Caitlyn and the Feminist

Heather Brunskell-Evans refuses to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as anything other than “Bruce” or “he”. I don’t find her article gives the reasons.

Heather quotes Brendan O’Neill’s Spectator article. Do radical feminists ally with reactionary conservatives on any issue other than trans politics? She writes, I suggest a more effective catalyst for progressive social change is the following: firstly, unpack some of the conceptual terms that GLAAD uses to direct our responses not only to Jenner but to transgender people in general; secondly, move beyond the neo-liberal language of personal choice, voluntarism, and individualism, and return to analyses of the social context out of which our gender identities and choices emerge; thirdly, problematize Jenner’s inner woman as a simulacrum.

Brunskell-Evans confuses Caitlyn the person with Caitlyn the product, part of the Kardashian TV franchise and now Vanity Fair cover girl. By middle age most people have seen through the women’s magazine fantasy. The magazines tell us we only have to read them and do the simple things they recommend, and we will be beautiful, with gorgeous fashionable clothes and make-up, a bikini body, and wonderful dinner-party skills, good in bed and forging ahead in our careers with all our anxieties cured; though instead they increase those anxieties. With its state of the art photography and computer processing, Vanity Fair might make even me beautiful enough to be their cover girl, with an almost recognisable photograph. I would do it, too. It would expose the fantasy as a joke: perhaps Caitlyn’s appearance already has.

But I am not going to be on that cover, any more than Heather Brunskell-Evans is. The product, on TV or in magazines, is indeed utterly conventional and normative. It conforms to the perspective of the male gaze and the consumerist neoliberal ideal of the ‘authentic’ woman that is in reality no more than a sexist and patriarchal simulacrum. The person behind the product, Caitlyn herself, is unknown. Vanity Fair photoshops everyone. Every Kardashian, every cover model, is a simulacrum, oppressively normative of the fantasy policing women, not just Caitlyn. Why should Heather pick on the trans woman?

Hyper-femininity is empowerment for me, because I am hyper-feminine. This mode of expression frees me to be my real self before other people. Such a mask might be torture for Heather. I don’t express myself as hyper-feminine to oppress her, but to free myself. I hope that my freedom increases hers, to express whatever combinations of masculine feminine or genderless behaviour she judges either advance her interests or are most comfortable for her.

That reactionary conservative opposes Caitlyn’s acceptance because he wishes to reinforce gender norms. So Caitlyn’s expression is profoundly subversive, could the radical feminists but see that. When pretending to be male, Caitlyn’s and my seemingly voluntary and repeated performative iterations of our femininity or masculinity from childhood onwards were stereotypically masculine. Our feminine expression is chosen to better fit ourselves.

All trans women will benefit from Caitlyn’s acceptance: we will suffer less ignorance and rejection of our subversion of gender norms, now we are supported by such powerful cultural icons. But only one of us has condoned Vanity Fail’s oppression of women, by appearing as cover girl, not all of us; and we suffer from the beauty myth particularly cruelly because most of us fall so short of the magazine’s ideal.

Perhaps Heather Brunskell-Evans’s article was cut: I see no analyses of the social context out of which our gender identities and choices emerge, so here is mine. Disney princess culture forces girls towards a stereotypically feminine ideal, but increasingly they follow other paths and enter higher education and the professions. There are alternative cultures. And I do not feel capitalism values my feminine gifts.

Now I have liberated myself from my oppressive socialisation into masculinity, and shed my internalised femme-phobia and transphobia, I express a natural femininity through my increasingly diverse culture. I find this is easier for younger people: gay and trans folk come out younger, women have a more diverse range of expression at work and play. Not all women are forced to femininity, some are forced by circumstances to be uncomfortably masculine. We all have shadows to liberate, incongruities between self-concept and organismic self. Kyriarchy is more various than the concept of “patriarchy” would admit.

Finally, I am proof of the reality of gendered identity. Were I not, I would be as I was socialised to be, a normal man.

I am unsure how often corsets appear on VF cover girls, but I found one which was equally problematic. Among the Fresh Faces of 2008, the white ladies are wearing dresses- showing off their sexual fitness, but able to pretend to respectability- and the black woman is in a corset, acting greater sexual availability. VF allows people of colour and trannies onto their cover, but not on the same terms as, well, ladies and real women.