The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

That is, when Caitlyn Jenner is up there talking about trans people, part of what she’s saying is: What, we can be concerned about the economically disadvantaged, the racially subordinated, but not those victimized for their gender, their sexuality? When Caitlyn Jenner is up there, all made up, narcissistic and self-conscious, stunning and sexy, part of what she’s saying is: What, just because you’re broke, you have to stop performing your gender, stop desiring (to be someone, to be desired …), stop thinking about sex, gender, and desire, as if all that can take the backseat to economy? Admittedly, what allows Jenner to do this is privilege, but, as this case clearly demonstrates, that is not always a bad thing. And when Caitlyn Jenner accepts a coveted award for courage just by virtue of her performing her gender, as she feels it—what she refers to as “being who she really is”—she asks why courage is defined only in terms of violence, defense, and/or upward mobility. In contrast, she shows that standing up there with your gender/sexuality/desire for all the world to see is an extremely difficult and courageous thing to do.

Unlike the initial impression I had of her magazine cover, this public association of Caitlyn Jenner with courage is very important, indeed. Publicly recognizing Caitlyn for her gender (and not only Bruce for his athleticism) amounts to the acknowledgment that you can perform your gender in public. It amounts to the encouragement that you should perform your gender as you feel it, even if, because of setting, your performance, or what it is that you desire to perform—be it masculine or feminine, heteronormative or not, conducive for marriage or not—it’s difficult. It’s easy enough to take for granted the significance of all this, especially since it was done through the image of a beautiful and flamboyant trans woman in an awards ceremony. It should be realized, however, that what Caitlyn at ESPY has done, in the event’s revelation and legitimation of something different, of something that goes against normal, is to starkly go against what, in The Trouble with Normal, Michael Warner describes as the impossibility of imagining, of even conceiving, different ways of being (gendered/sexual) because, to begin with, images like Caitlyn do not exist. The gravity of this cannot be stressed enough given how many young people persecute and, indeed, destroy themselves because of the absence of such models and conceptions of difference.

It is likewise pertinent that Jenner’s performance of Caitlyn took place in a sporting event. Sports, like sex, is one of those activities that makes one aware of her body, indeed makes one aware that he has a body, and of how fluid the body is in its desires, its capacities … Thus if there is a mainstream outlet that can recognize the existence of Caitlyn, it is sports, despite and against the fact that mainstream sports often colonizes the body in the service of heteronormativity or traditional masculinity. Nor is the recognition of Caitlyn only a victory for gender deviants. It is, of course, that, and that is important given gender and sexual hierarchies and the persecution (by others and by the self) they imply. I would argue, however, that Caitlyn’s recognition is a victory for all gendered subjects, i.e. for gender itself. While parading her particular gender (transgender) on stage, Caitlyn also paraded gender itself. That is, in showing Caitlyn to the world so scandalously, Jenner in effect defamiliarized gender, revitalizing it through the sense that gender can be performed otherwise, e.g. as trans, and reminding us that, as subjects, we are gendered, even in our closest approximation of the dominant, even in our habituation in heteronormativity. This is why the most masculine of Bruce Jenner’s fans have something to celebrate in Caitlyn as well, namely the way in which their idol performs gender so well that he was able to perform it, in his past life as Olympic athlete, in the most masculine way and, in the present, as its opposite. What Caitlyn highlights is not so much the opposition between masculine and feminine, but the distinction of those in touch with their body, especially the gendered way in which it works.

To stress her significance is not, however, to say that Caitlyn Jenner stands as the embodiment of gender liberation. For one, liberation is predicated, I argue, on what I describe above as subjective empathy, the common struggle. Let’s say that Caitlyn does fight for the cause of trans people like herself. Whatever she achieves there, no matter how sincerely, will be limited by her complicities in other aspects of her life, notably her economic and racial privilege, especially if she interprets the struggle as being just about “who she really is,” an identity she posits in terms of gender, regardless of what other subordinated subjects are going through. More pertinently, Jenner has expressed that her transgressive performance of gender, her identification as a woman in a man’s body that she now attempts to surgically correct, is more a matter of “mental state and lifestyle” rather than sex. She thus identifies as asexual although she performs her gender, against biology, as a woman. Much of the significance of Caitlyn’s performance of gender, as I describe above, is tied to sexuality, more precisely to the way in which gender gives a signal or a hint about a subject’s sexuality and desires and how the body goes about gratifying or denying them. Gender is the way in which the body performs, and the body being what it is, that performance, as Freud would argue, is inherently sexual. To divorce sexuality from gender and to argue that gender is simply a matter of lifestyle, i.e. that her performance and desires have to do only with fashion, beauty, and other sublimations—and not sex itself—thus dampens much, although admittedly not all, of what Caitlyn Jenner, especially given her commodification, accomplishes. It is as if in revealing Caitlyn, Jenner feels the need, by the same stroke, to disavow, to limit herself, short-circuiting the full potential of her act. It is a self-limiting that, hopefully, does not stand in her way for too long.


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