The 65-year-old’s glamorous debut of her female self in the Hollywood glossy is just that: glamorous, Hollywood, and glossy. And this is why.
When I saw the new Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, I’ll admit I was uncomfortable.
Not because of Jenner’s transformation. What she does is frankly none of anyone’s business, even in the face of this New Me tour she seems to be taking. I was personally uncomfortable because of the many other questions the picture brought up, questions about aging and Hollywood and the image we choose to present of ourselves. Do our attempts to reveal how we see ourselves actually hide who we really are? I looked at the cover and honestly wasn’t sure what Jenner or the huge PR machine fueling her reveal wants me to see.
Because I’ll be frank: The first thing I was drawn to was the tuck. During her infamous interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner noted that no sex-reaassignment procedures had occurred, so I assume tucking for the picture was the option. Annie Leibovitz, iconic portrait photographer, is no fool and I’d bet money the intention was to confront the viewer directly, drawing the eye to the crotch placed directly below the stark headline. It’s a bold move, not only from the magazine’s perspective but also in what it says about Jenner’s approach to this process. She imagines herself in a very specific way, and that image is obviously not swanning about in a muumuu like Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.
Of course it helps that her vision is abetted by a team of stylists, makeup artists, and a world-class photographer with unlimited photoshop at her disposal. How Leibovitz applied it (presumably with Jenner’s approval) is itself revealing. It’s a coin toss on her face, what with all the cosmetic facial surgery, Botox, and lip fillers previously discussed on various reality shows. Hands are infamously gender and age specific so they’re sensibly hidden. Her new bust is closer to that of a 30-year-old woman than of a 65-year-old woman, although that’s probably not noteworthy in her tony hometown of Malibu. It’s really only in her upper arms that offer any hint of time, and that brief exposure only highlights the rest of the Hollywood glamour.
All of it aims for a 1950s pin-up moment. It would not have been surprising to see Jenner laying on a bale of hay in homage to Jane Russell, her eyes and slight smirk seducing the viewer. It’s a stylistic choice that not only speaks of Jenner’s age and the ideals of her generation but also of the iconic allure of the Old Hollywood siren. The attempt at an hourglass figure with the cinched waist and cone bra seems almost anachronistic. I could easily believe Jenner’s new self-image is an idealized vamp cribbed from old movies. I look closer and the image seems more familiar, right down to the carefully hidden hands. Are we to believe that Caitlyn Jenner really wants to be … Madonna?
Look, I get it. When anyone finally reveals a secret they’ve been suppressing for years, the immediate instinct is elation followed by oversharing. On the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, Sam Waterson brilliantly plays the newly out husband who emphatically insists on informing everyone he knows that he and Martin Sheen’s character are partners—IN THAT WAY. All your life you dream about flying and one day you have wings so all you want to do is talk about feathers. Kudos for Caitlyn for having millions of dollars at her disposal and a rapt audience being trained to devour all the wing-related minutia of her life.
To that end, this reveal has been a success, and the choice of Vanity Fair over other magazines hints at the intention. An LGBT publication such as The Advocate would have seemed to be a more logical choice, burnishing Jenner’s trans cred and certainly pointing to a more activist role. VF, vaunted as it is, lays the groundwork for more a cinematic telling of this story, perhaps directed by Douglas Sirk and starring some esteemed Hollywood actress. Indeed, the internet is abuzz, comparing Jenner’s appearance to Jessica Lange, which is no small feat although Jenner’s handlers might balk at a woman her age playing a woman her age.
It’s easy to conflate the honest and personal struggle Caitlyn and other trans people have gone through with the feel-good dramedy we’re being fed. To not separate the two seems to do a great disservice to, well, everyone. It glosses over the reality of trans icons like Renee Richards and Marsha P. Johnson—women who weren’t afforded the glamour of a cover model. It’s also slowly closing the window for Caitlyn Jenner to seem more accessible than a swimsuit model, someone whose passion shows in more than just her hair.
So while I fully support Caitlyn’s journey, I’m not ignorant to the fact this is a very carefully orchestrated reveal, supported by Jenner’s celebrity and the money behind her. It’s driven by the media’s recognition that the public loves to devour palatable stories that affirm their tentative grasp of a minority. I think it’s safe to say that the first time most trans people reveal their new identity does not warrant a magazine cover. I want to believe that for Jenner this whole process resonates deeper but so far I’m afraid I’m only seeing a Material Girl.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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