Let me get this straight. Former Olympic gold medal athlete and reality show star Bruce Jenner, 65, transitions to a woman named Caitlyn and immediately poses in a corset for the cover of Vanity Fair.
Et tu, Caitlyn?
I think it’s messed up. Most 65-year-old women I know, many of whom not only look fabulous, but do interesting, powerful, vibrant things with their lives, would not feel comfortable or even be interested in conforming to this airbrushed pinup version of femininity.
I wish Caitlyn Jenner had done something truly revolutionary and posed for the Vanity Fair cover in, I don’t know, flats, leggings and a nice lace top. I wish she had looked the way most women look. That truly would have been courageous.
Don’t get me wrong, the corset is lovely as such undergarments go. The stunning photo, by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz (who so far as I know dresses almost exclusively in narrow black jeans and a black tee or white shirt) will sell more covers than the magazine has in years.
And Jenner has every right to publicize and document her gender journey. A tell-all interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in April drew 17 million viewers. In the interview, Jenner confessed that even while winning a gold medal as a male athlete, being in a male-assigned body caused confusion and dismay.
Caitlyn’s new Twitter account drew more than a million followers in just over four hours — a world record. She’s filming a new reality show. But if you’re going to help with an awareness campaign about transgender men and women — Jenner has said she wants to change the world — why conform to an ages-old female fantasy?
Why telegraph the message that to finally be what you have always longed to be — a woman — is to be posed, plucked, airbrushed and as flawlessly ready to be photographed in your underwear as any pinup girl was in 1945? This was before feminism told us that women were more than the sum of their body parts.
Back then, women struggled to find their place in a male-dominated world that valued how you looked to the male gaze over everything else.
Many feminist writers wrote movingly about feeling like “female impersonators” instead of themselves, trussed up in high heels and confiningly sexy outfits, some of which hampered their ability to move (say in case of a fire. Oh wait, a male fireman could rescue you.)
And many, like author Germaine Greer and activist Gloria Steinem (who once did an undercover stint as a Playboy Bunny) wrote passionately about authenticity.
As Greer declared in her fiery 1970 book The Female Eunuch: “Maybe I couldn’t make it. Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice … Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes … I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator …”
Mothers of daughters today say it’s worse. Young women are so fanatically obsessed with how they look, even in candid social media shots, that the thought of looking unglamorous or not hot in even one uploaded photo terrifies them to the point where they snap at each other socially “don’t you dare post that picture, I look fat, ugly, not special enough”. The reality is they glow and look gorgeously like themselves, just fine.
But Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t look like just fine. She has chosen to look like a fantasy, and in doing so she projects a message that is the very opposite of the poignant declaration she made this week, that, when the Vanity Fair cover comes out, “I will finally be free”.
No Caitlyn, you won’t. You have stepped from one prison — male gender identity when you didn’t feel like a man — into another — that of a female stereotype, with the imperative to be hot, glamorous and undressed at a moment’s notice.
I feel sad for Caitlyn. The mirror will consume her, she will pose and pout, stare in amazement at this gorgeous apparition of womanhood that yes, has its place in a woman’s life — who doesn’t want to look glamorous and sexy? — but is not nearly the whole package.
There are some other photos inside that are far more real — Jenner in a silk robe, in a cocktail dress. But of course if you’re a famous woman, even a newly made one, nothing sells a magazine like posing in your scanties. Ask Jennifer Lopez, who at a powerful point in her career, posed in lingerie for the cover of Vanity Fair. My reaction to her then was the same as to Caitlyn: you don’t need to undress to get our attention.
Germaine Greer also wrote that “human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves.” And this of course is what we cannot help but applaud in Caitlyn Jenner.
Go out into the world, dear Caitlyn, and be who you were always meant to be. I just wish it didn’t have to be a female stereotype.
Judith Timson writes weekly about cultural, social and political issues. You can reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @judithtimson