it.