Hey, everyone! Did you hear the news about Bruce Jenner this week?
…said (hopefully) no one ever.
Of course we heard about Caitlyn Jenner! If you are reading this, you most likely have an attachment to social media and you certainly participate in the digital world. In the United States the top news story of the week is not the gas station explosion in Ghana killing 100 people, the expiration of the Patriot Act, or even the sad news about Beau Biden’s death. No. The inspirational story/fascinating celebrity gossip/horror-inducing sin of the week (depending on your perspective) is Caitlyn Jenner.
And my, oh, my – is it ever complicated.
If anyone states that the issue(s) surrounding the story is clear-cut, they are not fully paying attention. When news like this breaks, the story no longer becomes “the news.” Media coverage, community reactions, activist commentary, and political positions all become The News. It is my goal in this article to discuss a few of the ideas floating around the core of the Jenner news that reflect broader concerns and fears that are coming to the surface again only as a result of the Vanity Fair piece featuring Caitlyn Jenner where the convergence of politics, religion, celebrity obsession, and gender rights came crashing together. The week did include some praiseworthy commentary, but overwhelmingly it revealed distressing evidence in how we view personhood, spirituality, family, and the meaning of America.
I want to begin with a celebrity news article that slyly slipped an idea into the national conversation. One who is not familiar with American studies methodologies may wonder why celebrity news is a “credible” source for scholarship. In fact, it is not the content that is of interest, but the belief system that produces it and the reception of that idea among readers. Throughout the first day of coverage TMZ, The Daily Caller, and other entertainment sites included this statement in their articles:
“Why would you want to be married and have kids if this is what you wanted since you were a little boy? Why would you not explain this all to me?” Kris [Jenner] asked.
I do not keep up with celebrity news, so I cannot detail when coverage of Caitlyn’s gender identity began, but it is obvious the paparazzi (and commentary) have been going at it for a while. Regardless of one’s opinion about TMZ, it is hard to deny that their “front line” coverage brings social issues into the national conversation sometimes well before mainstream or print media. (Remember the exchange surrounding Rhianna’s domestic abuse by Chris Brown?) Additionally, it is not appropriate to call on Kris for philosophical inquiries to answer questions about gender and sexuality. However, millions of people read the quote attributed to Kris this week and now associate this statement with the process of gender transition. This is problematic on many levels. To begin, one’s gender identity and one’s sexual identity are not mutually exclusive to one another. Additionally – and I think strangely – something happens to the perception of transgender women that is the exact opposite of the expectations of cisgender women. While a woman who is “born” with female physical characteristics is assumed to want children in adulthood (if she does not, she is socially abnormal), a transgender woman is assumed to not want children (if she does, she is even more peculiar). The statement above simultaneously connects sexual desires and disconnects familial relationship desires to the transgender body. To include this statement in the discussion misdirects and harms, but again, we do not look to TMZ for the answers to the problem – just an illustration of the problem.
A final element that should not be ignored is the fact that celebrity news outlets rely on social media to extend their coverage over the Internet. Kris’s statement is provocative and plays on conservative fears of a breakdown of the family core as a result of deviant gender norms. Caitlyn would “clearly” not want a family because she is outside the standard image of what a family “is.” We see this argument and assumption of defective family structures over and over: single-parent, working mother, child-free, and same-sex. The Daily Caller knows social media will like and share their article over the digital landscape because this fear exists.
Like Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time Magazine in May 2014, Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and corresponding article (to be released on June 9, 2015) is viewed as a milestone in transgender rights and acceptance in “mainstream” culture. It is right to say that this is a move in a good direction. While this generation of feminists seeks to incorporate all types of womanhood and supporters of equality, Jenner’s cover photo is a hard pill to swallow. On June 3, 2015, an article titled “The Price of Caitlyn Jenner’s Heroism” appeared in the New York Times. Rhonda Garelick writes, “In becoming a woman before our eyes, Caitlyn Jenner proves that little has changed since 1949… To be admired in the public eye, to be seen, a woman must still conform to an astonishingly long, often contradictory list of physical demands — the most important being that she not visibly age.” While not wishing to discount the socially, emotionally, and physically difficult process of gender transition for trans women across the world, feminists take issue with the affirmation of strict physical requirements that correlate with a woman’s worth. Of course, this is not exactly a woman’s issue (many men deal with the same pressures), but certainly the balance is off (as expressed by comedian Amy Schumer in “Last F**kable Day.”) Vanity Fair’s omnipresent airbrushing of thighs, chest, and face cause cisgender women to exclaim, “Why can’t I look like that?” – only to remember the digital enhancements. The message of true womanhood is abundantly clear in Vanity Fair:
Be beautiful. Be perfect. Or be not woman.
Between 2010 and 2014 numerous articles appeared online citing Gallup poles and other surveys that illustrated the viewing habits of Americans, noting differences that fell along political lines. Essentially (and not surprisingly) they consistently find viewers consume culture that reaffirms their worldviews. While democrats enjoy The Daily Show and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, social conservatives (SCs) often lean toward Dancing With the Stars and reality shows. It is not my intention to make broad assumptions about SCs or the overwhelming backlash against Jenner finding its root in their television-watching habits, but I think the results are clear enough to say that SCs are very interested in celebrity culture. “Interest” is used loosely because we can define interest in both the positive and negative sense. In other words, one does not need to like the celebrities in American culture in order to find interest in them. It is a topic of conversation. The convergence of challenging celebrity culture and the rhetoric used to describe a personal fight becomes problematic.
This week’s buzzword may be “heroic.” Unfortunately, it is a word that holds very different meanings and uses for diverse people. Caitlyn Jenner is called “heroic” for her ability to confront the media (and the world) with elegance. Others denounce the entire process as a celebrity stunt. Notably, there are some that refuse to give Jenner the word “heroic.”
This one of many memes created in the first week of June 2015 denouncing Jenner’s heroism:
I want to begin by clarifying my intentions in this last section. My thoughts on the matter do not, in any way, detract from the high esteem that I have for our nation’s service women and men. They are brave human beings and I am grateful.
I do have a problem with the meme, though.
The image connects the concepts of heroism and courage to the image of the soldier, but not just any soldier – an active, front-line, white, male soldier. This is not an image of a woman soldier. It is not an image of an African American soldier. The problem that I have with the image is not that it connects heroism to our nation’s military, but that it connects heroism with the image of a white, male body.
This is the embodiment of a patriarchal system that the civil rights, feminist, and LBGTQ movements have combatted for over 100 years.
We call this “hegemonic masculinity,” and what I mean is that it is the perfect standard. You have heard the joke, “Look in the dictionary and you will find so-and-so’s picture under [insert attribute].” The “heroic” meme is very similar. For generations, if you (hypothetically) “looked under ‘heroism’ you would find”…a photo of a white male soldier carrying a man on his back.
Again, it is not that a white male soldier who carries people on his back is not heroic. But it is not the only heroism. To say so reaffirms archaic standards of masculinity that undermines large portions of twenty-first century American culture: motherhood/fatherhood, teaching, serving, and caring – all heroic deeds that work outside of historical standards of hegemonic masculinity.
Images reinforce the embodiment of ideas. Images confirm beliefs embedded in a society. Images also convince us that the idea linked to it is always, and often only, related to that image.
The backlash of hate, misogyny, and obsessive heteronormativity flooding the Internet only reaffirms the belief in Caitlyn’s courage. It also illustrates the objectification of a “strange body” in American culture. Caitlyn Jenner does not fit in to anyone’s box and it makes us uncomfortable.
There is ample commentary this week coming from all angles. One thing we can do with American studies is look at the rhetoric and images used to locate the discussion surrounding the national conversation. This helps us grasp and contextualize wide-ranging beliefs and ideas that span American culture. We are not the same, but we are here together.
On June 5, 2015 the Washington Post ran an article that dives deeper into the meaning of the type of memes mentioned above and historicized that meaning even further.
“Caitlyn Jenner vs. the troops: A familiar recipe for a viral hit” by Hunter Schwartz
 A.B. Kaplan, “Confusion around changing sexual orientation for trans people,” Trangender Mental Health, 6 Aug 2010, http://tgmentalhealth.com/2010/08/06/confusion-around-changing-sexual-orientation-for-trans-people/, accessed 3 June 2015.
 Rhonda Garelick, “The Price of Caitlyn Jenner’s Heroism.” New York Times. 3 June 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/03/opinion/the-price-of-jenners-heroism.html.