Since coming out as transgender, the internet has welcomed Caitlyn Jenner with open arms. She gained a million followers on Twitter in four hours, had a Vanity Fair cover shoot, released a trailer for her new reality show on E!, and has been praised for being beautiful.
The last part, however, has provoked controversy. It’s only been a few days, yet Jenner has already been reduced from famous athlete and savvy reality star to being just a pretty face.
Jenner is being heralded as beautiful from all corners of the internet. A staunch Republican, Olympic gold-medal winner and current reality star, Jenner is broadening the range of those who are being exposed to trans* people.
People who were previously unaware of transgender issues have now seen Jenner’s struggles, which will perhaps make them more sympathetic.
But the treatment of Jenner is problematic because it shows how pervasive the male gaze and cisgender standards of beauty are in the media. Essentially, in coming out as female, the reaction to Jenner has been to emphasise her beauty rather than her personality, and this is worrying as many trans* people – and especially trans* women – do not have these privileges.
Jenner is privileged: she has money and can afford feminising facial surgery. She can better conform to the accepted standard of beauty because she has the money to pay for it.
In focusing on how successful these surgeries were, and how feminine Jenner looks, the media sends the message that it will only accept trans* people who look a certain way.
Since Jenner has worn make-up and a corset on the cover of Vanity Fair, she is now accepted as a woman. She has given the world an image of her that corresponds with its image of women, so we accept her femininity.
But Jenner has always been a woman. As Meredith Talusan points out in The Guardian, “Jenner was just as much of a woman a month ago during her Diane Sawyer interview in a blue button-down as she is today in a white corset.”
Even the story of Jenner’s transition is framed in terms that re-enforce the gender binary, and if this becomes the norm for how we see gender-variant people then where does that leave people who are neither cisgender nor transgender, but non-binary, agender or something else entirely?
The standards of beauty we have are inherently cisnormative. They are ideas we have of cisgender women, which we just extend to trans* women without regard for whether they fit or not.
The problem trans* women often face is they are read as being too “masculine”, as if their outward appearance affects their gender. Not having the money or access to healthcare is a huge barrier to being accepted as their true gender, and can even be dangerous.
Transgender people are disproportionately affected by issues like poverty, mental health problems, discrimination and murder. The Trans Murder Monitoring Project reports over 1,700 murders of trans* and non-binary people since 2008, and that doesn’t include the thousands more who have gone unreported or been lost to suicide.
Jenner has had problems with the media speculating on her gender and spreading hurtful stories, but she has never had to worry about not having the money to make people see her as female. It will be interesting to see if she uses her platform to speak about issues that affect the trans* community at large.
We need to be careful not to hold up Jenner as a pinnacle of transgender womanhood. Just like no one person can speak for any entire group, we can’t expect her to represent everyone trans* in its entirety.
To do so undermines all the struggling trans* men and non-binary people who are not represented in culture, and glosses over the plight of trans* women who don’t have the same level of privilege.
Jenner’s honesty in her transition is important and brave. Here’s hoping she opens the doors for even wider representation.