From Diane Arbus to Annie Liebowitz: Caitlyn Jenner
BY DREW ROWSOME
Caitlyn Jenner's début, on the cover of Vanity Fair no less, is inescapable news. If "news" is the right word. There is a certain tabloid-esque prurience to the resultant coverage, gossip and over-sharing on social media of opinions fair and foul, that is both disturbing and heartening.
Heartening because celebrity visibility brings attention and validity, and, on a certain level, acceptance. As PBS's Eden Lane, herself transgender, says,
When you know someone, it's easier to leave room in your heart and mind for them. To just be without fear of them or without hatred of them.
And we all "know" celebrities, they can be more familiar than family. When celebrities have come out as gay in the last few years, it has been to mostly cheers and/or shrugs. I'd like to think that has trickled down into the real world, making the coming out process easier for those still struggling with it. And if Caitlyn Jenner can have the same effect for coming out as trans, more power to her.
However the hoopla is also disturbing for three reasons. Firstly, because I am fortunate enough to live in a world where gay, trans, gender, race etc, are just identifiers that don't carry any judgmental weight, my social media feeds were full of support, praise and (a lot of) constructive criticism for Jenner. I don't feel that I, from a position of white gay male privilege, have the right to do anything but comment and discuss, so I leave it to Laverne Cox who posted a wonderful Tumblr post.
A year ago when my Time magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am “drop dead gorgeous” and that that doesn’t represent most trans people. (It was news to be that I am drop dead gorgeous but I’ll certainly take it). But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves . It is important to note that these standards are also infomed by race, class and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representstions of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities. I started #TransIsBeautiful as a way to celebrate all those things that make trans folks uniquely trans, those things that don’t necessarily align with cisnormative beauty standards.
Diane Arbus photographed drag queens in the '60s and the results were quite different from what Annie Liebowitz created with Jenner. Arbus was documenting the fringes of society, the freaks, the misfit toys that we hadn't yet learned to love, identify with, or see the beauty of. Arbus was accused of exploitation but the eventual consensus, with which I would agree, is that she was trying to show the wabi-sabi magnificence of her subjects. There is a lot of power and heart in Arbus' photos even if the ragged edges of the glamour and artifice are showing.
Annie Liebowitz is also a great photographer but of a quite different kind. Liebowitz specializes in celebrities and there is a lot of glamour and humour in her work. I do not want to make a comparison - some of Liebowitz's photos of Patti Smith are almost as transcendent as those by Robert Mapplethorpe even if far more calculated - but I do wonder how much the glamour with which Caitlyn Jenner has been drenched has a distancing effect. Cox is right, it is easy to accept the incarnation on the cover of Vanity Fair, but it is not the representation of anything resembling a real person.
And that, being the second troubling thing, is probably just how Jenner, who has an upcoming television show to promote, wants it. Good for her for so carefully orchestrating her coming out process, troubling for us that it is tied to a commercial enterprise of questionable value. Great that millions of people will watch a transition, troubling that that process will be infected with the irredeemably shallow and off-putting Kardashians.
As well that means that Caitlyn will never get to be just Caitlyn. She will always be Caitlyn, the former Bruce Jenner, sidekick on a reality-TV show, a former Olympic gold medal winner and the star of one of the all-time great films, Can't Stop the Music. To be defined by the reaction of others, especially if it is an ambitious and publicity-hungry ex-wife and her demon spawn, is to lose part of one's identity. Jenner has undoubtedly worked so hard to find herself, to find the strength to be herself, that I hope some of that reality intrudes into reality TV.
The third troubling thing is the reaction outside my bubble. There are people who still loathe gays, feel racially superior, are horrified by any form of gender non-conformity, and who just plain hate anything different than their ideal version of themselves. Of course it is easy to mock them or pretend to ignore them, but some of the comments, jokes and anger, while born of fear, hurt. It is always good to remember that there are people out there who have a lot invested in the wrong side of history, to experience their lashing out is an unpleasant experience. I didn't go looking for the nasty stuff, it is widespread and unfortunately socially acceptable enough that it found me. I can only imagine what the barrage is like for Jenner.
Perhaps that is part of Jenner's end game. As a person with a fair amount of privilege, she can be a lightning rod without being fried. There is a glint of pride in the come-hither stare with which she confronts the camera. If it can inspire a trans kid, unsettle the sexuality of the straight and narrow, give hope to those are exploring or questioning, or even just open a few minds to the fact that the world is full of a lot more possibilities than what we are taught is normal: Bravissima. Or, as Laverne Cox says,
I have hoped over the past few years that the incredible love I have received from the public can translate to the lives of all trans folks. Trans folks of all races, gender expressions, ability, sexual orientations, classes, immigration status, employment status, transition status, genital status etc. I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues.