The Soapbox: Caitlyn Jenner Can Present However She Wants To
Let Caitlyn Jenner have her moment, would you?
She debuted in all of her glamorous glory yesterday on the cover of Vanity Fair and within hours, Facebook was full of critiques: Caitlyn is playing into the gender binary. Caitlyn is playing into patriarchal beauty standards. It’s the same thing that happened to Laverne Cox, actually, if you’ll recall her TIME cover.
This makes me nervous and it reveals the points on which a lot of young feminists have not really done their reading, regarding the trans* community. The scary thing is that by criticizing Caitlyn Jenner for “playing into the gender binary,” you get close to discourse from radfems like Janice Raymond and Cathy Brenner, who believe that trans women are doing violence to cis women by entrenching the gender binary, by conceptualizing it as real, by presenting themselves in ways that are in line with conventional beauty standards for women. They are hurting cis women, allegedly, by expressing their womanhood in conventionally feminine ways.
The line of thinking is that gender is a construct that shouldn’t exist, that this construct of gender – men as strong and stoic, women as pretty and emotional – is precisely what’s to blame for cis women’s suffering over the ages, and that it’s not a just picture of humanity. And it’s not! Women are all different sorts of things, and men are all different sorts of things, and oh by the way, there are human beings who are neither of those things. But radfem discourse – real radical feminism, not what online trolls call radical feminism – goes a step further into outright transphobia, claiming that trans women are men who are trying to co-opt and control the world of cis womanhood by entering it.
Which is both paranoid and deeply transphobic. And I’m just saying: Let’s not go there, please. Let’s not accuse trans women of entrenching the binary and entrenching beauty standards. The trans* community has been an easy scapegoat and an easy “other” that the feminist community and the gay community have used for decades in order to make ourselves seem, by comparison, “normal” to the mainstream public, when it is extremely normal to be trans* and it always has been.
Here’s the thing, cis women waging criticisms: On any given day, Caitlyn Jenner could dress to the nines and look like she’s channeling Xena and Jessica Lange; and on any other day, lounging around in her PJs, she’ll look like, well, just another person, more or less feminine. And on any given day, cis women, you and I will put on makeup and clothes cut for women and make ourselves conventionally pretty, or we’ll decline to put on makeup and wear sweatpants and a T-shirt and if you’re anything like me you will not look spectacularly feminine. We have that right. Caitlyn Jenner and every other trans woman has that right, too.
I can’t really put myself in the shoes of a trans woman because I’m not a trans woman, but I would imagine that after a lifetime of living a male identity that doesn’t give her the emotional space to be truly content and unburdened, a trans woman coming out would freely embrace all aspects of femininity. That on the occasion of her coming out to the public, being already a public figure, she would wear a corset and style herself like Veronica Lake and accept the photoshopping that cis cover models have enjoyed for decades, now. And then maybe she’d go home and take her makeup off and go to bed, and in the morning she’d put her hair in a ponytail and make eggs in her PJs and look and act like every other fucking woman on Earth, and would pretty much be living the life that was denied to her by public expectations and public phobias and public scrutiny for the last 50-odd years of her life.
And we’re going to jump on that and criticize Caitlyn Jenner and scapegoat her for beauty standards that we live up to and enjoy and declare we have the right to enjoy if we want to? Please. Femme trans women didn’t create those standards, and femme trans women are certainly not the only people entrenching it. And frankly, feminists, we – you – do not have the right to tell trans women that they’re supposed to look more masculine or less “passing” or not so “pretty” or anything at all. If you’re cis, you don’t get to prescribe to trans* people what a respectable trans* person is, what you as a cis person will or will not accept a trans* person looking or acting like.
The better critique is a critique of the audience rather than Jenner herself, from Meredith Talusan, a trans scholar who points out that Jenner’s prettiness has very much to do with economic access that she enjoys but that many trans women don’t. Talusan points out that “there’s a fine line between complimenting Jenner and considering her beauty a condition of her womanhood, and that line does not escape other trans women,” especially those who have not been able to afford the measure Jenner has been able to take to live her life the way that makes her content. Talusan goes on:
Jenner was just as much of a woman a month ago during her Diane Sawyer interview in a blue button-down as she is today in a white corset: her womanhood is not and has never been defined by what she looks like outside, but how she feels inside – which is true of all trans women. So sure, we can notice, and even praise, the elegance of her cheekbones or her resemblance to Jessica Lange. But let’s also notice how we may be thinking of her as ‘more’ of a woman because she presents herself now according to conventional standards of beauty – and thinking of her as more of a woman because she’s more conventionally feminine on the outside excludes the many trans women who don’t have the money to make themselves look like she does.
Bottom line: Everyone is beautiful. Trans, cis, woman, man, genderqueer, intersex – everyone is beautiful because they’re human beings. Everyone is beautiful regardless of how they’re presenting themselves today, and it’s beautiful to afford each other the choice and freedom to present the way we want to without scrutiny, scapegoating, or blame.
[Image via Vanity Fair]