Friday, July 17, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner: Kim Kardashian with substance (and a face that moves)

There's something about Caitlyn. Ms. Jenner's can't-look-away glamour dramatically caps a compelling story arc. But wouldn't the narrative be so much more powerful if, after the Vanity Fair cover, she'd emerged as a more down-to-earth woman?

Yes, she looks fantastic, but the costume changes, the perfect-angle shots, the reported diva demands, Angelina Jolie's glamour squad -- what does this say about transgenderism? About womanhood? The implication is that both are all about appearances? Isn't that just promoting another stereotype?

It started to dawn on me during the biography portion of Caitlyn's Arthur Ashe Courage Award presentation at the ESPYs. The segment was edited so that we kept catching brief sideways glances of Caitlyn talking about her transformation. I understood the ploy: Keep everyone watching until the full-on money shot. Wasn't that why we were all watching -- to see how great Caitlyn looked...again?

In her introductory comments, Caitlyn emphasized the difficulties of being a woman. But they all revolved around the physical aspect, not the less tangible negatives like the lack of opportunities, the lack of support, the lack of equal pay.

Of course, Caitlyn, like her ex Kris and daughters and stepdaughters, doesn't have to worry about such pesky issues as equal pay. For the foreseeable future, she'll be raking in millions just for getting out of bed. And there'll be a glamour squad on hand making sure she looks perfect for the reality cameras. Did she wake up like this? Never.

In concerns me that in the mainstreaming of transgenderism, it seems to be all about beauty and glamour. Caitlyn and our reaction to her seem to be reinforcing that with every public appearance. Does she -- does anyone -- need to change outfits half a dozen times in one New York City day? Blake Lively pulled that one first, so it's not like Caitlyn was even being original.

Laverne Cox, the Orange Is the New Black actress and the second most-famous transgender woman of the moment, is currently celebrated for being beautiful...and brave, but mostly beautiful. Would we care as much about her if she looked like an average soccer mom?

After Caitlyn's Vanity Fair cover, I had a debate with a Facebook friend who was concerned about the gushing commentary revolving around how "amazing" she looked. Would we have been as accepting of her, he wondered, if she hadn't looked so good?

While I understood where he was coming from, I had to consider Caitlyn's debut medium. We were reacting to a celebrity magazine cover. Traditionally, they're all about shallow aesthetics. What else should we have been reacting to if not how she looks? Isn't that pretty par for course with two-dimensional photographs?

In the weeks since then, though, we've had time to focus on other things. Caitlyn has had time to give us more to focus on. Yet it continues to be mostly about how amazing she looks. This is such a loaded non-development.

All transgender women no more look like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock or Candis Cayne or Caitlyn than all non-trans women look like Kim Kardashian. The big difference is that Kim is pure celebrity. Unlike the others, she isn't regarded as any kind of heroine.

Where is the applause for, say, Chas Bono? He came out as transgender years before Caitlyn made it safer to do so. But where were all the plaudits and glowing testimonials about the bravery of Sonny and Cher's son? If he had come out looking like Josh Duhamel, would things have been different?

I'm not blaming this all on Caitlyn. She wouldn't be the center of attention if we didn't put her there, for whatever reason. So in a sense, we're financing the ego trip.

It's not like I was expecting that much more from her. After all, Bruce was not exactly a promoter of social progress, a tireless crusader. But I was hoping for a pleasant surprise. I wanted Caitlyn to be much more than the second coming of her stepdaughter.

Maybe once the post-initial furor dies down, after mama gets paid, she will grow into the role model she seems to want to be. But as long as her life continues to be a red carpet, complete with glamor squads and perfectly timed public appearances, she'll keep missing the mark in those impossible-to-walk-in heels.

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