Caitlyn Jenner, Trans-Exclusionary Feminists, and the Artifacts of Femininity

Ever since Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, it’s clear that the current media agreed upon reaction is some version of “saying a lot of nice things to look like we’re not transphobic.” It’s better than some of the other options, I suppose, but it smacks of hollowness to me.

However, there are some feminists who are not down with this reaction. The internet calls feminists who refuse to acknowledge the gender identities of trans women “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” or “TERF”s. “TERF” is sort of supposed to be a degrading term, and perhaps there’s some wisdom there to help protect trans women from whatever bile they’re spewing. However, if we completely ignore what they’re saying, we’re missing something important. At the heart of all the nastiness that comes up is essentially this message:

I have suffered so much pain for being female that I resent those who have not suffered this pain.

There is pain, there is a real pain, at being female in this society. And, trans women know that just as well as cis women do. However, sometimes recently transitioned trans women do not know this, and I think it is these recently transitioned women who capture both the public’s fascination and the TERF’s ire.

When I look at Caityln Jenner, I don’t see a woman yet. I see a 13 year old girl still working to find herself. I see someone rejoicing in her first taste of womanhood, happily oblivious to the shit society is going to smack down on her. I see someone who hasn’t had to deal with the pain those trans-exclusionary feminists are talking about. But she will, and probably more than the normal share, since she is also trans.

One of my friends wrote an article on how Caitlyn Jenner is high femme where she calls out people negging on Caitlyn’s gender presentation.

And, while she makes some good points on femme-phobia, I get why people are getting upset with the media portrayal of Jenner. Here are a few images gleaned from the googles of how Caitlyn is being portrayed:

You’ll notice that all of these images are ripe with the artifacts of femininity — dresses, lingerie, red nails, cosmetics. I actually think this media portrayal of Caitlyn is highly problematic, because while being superficially respectful of of her gender identity, they are also highlighting the supposed artificiality of it. The ones of her doing her makeup, in particular, are a trans-feminine trope used to de-legitimize the gender of trans women by implying that it is “painted” on. There is a nasty underlying message that Jenner needs the help of these objects to be female, and people are responding to that implication, without fully conceptualizing that it has been created by the photographers and is not Jenner’s true identity.

Jenner likely allows this because she is still fascinated with the artifacts of femininity herself. Many women go through this “artifact” phase; you can smell the perfume on a typical teenage girl from two blocks away. This is a totally normal part of inhabiting femininity in American society, and not something that in any way should be used to attack Jenner’s gender, either overtly or implicitly. However, there is a deeper side of this that needs to be addressed; part of why teenage girls inhabit this “artifact” femininity is, essentially, that they have been effectively marketed to.

I hate to link to an ad to exemplify this, but I think Dove did a fair job at capturing the vibe I’m going for here:

In Scoffold’s article, she calls out people who accuse Jenner of embracing an “impossible beauty standard that is being shoved down our throat,” and calling her nothing but a “feminine stereotype.” However, how would we look at a teenager who exhibited similar levels of artifactual femininity? Well, truthfully, we’d probably roast her alive like Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears. But, in an ideal world, I’d like to think we’d have a level of compassion for her, understanding that she needs time to find herself, while also perhaps some sadness and some pain as we see her grappling with some of the harmful messages on gender that she’s absorbed. And, in an ideal world, I think we’d hold Jenner in the same light — on the one hand, respecting her gender identity while also acknowledging the fact that she is still becoming in an hostile environment. I think those people are right to complain about these feminine stereotypes, but their anger is inappropriately directed toward Jenner. Instead, it needs to be directed toward the media, toward advertisements and cosmetics companies. These are the entities that hold the true blame for this “impossible beauty standard.”

Another issue that is coming up with Jenner is that she doesn’t look like a teenage girl. She looks like a mature woman, the type of woman we’d expect to hold gender wisdom. How can we express femininity in a culture that continuously idolizes and disrespects it? How can we legitimize authentic expression of something that has been so heavily exploited for commercial gain? These are important questions women have to answer for ourselves, to express the important parts of who we are in a world that routinely celebrates only the superficial. And, we instinctively look to mature woman to see how they have coped with it and some of us feel anger at Jenner because she doesn’t know, because her values are immature.

But, how could someone who has been female for less than a month hold mature values on femininity? She is not there yet. That is ok. And yet, we are aching for a wisdom that points to the deeper aspects of being female, that goes beyond this commercial bullshit. Women are aching to know who they are in a world where the conventional demands and meaning of femininity has become radically altered. Jenner isn’t ready to shed light on these topics yet, but I think some other trans women are.

I’ll leave you with this video from Laverne Cox, who has constantly impressed me with her her wisdom and compassion, in spite of— or, more likely, because of — her high-femme presentation.

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