Today, Caitlyn Jenner came out to the world, happy and finally free to live her life as herself, and be true to her own identity. She debuted some beautiful pictures on the cover of Vanity Fair, and they were deservedly lauded.
As a cis*-woman myself, I have never and will never know the struggles of being trans. However, the cover got me thinking about gender binaries. Is femininity, merely the idea of being a woman, so closely associated with an external, physical ideal of beauty? Why must being female necessarily mean fitting some external ideal of ‘beauty’, whatever it is?
It is one thing to applaud Jenner’s admittedly gargantuan courage in taking the step publicly – it will doubtless provide some inspiration and courage to those who could not, for whatever reason, come out as trans. However, it seems as though it is the ‘prettiness’ that is being publicly lauded, with plenty of online commenters comparing Caitlyn to her ex-wife, Kris, pitting the women against each other.
And that brings me to a more pertinent question – is the gender binary so pronounced that dressing in lingerie, hair styled, posing and makeup are construed as a true portrayal of femininity? Is that all there is to being or identifying as a woman?
Humanity begins the binary at youth. Dresses versus shorts. Pink versus blue. Barbie vs G.I Joe. (This brings to mind an old episode of Friends, where Ross was correctly called out by his ex-wife’s wife, after constantly trying to replace his son’s Barbie doll with an action figure.) Short hair versus long.
Left to their own devices, children have been seen to play with whatever toy is nearest them, or whatever catches their fancy. The gendering of those toys, if they are humanoid, does not matter. Unfortunately, people gender the most inanimate, genderless things – like Lego or Meccano toys, which contribute to children’s analytical and cognitive development – and they somehow take on the label of being ‘for boys’.
As adults who could know better, these same children, as all of us once were, are trapped in a cycle that we do not know how to get out of. The cycle of fitting, or being made to fit into boxes and compartments that as fluid beings, mentally, sexually or otherwise, we do not need to belong in. And thus femininity comes to be associated with dresses. With lingerie and red lipstick and roughly tousled hair that looks as if a woman is in the throes of amorous passion but still immaculately made up. That is our ideal of ‘sexy’, of ‘feminine’, when those words cannot either be defined or boxed in. As many women adhere to conventional standards of ‘fashion’ as do not. Does that make the latter group any less feminine?There are women who are fond of heels, high, low, anything in between. There are also as many women who would rather wear slippers or trainers. It does not make either group any more or less feminine either.
But Caitlyn’s cover, and so many Vanity Fair covers before hers, seem to ideate female beauty as being just that – a dressed up, made up, posing, pouting being on legs.
There is often an interview that accompanies the glossy, high-end pictures of a Vanity Fair spread, but the interview tends to be secondary to the photographs. Every bit of publicised coverage about Caitlyn mentions that Annie Leibovitz is the photographer, but there is no mention of the writer assigned to the job – his/her job is a secondary, cursory thing. The interview may focus on Caitlyn’s struggles, her transition and what came with it – but the piece at large focuses on her new physical attributes, which while I am sure are important to her, unfortunately seem to connote that that physicality is the essence of femininity. There are several other things popular media seems to label as decidedly feminine, in the absence of which women are ‘less woman’ somehow – however, those are not relevant to a discussion of Caitlyn and her journey and will be discussed separately.
Is Jenner an icon for inspiring many young transwomen to be able to come out? Yes. We must remember that transwomen and transmen are not all from the same circumstances – they may not have access to medical facilities, counselling, healthcare and the other things Caitlyn has had access to. Will Caitlyn’s courage still inspire them to be able to be able to publicly embrace their identities? One hopes so – but we should not denigrate, belittle and compartmentalise women and box ‘femininity’ whilst we try to publicize and bring attention to what it means to be trans, and help the public understand it.
One should not be at the cost of the other.
Either way, I wish Caitlyn every single happiness, and I am sure she will have more of it now that she is able to freely embrace her life in all its glorious entirety.
*cis implies that your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth