She’s the first person to gain a million followers on Twitter in less than four hours and she’s a former Olympic athlete. Most importantly, Caitlyn Jenner is now living the life she’s always wanted to while allowing the mainstream media to critically examine how they address issues of transgender representation within everyday discourse. As part of a reality television dynasty, Jenner is under the constant scrutiny of the tabloids. Thus her transition is introducing ideas of gender identity to a mass of people who might not have previously entertained the idea that gender identity can be fluid.
Though the media coverage surrounding Jenner’s transition has been quite positive, it has focused predominantly on her beauty. While there is no denying that Caitlyn Jenner is beautiful, it’s important to acknowledge that Caitlyn Jenner’s privilege and wealth afford her access to health care, which also allows her to conform to the same beauty standards of cis women. Though Caitlyn Jenner’s visibility allows the trans narrative to be presented to a wider audience, it also presents a somewhat skewed view. Not every trans woman is able to afford the health care necessary to transition, nor does every trans woman want to conform to a cis-normative beauty standard. Just because a trans woman does not adhere to the beauty normative, that does not lessen or invalidate her womanhood.
Even though the media is slowly beginning to affirm the validity of the transgender narrative, instances of transphobia, oftentimes resulting in homicide, are still prevalent. According to a study by the non-profit Human Rights Campaign, at least 13 transgender women were murdered in 2014. So far, in 2015, seven trans women have been murdered. With these 20 victims, all but one were black or Latina.
Hopefully Jenner’s transition will help further entrench trans inclusive discourse while acting as a catalyst for discussions about other issues facing the transgender community.
Hypothetically, if you grab someone off the street they might not know who Janet Mock or Laverne Cox are, but they’ve probably either seen an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians or the 1978 Olympics. Though some worry that having Jenner’s transition situated so prevalently in the limelight might trivialize what for so many people is an already tough journey, Jenner’s notoriety can also be used to allow her narrative to reach millions of people with the ease of standing in a grocery store check-out lane. Many worry that Jenner’s transition is being used as “entertainment fodder,” but think of it this way: representation in the wider media results in discussion. For many people, their first exposure to LGBT narratives comes through media like films, books, and television shows.
For example, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox is an actress and activist for transgender rights. Last May, during an interview with TIME magazine, Cox explained how transgender representation within the media could have a positive impact for kids who are struggling with their own gender identity. “I think there are more media representations that young trans people can look to and say, that’s me, in an affirming way. There’s just so many resources out there now that it makes you feel like you’re less alone and gives some sort of sense of, okay, this is who I am and this is what I’m going through, as opposed to being ‘What the f*** is wrong with me?’ That was what I grew up with.” Laverne Cox works tirelessly to showcase the diversity within the trans community. So does Tumblr user Crystal Frasier, who created the hashtag “#myvanityfaircover.” She attached an accompanying photo template mirroring the cover encouraging users to upload a selfie and write “call me: (name here.)” The grass-roots campaign quickly went viral and created an opportunity for trans people to celebrate their own narratives.
Frasier explained to Buzzfeed, “This is in no way any kind of critique on her life or choices, but this is a great moment to remind everyone — especially trans kids who might be taking in a message that their worth is based around their ability to look white and cis-normative — that trans people come in a huge variety and we all deserve love, attention, and understanding.”
Jenner’s transition also provides an opportunity for the tabloids to re-evaluate how they can discuss gender identity without resorting to gossip and spreading rumors. In January, In-Touch magazine published a cover story featuring Jenner in heavily photo-shopped makeup with a subheading: “My life as a woman,” promising “11 shocking photos inside.” Looking back now, the cover seems like a malicious mockery of Jenner’s personal journey while also exasperating the level of invasive speculation that transgender people experience everyday. Jenner’s ex wife, Kris, spoke out against the piece, saying, “It’s just mean to do whether or not it’s true.”
Now, with Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, the message to the tabloids is clear: gender identity is no joke, and oftentimes it’s none of your business. People will come out when they are ready to come out. The wonderful thing about Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover is that it’s clearly done on her own terms when she was ready to introduce herself to the world. It’s important for other trans individuals to see that it is possible to transition later in life, and that there is no “correct” time to transition.
This past month has been an exercise in compassion for both media outlets and social media users alike. For every tweet in solidarity, there’s been someone who’s “still calling [Caitlyn] Bruce.” The conversation surrounding gender identity is slowly meandering its way towards the forefront of the media’s consciousness. Earlier this June, People magazine ran a story about Caitlyn that included an infographic with transgender resources and a reminder to call trans people by their preferred pronouns. This is the same magazine that speculates over every lump of could-be-cellulite on countless unsuspecting actresses. Now they’re encouraging us to be respectful and open to people’s varying gender identities … who would have thought? Our discourse as a culture surrounding gender identity is shifting at the most basic level of media consumption and it’s incredible.
The outpouring of support for Jenner has been tremendous. When asked what she thought of the comparisons between herself and Caitlyn Jenner, actress Jessica Lange responded that she “thinks it’s wonderful.” Transgender activist Laverne Cox expressed her support tweeting “#TransIsBeautiful #Callmecaitlyn.”
Obviously, there is still a massive amount of work to be done — the issue of proper healthcare for trans people isn’t going to magically solve itself — in the meantime, welcome to the world, Caitlyn!
We’re oh so glad to have you.