Caitlyn Jenner and Vanity Fair deserve all of the thunderous praise they have received, and continue to receive, in the wake of Jenner’s debut. This is an unprecedented moment in trans history, an unprecedented step forward for trans visibility and acceptance. The simple fact that Jenner is on the cover of such a celebrated magazine may be a comfort to out and closeted trans individuals everywhere, who’ve been made to feel “other,” who've been compelled to retreat into silence or even denial.
But just because it’s a life-affirming moment does not mean we should hold back our critique. We owe it to the trans community, even to Jenner herself, to continue discussing the limitations and oppressions inherent in her debut.
Note that none of this is meant to detract from the fullness of this triumph. But triumphs warrant further striving, further triumphs. It is the best way to do justice by that original victory.
Amid the scores of support, a subset of the interwebs have been calling attention to the emphasis on “beauty” in conversations about Jenner’s debut.:
Between the Vanity Fair spread and "she's so pretty" convos, we've smuggled in the same old cis/Eurocentric narratives about womanhood.— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 1, 2015
If we only celebrate and welcome Caitlyn Jenner bc she conforms to tradition cis/and European standards of beauty, we are making a mistake.— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 1, 2015
But does this emphasis on Jenner’s beauty suggest that her value, that her validity, as a woman lies in her cisnormative looks?
Does the way that Jenner is portrayed—model-esque, gorgeous (which she has every right to be and look like)—perpetuate the notion of beauty being the primary, or even singular, marker of a woman’s worth?
Does Jenner’s image and the celebration of said image suggest that a trans person cannot hope to be accepted, to any degree comparable to Jenner’s, if he/she does not possess the beauty ideal imposed upon his/her chosen gender?
And finally, are we compelling trans women to fit themselves into some small margin of acceptability, instead of widening our notion of “femininity” or “femaleness” in a way that benefits all women?
@Jewles My critique isn't of HER, it's of US.— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) June 1, 2015
Laverne Cox has captured the dilemma between celebrating this moment and questioning it:
“I must echo these comments in the vernacular, ‘Yasss Gawd! Werk Caitlyn! Get it!’ But this has made me reflect critically on my own desires to ‘work a photo shoot,’ to serve up of the various sides of my black, trans womanhood.”
Meredith Talusan of The Guardian asked “Do you applaud Caitlyn Jenner because she’s brave, or because she’s pretty?” She continues:
“The financial resources and medical procedures that enabled Jenner’s beauty are inaccessible to the vast majority of trans women, who remain one of the poorest demographic groups in the country even as so many of us are in need of expensive medical
It’s something to consider. We need to be willing to engage in open conversation, and hope for a wider public representation of trans people in days to come.