There has been a lot of stir (already dying down now) about Caitlyn Jenner making her debut in her new body and with her new name, which she appears to feel are finally in line with her mind after all of these years.
I follow many intersectional and anti-racist feminist thinkers and groups online and read about others in books and news articles – most of them have felt compelled to comment in one way or another on Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair unveiling. As I am making an effort to critically think about and share my thoughts about these increasingly relevant and important and talked-about occurrences, I thought I would add my small voice to the online conversation.
My thoughts on Jenner’s move are, in short, these: She has done what is fulfilling for her in a way that allows her millions of fans to be aware of this change in her appearance and name, and I think that those are good things.
When I consider the conversations that have occurred, I return to a recurring thought that I have after having studied gender, race, sexuality, and social justice, and in my own non-academic life: There is no 100%, sure-fire, make-everyone-happy way to do anything, particularly in circles of critical, feminist thinkers.
That’s a good thing!
Critically analyzing events and approaching them with an intersectional frame of mind (intersectionality: the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination) challenges us to not take information at face value, and to consider the deeper meanings and implications of what we have seen, heard, or done. It can be mentally tiring to think of the world this way on a regular basis, but it is important to do so because it makes us more able to connect with others because we do not merely assume that our experiences are the same as someone else’s. Further, we become more complex and empathetic to others by allowing ourselves to open up to new ways of knowing, living, thinking, and experiencing the world.
Sometimes, it seems that the tendency to think this way leads to a nearly constant problematization of the whole world, and no event can escape our minds unscathed by considerations of all of the ways it could have a negative impact. This is where I have found myself frustrated by certain conversations about Caitlyn Jenner. An incredibly wealthy, famous, and Caucasian individual choosing to transition is not a representative experience of most trans* individuals. For that reason, the publicity received by Jenner and the widespread praise are difficult to embrace by anyone who has struggled with similar or related experiences.
Despite the unlikely circumstances of being able to transition in a very expensive and widely-praised manner, Jenner’s experience is her own and is one unique experience in the world that happens to be very public as well. While I do not think that Jenner should be the standard of what trans* individual is expected to be, I think that the publicity of what a transition entails for one individual is important in normalizing the experience and concept of transitioning/transgressing overall. An individual who was born in the most privileged body there is – a White male’s – chose to act on a life-long knowledge that the body they were born into was not the one that matched their mind and spirit, and left that incongruent body behind to pursue greater self-fulfillment.
Jenner’s transition does not represent the extremely diverse range of transitions that many individuals go through, but it is an example of one person’s multi-decade struggle with the feeling that their body is not the one that will lead to maximizing her sense of wholeness.
While we cannot assume that all experiences will be the same based on this one example – in the way someone looks when transitioning, what it means to transition, how easy it is for someone to transition in a practical and psychological sense – I think that it is important to embrace it. Embrace the conversations that have started, the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner expressed by so many, and the figure that many other, younger trans* or queer individuals can look to and think, “She did what was right for her, maybe I can do what is right for me.” Those things are worth embracing, I think. The only downfall could be that Caitlyn Jenner assumes her experience is representative of all experiences, or that she does not embrace the powerful position she is in to make change possible for so many others who do not share her resources in life.
My hope is that Caitlyn will take full advantage of her powerful new role as a figure in the trans* community, which has been thrust upon her by virtue of being in the spotlight, and make life better for many others who have struggled, are struggling, and will struggle.