Call Me Sexualized: On the Caitlyn Jenner Discussion
June 8, 2015
by robert esposito, prose reader
A new face in the transgender community, Caitlyn Jenner is now under immense scrutiny by everyone and every news network, regardless of whether they are educated on the subject. Key phrases or words to watch out for when someone brings up the topic include, but are not limited to: “Well, it’s just my opinion;” “He,” His,” “Him;” and “She’s hotter than me!” Her presence is a huge step in the transgender community and the cultural community of the United States, but, as during any time of change, it is extremely tumultuous and touchy. Most of the time transgender rights are grouped under the umbrella of “gay rights,” which is generally regarded simply “gay marriage.” Looking beyond this, for the average person, results in confusion. Very few people wish to talk about the unremitting prejudice against queer people; the record number of hate crimes against the queer population in 2015; the number of queer children kicked out of their homes; the extraordinary percentage of queer people – specifically transgender individuals– who attempt suicide; and, most recently demonstrated in the media with Caitlyn Jenner’s latest Vanity Fair photographs, the immediate sexualization of transgender females.
The last problem can be examined in tandem with a post Drake Bell made on Twitter that has not been scrutinized as much as his first post (which read, “Still calling you Bruce”): “I’m not dissing him! I just don’t want to forget his legacy! He is the greatest athlete of all time! Chill …” Bell probably represents a number of people exposed to Jenner who think that her accomplishments – her entire life – have somehow been erased by changing her physical appearance. What needs to be finalized is this: Caitlyn Jenner has been a woman as soon as she identified as one, and changing her appearance does not make her more or less of a woman. There are a myriad of transgender people who do not have access to surgery, to hormone treatments – who may not even want those things – yet are still the sex that they identify as. Changing one’s appearance to fit the conventional standards of the sex they identify as may make one feel more comfortable, but this conformation is not be explicitly necessary, as is implied by the media through representations of the spearheads of the mainstream transgender movements, such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner.
This is to no fault of their own, and absolutely not an attack on either woman – but it is undeniable that their sexual prowess is in focus: their womanhood is defined in shades of satin and sex; their photographs are captured with the gender-normative, heterosexual male eye in mind. Their ability to be a woman is based on their ability to “pass” as a woman, an idea that has been perpetuated in the Western media since queer people have gained even the slightest visibility in mainstream culture, both outside and inside the queer community. Therefore, sex identity is implicitly based on physical appearance, according to mainstream media, a concept that has been outdated since its inception.
Jenner’s new appearance is now the focus of the media instead of her achievements – the media wonders: Can she hold a flame to Kim Kardashian’s beauty? Does she look good for her age? Does she look better as a man or woman? The media comments: She looks gorgeous, beautiful, stunning, sexy. These questions and comments are reproduced in family discussions, one in which my friend’s mother made the comment (which is becoming more and more common), “She looks better than me.” Superficially, this comment seems complimentary. But the underlying problem is evident: it implies that Jenner, or any transgender woman, is less of a woman than a cisgender woman, and is expected to be less beautiful; it implies, again, that womanhood is based on one’s ability to “pass,” and that this beauty is the only thing that matters to one’s sex identity. In society, this implication is seen in cisgender women, as well: countless advertisements use women’s bodies as objects to sell a product; women are constantly pitted against one another by the media; a mastectomy is seen as something to mourn, even if it is a defensive measure against breast cancer. Where men are defined by gold medals and feats, women are degraded to simply sex symbols; women that go beyond this are seen as deviants. If this is a choice by the woman, obviously it is their choice, and should not be criticized; sexual freedom should be encouraged. But when it is the only choice a woman has, the situation that society has forced her into must be dissected and revolutionized. The support Jenner is receiving for her new physical appearance is phenomenal – but it means very little if those same people will not step up to support her and other transgender individuals in their trials to gain rights and change public perception of the gender norms and expectations.
This shift in perception between someone who was thought to identify as male but is truly female is somewhat examined in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. She is not writing of a person that wishes to transition from physically male to physically female, but she examines the way that people perceive Orlando as a male, and after his transformation, as a female, the juxtaposition of which is easily – scarily so – comparable to Jenner’s portrayal in the media: once depicted for their incredible achievements and glories, now reduced to solely expounding endlessly on their beauty. The media focuses on her beauty to standardize the experience, to say that she is normal (just like you!), which subtly says that anyone who does not fit the conventional beauty standards is abnormal. The flaw is impossible to overlook.
With Caitlyn Jenner’s coming-out, this is also going to become a topic that is explored with families at dinnertime. She is going to become an example: “So you’re transgender, like Caitlyn Jenner?” To some, this may be wonderful – a way to find understanding among their peers and family – but to others, it may spell disaster. Their family may spew terrible things about Jenner, about queer people in general, all the while unknowingly cutting off their queer daughter, their queer brother, their queer father –even knowingly, they may do this. Recently, my mother compared queer people to my sister’s house, where she has three dogs and a cat, and the place smells as badly as one can imagine: “How can you tolerate transgenders and gays, but not your sister’s house?” The implication she made, whether cognizant of it or not, is enormous; I can only wonder what she would have said had she known I am queer. I am absolutely sure that this is only the edge of an iceberg of prejudice experienced by queer people across the nation and world, and this is my message: remain strong. There is more to this world than prejudice and hatred. I can only imagine how many people may view this article on Chrome’s incognito mode, and if you are one of them, one day you will have the freedom to view this without that security measure.
Hopefully, in the coming months, Jenner will join the masthead of the transgender activist movement, and assist in dispelling these transphobic, misogynistic, and queerphobic ideas. In the meantime, remain aware of your consumption of the media: scrutinize its rhetoric, as one would scrutinize a work of literature. Sometimes the media is as much of an art form as fiction, and should be put under the same analysis.