Caitlyn Jenner made her bold debut on the cover of Vanity Fair this week. While we’ve talked on the Ms. Blog about privilege and trans identity and the incorrect conflation of gender identity and sexual orientation, we haven’t addressed the choice of image on Jenner’s cover and in the pages of the magazine.
While we celebrate Jenner’s jubilant emergence as her “true self,” as she described it, we’ve wondered about the choice to present her in a hyper-sexualized fashion. Showcasing Jenner’s body—mostly bare in a style reminiscent of a cover girl pin-up calendar—reinforces the notion that a woman’s primary value is her sexual desirability, and erases all trace of Jenner’s athletic, business and other achievements.
In fact, as Rhonda Garelick wrote in The New York Times, the Vanity Fair cover exemplifies what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she said “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.” Citing the “innumerable embellishments, codes of behavior and self-censoring acts required by femininity,” Garelick critiques the compulsory sexualization of femininity.
While the fanfare around the emergence of Caitlyn may advance our acceptance of transgender individuals, it does so, in this case, at a price: the perpetuation, even celebration, of narrow and dehumanizing strictures of womanhood sustained by the fashion and entertainment industries. True liberation of gender’s vast spectrum should ask more of us than that we simply exchange one uncomfortable, oppressive identity for another.
Her critique is similar to that of trans actor and activist Laverne Cox who, following the release of Jenner’s cover, reflected back on her own 2014 magazine cover appearance:
A year ago when my TIME magazine cover came out I saw posts from many trans folks saying that I am ‘drop dead gorgeous’ and that that doesn’t represent most trans people … But what I think they meant is that in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.
As Jon Stewart so astutely pointed out on The Daily Show, Jenner is being treated “like a woman” in the truest sense. Take a look at the video below for more.