Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Call Me Kristin

In the future, I wonder what I will notice that I didn't write about.  I remember going back through journals from 1983-1984 and marveling at all the geopolitical events I didn't write about.  If the U.S. as a society was changing its values, you couldn't have proved it by me.

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.


Wendy said...

This is very small and somewhat tangential, but the beginning of your post brought it to mind. My spouse's parents are in some ways quite convention and seem to be extremely sensitive to the idea that someone stand out in a way that might get them shamed. For instance, my spouse's father, when he was 5 or 6 changed his last name to a standard English name because his original Danish name stood out (and it was not his mother's name and his father was out of the picture. He took his maternal grandfather's name, also not his mother's name, and that is the same we all share).

So my spouse's parents had my spouse undergo surgery when he was 5 or 6 to have his ears pinned back. This came up when we were getting married because genetically, horror of horrors, our children's ears might stick out. My son's do, a little, but not to the extent, evidently, that his dad's did. I found and continue to find this disturbing. Were they that afraid of the schoolyard? Is the schoolyard that unforgiving? I was never teased as much as I might have been and others with whom I share characteristics (glasses, overweight adolescent, bookish) have been, for reasons I've never been certain of. As my spouse has pointed out, I don't have a problem with the idea of braces to straighten teeth and I would condone surgery if my child were hurt in a fire or had some other issue that could be corrected.

I still find it disturbing that his parents made that decision for him, and it troubles me because I am not particularly conventional and neither are my children--their grandchildren--and I wonder sometimes how many ways we offend their sensibilities, but I am not as offended by it as I was a decade ago.

I try to change myself through diet and exercise. I happily wear glasses, but also consider eye surgery. I wear make-up most days. I color my hair. I am a mix of contradictions and ambiguities. Can I let other people be that, too?

(Sorry for the long comment. This would be a good post on my blog, but I try not to put what might be sensitive information about my spouse in that space, so I am going to leave it here.)

Mary Beth said...

I have worked a long time (I'm 50) to move away from cultural ideas of how a woman should look. Makeup, heels, all the stuff I was a slave to and now eschew.

So I am simultaneously glad for Caitlyn that she can do what she wants to, show the self she has wanted to be, and also wonder if, after a number of years as a woman, she might go through the same thoughts. It's all so very complicated.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Wendy and Mary Beth, thank you so much for responding!

Lucille in CT said...

My thought of the photo shoot and cover was less about her bravery and more about shoot, I guess I could look that good if I had that much surgery---the average person cannot.

And the average trans person? I read an interesting article yesterday by the transgender actor from "Orange is the New Black". I don't watch the show so I don't know her, but of her----anyway, her take on the cover/photo shoot was that she didn't know if it would be somewhat negative on your average trans person, who is not going to get implants or facial surgery, who is not going to doll up---sort of similar to your comment about the average woman (how come you can't look like her, who isn't a real woman?)

I also wonder about her decision to alter her top half but then not have genital surgery. NONE OF MY BUSINESS and probably I shouldn't be thinking that/questioning it at all, but unfortunately, since the cover shot was over her in lingerie, I couldn't help thinking of that. Because it makes me feel like it's the outward that is important---how you present (the makeup, facial, the breasts) when i thought it was really about what's inside and being able to express yourself.

Perhaps when she was a man knowing she was a woman, her idea of a woman was a glamourous one---or maybe it's just the photo shoot was such, and her everyday will be every day. Who knows.

I applaud her courage but it does seem kind of in your face in a way. I heard a third grader talking about "Bruce Jenner" the other day and it kind of made me wonder and worry...

Anonymous said...

You are an amazing writer. I love you sis!