The media portrayal of Caitlyn Jenner is problematic because it perpetuates several cissexist ideas about transgender people, and cisnormative ideas about beauty and femininity. I want to preface this by stating I have nothing against Jenner personally, but I can’t help but recognise that her experience of transition is not as universal as the media would have us believe, and I can’t help but see that her financial situation and whiteness massively privilege her over the majority of the other transgender people on the planet, particularly trans women of colour and poor trans people.
In a world in which our absolute and only goal in life is expected to be ‘passing for cisgender’, she burst into the newspapers having transitioned – transformed, even – completely. She is a media darling because, where so many of us don’t fit the cisgender-person-shaped mould that we are expected to force ourselves into, she meets the societally acceptable standards of femininity and beauty that mean she is ‘a worthy trans person’. She’s white, she’s slim, she has the ‘right’ amount of chest, hips and cheekbones. Many transgender women are never going to look ‘like cisgender women’ – hell, there are many cisgender women who don’t fit that narrow description! But Jenner has had the ‘right’ surgeries and the ‘right’ amount to make her look acceptably ‘feminine’.
There’s this idea that trans women were men and are now women (and conversely, that trans men were women who are now men); among the people who accept us for the gender we say we are, at least. Suddenly, Jenner appeared on the cover of a magazine as Caitlyn with no sign of the steps that got her there – not that she owed us those, of course! But the way her transition has been reported is the only palatable way for the cisgender media and society in general to cope with us. She “was a man”, she “had a sex change” and “became a woman” completely. There was no in-between. There was just man and then woman and never the twain should meet.
This ignores many truths. That for many transgender people, medical transition simply isn’t possible for financial, social or health reasons. That pre-medical-transition and non-medical-transition transgender people are just as valid in the genders we identify with as anyone who’s been through ‘the full change’. That many of us are never going to ‘look cisgender’ no matter how hard we try (or don’t – the point is that we shouldn’t have to). That many of us are not doing a straight binary swap from one presentation to the other, that non-binary, genderqueer, and other gender-nonconforming transgender people exist. That it’s not always the case that transgender people want only one thing in life: for people to think we are cisgender.
We need to change this narrative that implies that transgender people want nothing more than to ‘pass’ as cisgender. That’s such a ridiculous concept; what exactly does a cisgender person look like? What is generally meant is that we are supposed to desire a result where nobody would ever guess our assigned sex at birth. Wouldn’t it be better, though, if instead of struggling to attain near-impossible standards of acceptable appearance, we changed the world which applies ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ to perfectly innocuous features of the human face and body? If we could redefine what it means to ‘look like a man’ and ‘look like a woman’? A transgender woman will (and should, to the world) always look like a woman, because she is a woman. Even if she chooses to avoid medical transition and grows herself a beard, she will still look like a woman, because that is what she is.
Sadly, we live in a world where people would tell my hypothetical transgender woman that she ‘looks like a man’ because we’re drip-fed gendered norms from the moment we’re born. Aged four, my son called a cisgender man “she” because he had long hair. This is not an unusual mistake for a small child (or even an older person) to make, because from a young age we are taught that this feature means man, this one means woman. Infants pretty much all look the same, they certainly don’t have features that can easily be gendered. Yet my son, when he was a baby, was “strong” and “handsome” when read as a boy, and “delicate” and “pretty” when read as a girl. People internalise these false ideas that certain features indicate certain genders so much that the same baby was described in totally opposite ways by different people, based on nothing more than whether I’d dressed him in purple or brown that day.
This is my problem with the Caitlyn Jenner situation. Her transition was received with overwhelming positivity by the media and society in general (although naturally not everyone ‘approved’) and I wonder how well she would have been received were she not slim, white, and above all, ‘pretty’ by cisnormative standards. I wonder how well she would have been received had she come out at the beginning of her transition, before she had undergone the hormonal and surgical treatment which helped her to ‘pass as a woman’ according to cisgender people’s flawed ideals. I’d like to see a shift in the general perception of what it means to look like a man, and what it means to look like a woman, so that instead of being expected to spend our lives chasing the fallacious concept of ‘passing’, we can just be accepted for who we are without question.