In the future, will I wonder why I didn't write more about Bruce Jenner's transformation to Caitlyn? Will I wonder why I didn't note how our society was changing in its acceptance of transgendered people?
I've written a few Facebook posts after the Vanity Fair cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner. My Facebook friends gave Jenner credit for having the courage to become who she truly wanted to be. But I wondered about this photo--was this image representative of who Jenner wanted to be? At first I was somewhat guarded:
"So this picture makes me wish we could all have a photo shoot with Annie L. How would we be transformed? Would we be comfortable with the results? I suspect I would end up looking too girly-fied, but I also suspect that I would wish that I could always look that way. But without all that effort."
But then I decided that maybe I was more bothered by this photo. But why? Why should I care? Others have had similar cover shoots, and I haven't given it much thought. The occasional pregnant celebrity appearing naked didn't elicit much from me. Why this?
I tried to explore in another Facebook post to a different Facebook friend:
"But this photo makes me wonder if this vision is who Caitlyn really is. Will she go through life this way? Or is it part of the magic of good lighting, good make-up, good hair stylist, and astonishingly talented photographer? Not that it matters, but I've had a lifetime of reminding myself that magazine images aren't true images. Regular women can't look like those airbrushed supermodels. Something about this cover photo has taken me back to thinking about magazine images and how people really look."
I always hesitate to write too much on a Facebook post--it's public and can sound so wrong. Later, I wrote this e-mail:
"My Women's Studies self from the 80's is finding this fascinating from the gender perspective and my Media Studies self is intrigued by how we present ourselves to the public and what we look like privately (thus, my comment on your thread). I've spent so much time reminding myself not to compare myself to magazine images--I think of Jamie Lee Curtis' bravery 15 or 20 years ago, when she released photos of how she really looked, her image that hadn't been airbrushed (now we would say Photoshopped). I found it revelatory.
We would all look gorgeous, in the traditional sense of that word, all glammed up for a photo shoot. What will Caitlyn look like at home, when all the make up comes off? I know it shouldn't matter to me, but I am curious.
I also wonder if that image will be used to shame women: Look at how glamorous she is, and she's not even a "real woman"--why can't you do more to make yourself look good?
I will not be shamed this way, but I imagine some women will succumb. It's insidious, this culture that tells us that we're not good enough."
I'm getting closer, but I'm still not there. I may never get there. Is there a space that feels safe enough to say what I am really trying to say?
I have been thinking about gender and sexuality for many more decades than most people. In the 1980's, I'd have declared that gender was a construct of our societies, as was sexuality. If we lived in a culture that allowed a wider variety of expression, we'd see a wider variety of expression.
But I was also deeply uncomfortable with the idea of altering our bodies, whether that be by use of make up or surgery or something between those extremes. How could we be sure that we are being true to ourselves and not bowing to society's pressures?
I wonder if future sociologists will shake their heads at how eagerly some of us embraced the knife to make our insides match our outsides.
And before everyone writes me angry comments about how I just don't understand how it feels to be trapped in the wrong body, I would say that I'm a female in a culture saturated with messages that tell me I'm doing femaleness wrong. I've been overweight--50 pounds more than I am now, and I'm not skinny now. I have had a glimpse into how it feels when one's outside doesn't match one's inside.
I want to be able to say, "If you have the money, great, transform yourself." But I also know that many vultures are out there, feeding on our discontent, making lots of money, selling us solutions that will not work. The harder work must be done by each and every one of us, and there's really no shortcut towards self-acceptance and fierce self-love and self-protection.
I also don't want to lose sight of my larger social justice question. How can we move our society towards a time where we'll accept a wide expression of gender? How can we arrive more quickly at the time when one can express one's feminine or masculine side without having to go as far as surgery?
On yesterday's NPR show All Things Considered, I heard a young trans person talk about being male and having gender anxieties disappear when he wore a dress. So he decided he must be trans and needed surgery. But what if we lived in a society where we shrugged and said, "Well, wearing a dress is a fairly cheap way to quell anxieties. Wear whatever you like that makes you feel like yourself."
There's also something about the image of Caitlyn Jenner that bothers me, but I have trouble articulating why. Luckily, others have had less trouble. In this post, Historiann says, ". . . why are our imaginations of 'the feminine' so limited and conventional? This is not just a Morris or a Jenner or a transwoman problem–their self-representations are shaped not just by what they see as feminine, but also what the larger public, celebrity photographers, and mainstream magazines believe will sell as a performance of embodied womanhood.
In this article, Christopher Knight explores some of these issues, making reference to some of the important works, in writing and in images, to come out of earlier decades of Gender Studies. He talks about the rather clichéd approach to the subject, but makes this point about some of its ambiguity: "One woman picturing another (also 'of a certain age') as a standard sex symbol does nicely smudge conventional strictures around bodily shame. And what happens to established theories of the male gaze when a transgender woman is photographed by an artist who may have been shy to identify as a lesbian, while happy to celebrate being the lover of the late Susan Sontag, the cultural critic whose book 'On Photography' is standard reading?"
It's an interesting time we live in, this culture that's clearly in transition. How I hope we're transitioning to a culture that accepts a wider variety of gender expression. How I hope we're moving away from a culture with rigid requirements about what's acceptable and what people must do to pass.