Why the Caitlyn Jenner conversation is crucial

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name and sexy look in a Vanity Fair cover shoot - drawing a smashing Twitter record. (Frazer harrison/Getty Images North America/AFP)

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name and sexy look in a Vanity Fair cover shoot - drawing a smashing Twitter record. (Frazer harrison/Getty Images North America/AFP)

Why the overwhelming support for the transition of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, from one sex to another?

The big reveal of the former Olympian and reality TV star basically broke Twitter when Vanity Fair tweeted a picture of Jenner, who graces the cover of their latest issue. Twitter exploded when people saw the transition complete. Reactions were mixed, but it’s unfair to say that the mix was balanced. There were more messages of congratulations, admiration and support, for a variety of reasons, than there were negative ones.

Of course, as it is with most things that are negative, it isn’t necessary to rub salt in the wound, so to speak – not that this is one of those situations.

Transitioning is a sensitive subject, it is emotionally and physically challenging. It’s a brave decision to make and those who have the courage to do so should be proud, as Jenner is. Naturally, there is little mainstream understanding for this sort of thing. The topic of gender is often misunderstood, contested and sometimes despised. We’re only ever a stone’s throw from a hate crime exercised against someone who does not conform to some age-old idea of what men and women look like and what they do. Then, of course, there’s the science versus religion debate. But that’s a whole other column.

Is there something about Caitlyn?
Point is, words hurt, and often just one hurtful sentiment by one person is enough to create an outrage, and rightfully so. So it’s nice that this time the misunderstandings, misconceptions and criticisms were, if not held to account, at least drowned out by the opposite.

However, several questions spring to mind. This is not the first time the world has encountered a change like this. We’ve seen it happen before. It’s been called contentious, it’s raised many hackles causing it to fade with humiliation into the background. With this specific instance, I found that where there was a lack of support for Jenner, even those were voiced more constructively – except of course in the case of Fox news.

Have we just become better at talking about this? Was it a communication issue before? Has the embedding of societal norms and gender roles finally been excavated from the grave where people who are other go to die? Or is there something about Jenner that sets her apart from the rest?

Some are naturally predisposed and educated enough to understand, support and empathise with this sort of thing. Even so, there are certain things over and above that that feed into this support.

Aesthetics and congratulations
It’s natural for human beings to like some things and people more than others. This isn’t some factual scientific statement. I’m basing it entirely on the fact that I am human and I know that about myself, (if this is unique to me then please excuse the blanket nature of the statement).

But, it is, admittedly, for this reason that my already existing support for Jenner was amplified. Fame did play a role. No, I was not of the opinion that, “this is a famous person, famous people must be supported at all costs because … celebrities”. But I am referring to the kind of effects that Jenner’s fame afforded her.

Her appearance on the Kardashian reality show provided some sense of insight into the person – however shallow. But for a viewer, this is a degree of relation to a real person with real feelings and real circumstances – again, however shallow, and it is. But it is also true. This, along with the extensive media coverage, whether it was tabloid or a more trustworthy source of opinion, did give me sense of knowing who this person was, how she felt and what she was facing in terms of her challenges, the public reaction and her family. It made me feel like I know her. It amplified my empathy and support that already existed. It amplified my support and admiration for her bravery.

But it’s not all about courage, is it? Not for everyone – and this is obvious from most of the responses. For a lot of people, it is because of the results of this transition. Not that they were successful medically. Not that she perhaps overcame a lot of the side effects of the treatments she had to endure, the phases in between that must have been uncomfortable. But because the outcome is that Jenner is aesthetically pleasing.

She fits comfortably and quite successfully into that other norm – the one that makes women more appealing because they are beautiful. And she is. She is beautiful in an aesthetically pleasing way, which is marketable, thus the cover of Vanity Fair. And it seems that that is deserving of all the congratulations in the world,.

Pretty doesn’t hurt
This, instead of the gender debate, enters the realm of the sex debate, and the stereotypes that cage them. It opens up the debate to think critically about how we think about Jenner.

It forces us to revise whether we’re supportive because she is a neatly packaged transgender woman who fits into a box titled “standards of beauty”; she dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s in that department. Are we celebrating her transition? Or are we celebrating the fact that she can be considered a woman as we understand a woman to be … because she is attractive? And when she was faced with adversity when the grey area in her transition subjected her to a multitude of insults because she was regarded as less attractive, did we support her as much? I can’t measure this, but I would like to know how many people changed their minds from before to between and after.

Women as a sex have faced the disparagement of not being good enough to match conventional beauty standards, or maintain them. And when they do, that’s often all that counts in their favour. We’re trying to move away from this view, not only as women but hopefully as a society, but unfortunately, in many respects, that’s where it’s at.

Considering gender, for a transgender woman where the aesthetic outcome is largely unknown, reference Beyoncé: pretty does not hurt. In fact, it gets you on the cover of Vanity Fair, a magazine that heavily subscribes to the conventional standards of beauty.

Until that changes, we need to ask ourselves whether Jenner would have made it on to the cover had the end result of her treatment been that of her between phase to becoming a woman? And would we be as endeared to her as we are now?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is the social media accounts director at Ogilvy PR. She was previously the deputy digital news editor and social media editor at the Mail & Guardian. Haji has an honours degree in journalism from the University of Stellenbosch and continues to write columns for the M&G. Read more from Haji Mohamed Dawjee


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