Monday, 29 June 2015

Trans feminism, Caitlyn Jenner, and Representation

Despite increased recognition and support for the rights of transgender people, certain groups of cisgender feminists continue to oppose the rights of trans people, and trans women in particular. Such opposition centres upon the claim that trans women shore up normative gender binaries. This claim results in a refusal on the part of those who most recently have been referred to as ‘trans exclusionary feminists’ to recognise trans women as women. A primary focus upon such opposition, however, renders invisible a range of other issues that are central to both feminism and trans people’s lives.

There are, of course, many forms of feminism that are trans inclusive. Nonetheless, whilst trans inclusive feminisms are arguably more common than those that are exclusionary, the lives of trans people are still yet to be fully treated as a central focus of feminist thought in terms of gender and power.  As such, recent trans feminist theorising has made an important intervention into this lack of attention to trans issues (and more broadly cisgenderism) within feminism.

A key recent example of the importance of trans feminist thought is evidenced through responses to the high profile media coverage of the life of Caitlyn Jenner, specifically with regard to her cover issue of Vanity Fair. From some quarters there has been significant (trans misogynistic) opposition to the recognition of Jenner. From other quarters there has been acknowledgement of Jenner, though this has been accompanied by critiques of the focus upon her journey at the expense of the journeys of other trans women.

More specifically, this critique of the focus on Jenner has emphasised the attention paid to trans women whose femininity is viewed by others as normative. Such a critique has questioned why attention is not equally paid to women who do not normatively conform to conventional femininities, as demonstrated by the hashtag #TransIsBeautiful. Furthermore, as Janet Mock writes, while Jenner’s public transitioning should be celebrated, her privilege in regards to whiteness and existing visibility in the media (which is inaccessible to most trans people) needs to be acknowledged.

A trans feminist account, however, such as that elaborated by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl, challenges cisgender people to engage with the space between exclusion from representation and a critique of normativity. Such an exploration would challenge cisgender people to hold in tension 1) the forms of cisgenderism that might encourage some trans women to believe they are best served by approximating a norm of femininity, 2) the legitimacy of trans women – like all women – determining their own engagement with norms of femininity, and 3) a critical interrogation of how all people are interpolated into gender norms.

To think about media representations of Jenner (and indeed her own representations, such as on Twitter), then, is to think about what a trans feminist lens might offer us in terms of a critique of representationality, without resorting to the dismissal or exclusion of Jenner’s own embodied femininity. As Emi Koyama suggests in her Transfeminist Manifesto, “It is not contradictory to fight against the institutional enforcement of rigid gender roles while simultaneously advocating for individuals' rights to choose how they live in order to feel safe and comfortable” (252).

What we might suggest, then, is that one of the issues at stake is how trans women’s appearance is made to matter, and how it is treated as a valid point of critique by some. Serano suggests that trans women are often subject to comments on, and critiques of, their appearance in ways that would be considered anti-feminist and marginalizing if applied to cisgender women. Serano suggests that there is a significant difference between affirming someone’s gender identity, and engaging in commentary about a trans person’s appearance that suggests appearance should matter. Laverne Cox  further suggests that being chastised for having ‘passing privilege’ can occur alongside being subjected on a daily basis to trans misogyny.

In the case of Jenner, it hardly seems reasonable to hold her up to interrogation or ridicule, given she is but one of many hundreds (if not thousands) of women who have appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. The narrative provided in her story and the accompanying photographs are not inherently exceptional in terms of the broader style of stories and photographs that have appeared in Vanity Fair over the years. Treating Jenner’s appearance as exceptional, then, is itself questionable.

At the same time, however, a trans feminist approach might encourage us all to think about what is exceptional about Jenner’s profile in Vanity Fair. Exceptional is, perhaps, the recognition of trans women, recognition that has widely been denied to trans people across many media outlets. Whilst there are limits to how much we might want to hail Jenner’s appearance in Vanity Fair as a victory for trans rights, at the same time it would seem unfortunate to dismiss the importance of the recognition it can produce.

Finally, the representation of femininity provided in the Vanity Fair spread on Jenner highlights an issue that requires ongoing attention from feminist thinkers. As Ulrika Dahl has suggested, for too long the ‘femme’ within feminism has been derided. Whilst Dahl does not suggest the simplistic recouping of femme presentation without a feminist critique of gender and power, to dismiss the representation of any woman (and here in the case of Jenner) as ‘too femme’ would itself be anti-feminist. 

Posted by: Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus
Flinders University
Adelaide, South Australia

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