Why Caitlyn Jenner’s superficial personification of womanhood might be a good thing

When Caitlyn Jenner first revealed herself as a trans-woman in Vanity Fair, the reception was resoundingly positive. She was recognized for her bravery for speaking out for a group that has been traditionally marginalized, and was promptly honoured with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN. However, recently there has been a noticeable backlash from many traditionally progressive voices. This backlash centres on the type of woman Jenner has decided to personify – one who is seemingly defined by all of the superficial stereotypes that feminists have been fighting to move past for decades. As Elinor Burkett put it in the New York Times: “This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.” Many other cultural critics hopped on a similar bandwagon, including Jon Stewart, and Rita Smith in the National Post, who similarly summed it up: “That a man — athletic, accomplished, successful — can, in 2015, announce to the world: ‘I’ve decided to become a woman,’ and then go on to proudly present herself as a corseted, puffed-and-buffed bimbo whose only credentials as a woman are breasts and professional makeup. What’s worse: people are taking it seriously.” Underpinning all of these criticisms is the notion that, even in 2015, Caitlyn Jenner’s personification represents what society thinks it means to be a woman.

I must admit that my first instinct after watching the Jon Stewart clip and reading these pieces was to share in their dismay. However, now I am not so sure we should be dismayed at all. What changed my mind was the exercise of trying to imagine the type of gender transition that would have made these commentators happy. What would the more ‘ideal’ picture of the new Caitlyn Jenner look like?

The core complaint stems from the fact that she seems to have changed genders primarily for reasons of body image and sexualization (here I mean how she wants to be sexualized by others, as distinct from her sexual orientation or how she chooses to sexualize others). But imagine if it was primarily not for those superficial reasons that she was compelled to change gender. What if her motivations had related instead to traits that Smith correctly associates with women: intelligence, loyalty, hard work, dedication, caring, giving and nurturing? Do we want to live in a world where these traits are considered gendered, so much so that someone would feel compelled to transition to be able to present themselves as intelligent, caring or loyal? I think the fact that these traits don’t come up in stories about gender changes (either man to woman, or woman to man) is one of the most encouraging signs of how western society now defines masculinity and femininity.

Both men and women can be smart (and have plenty of smart role models of both genders to look up to); both can be athletic; both can lead (as exemplified by Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, perhaps the world’s two most powerful leaders); both can be caring and loyal. Therefore why would espousing any of these qualities drive someone to want to change genders, and why would a major magazine want to feature these qualities prominently in a story about a gender transition, as these criticisms seem to suggest it should have? (Note that some recent female-to-male transition features have been equally superficial.)

What about rights? What if people like Jenner wanted to change genders to access certain rights or privileges? In the past, when gender roles were considered much more rigid, this was not unheard of. For example, men would sometimes dress as women to avoid being sent off to war and women sometimes dressed as men to be allowed to serve in combat.  However, in western society in 2015 there is little reason to do this, as nearly all walks of life and segments of society are integrated (with a few exceptions, including prisons, bathrooms, some schools and colleges, the Catholic priesthood, etc.), and rights have probably never been more evenly distributed among men and women. Regardless, I don’t think even the staunchest feminist or men’s rights activist could say with a straight face that becoming transgendered (in either direction) affords a person more rights or less discrimination. If we take as a given that some people genuinely feel the need to identify with a gender other than that which they were born for certain reasons (and take as a given that having functioning reproductive systems are still not medically accessible in the newly adopted gender and therefore childbearing cannot be a valid reason to make a transition), shouldn’t we be glad, not dismayed, that these reasons are superficial and relate to image or sexualization?

Smith asks the question: “All these years that Bruce Jenner wanted to be a woman, this is what he thought a woman was?” I would argue that, no, maybe this is just the one tiny sliver of the human experience that he felt he was excluded from as a man. If it were still all that western society thought a woman could be, I doubt that we would see the preference for having girls that we do among white parents today, for example. And if the biggest restriction stemming from being a man these days is not being able to wear a corset (as opposed to, say, being forced into war), us men probably don’t have much reason to complain either.

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