On Problems with the Bruce Jenner Media Coverage


Update: While I haven’t watched interview, Bruce Jenner did reveal that he* is indeed a woman, to overwhelming support. I’m impressed to hear that he used what many are calling a watershed moment in trans visibility to bring attention to the violence and struggles that the trans community — especially trans people of color — experiences on a daily basis in our society. 

*Jenner requests to be referred to with male pronouns while he transitions, until an undisclosed future date. 

IT’S NO BIG SECRET that the minute you become “famous,” you can kiss your rights to a private life goodbye. Like a pack of vultures outfitted with zoom-equipped DSLRs, the media are always circling, ready to document your every move and speculate with wild abandon about every facet of your life, from your diet to your relationships to what goes on in your bedroom. The majority of people who become celebrities have to deal with a life lived in the public eye, and many go about doing it as best they can. It comes with the territory of fame, especially in the United States, where we treat celebrities like gods one moment and then demonize them the next. Just because that’s the reality we’re working with and they’re living in doesn’t mean it can’t be horrifically damaging, though — and not just to the person under the scrutiny of the media at the moment, but to an entire group of people who are already severely disadvantaged when it comes to media coverage, in the case of Bruce Jenner and the trans community.

To be completely clear, I am in no way claiming that Bruce Jenner is trans, or is in the process of transitioning from male to female. He’s the only one who can attest to his gender identity, and he’s refuted claims and speculations that he’s transitioning time and again. Apparently, American media know better than Jenner does, since that hasn’t stopped them from claiming the contrary. There are the countless stories featured in such prestigious “publications,” like The National Enquirer and Star, documenting his every wardrobe and aesthetic choice and speculating on supposed surgeries he might have undergone as sure signs that he is transitioning. Not to be outdone in the how-spurious-can-we-get department, InTouch featured an article that ran in Januray titled “Bruce’s Story: My Life as a Woman” – in which they had the audacity to actually Photoshop his image to make him look more feminine. And tomorrow night, Diane Sawyer will be interviewing Jenner on 20/20. The teasers (read: made-for-TV clickbait) ABC has released, featuring sound bites of Jenner saying “my whole life has been getting me ready for this” and “I can’t let myself hurt [my family]” — keeping Jenner’s face hidden the entire time, mind you – imply in no uncertain terms that Jenner will be talking about his transition on air. If ABC’s projected ratings for the special can be taken to mean anything, which will number in the tens of millions, the American public is eating it up. It’s just dying to find out, isn’t it? Is he becoming a woman? Or not? We need to know!

This really bears repeating: the only person who should be concerned about figuring out Bruce Jenner’s gender identity is Bruce Jenner. It’s none of the rest of the world’s damn business. Maybe he’ll spend the entirety of the two-hour special talking with Diane Sawyer about the ins-and-outs of his transition, and maybe he’ll tell her that America is trippin’ and spend the night boring her with talk about his love for remote-controlled helicopters and race cars. It’s his identity and his prerogative. To be honest, I’m not that worried about him. From what I’ve seen, he’s got the money and resources to live an extremely comfortable life — as a man, woman, or whatever point on the gender identity spectrum he decides he falls on (which is not something that the majority of people, trans or otherwise, can boast, if we’re being honest) .

What does worry me is the way that speculation about Jenner’s supposed transition is playing out in the media. The past year or so has seen great progress made in mainstream visibility of the trans community, thanks to people like Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black fame, activist and author Janet Mock, and actor Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a retired college professor transitioning to female in Transparent. The trans community has also been making legal headway; it’s been included in the Affordable Care Act across the nation, and Chelsea Manning, who is currently incarcerated for sharing classified military documents on Wikileaks, recently won a court case ordering the U.S. Military to allow her to continue her hormone therapy even whilst imprisoned. The increased visibility of the trans community has shed a lot of light on the issues that trans people face on a day-to-day basis, and has sparked valuable discussion about inequality when it comes to the rights and privileges that different communities get to enjoy in American society. The majority of the discussion of Jenner’s supposed transition couldn’t be further from that, though, since it’s mostly found in gossip rags like Us Weekly and InTouch. As Kat Callahan over at Jezebel asks: “If we’re going to talk about this, do we really have to put transition on the same sleazy tabloid level as cheating celebrity spouses and who has developed a drug habit? The whole exposé style is pretty insulting to trans folks.”

Furthermore, obsessing over whether Jenner got his Adam’s apple surgically altered or not, and speculating on other surgeries or procedures he may or may not have done, proves that the media — and the public at large — still can’t help but fetishize trans bodies. It’s ignorant, objectifying, and dehumanizing; you can’t get more objectifying than making a trans person’s identity hinge on body parts alone and not on the myriad other factors that go about defining and influencing someone’s identity. Finding a way to navigate your gender identity and end up in a place where you feel comfortable and good about yourself, whether that includes growing out your hair and nails and calling it a day or undergoing gender reassignment surgery, is hard enough without being made to feel as if you’re a sideshow freak or that you have this dirty secret that needs to be shared with the world against your will.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to skip the interview tomorrow night — I’m not keen on being part of an audience sitting there with bated breath, secretly hoping for a spectacle to unfold. I am hoping that if Jenner decides to address the transition rumors, he takes the media to task for the way they’ve dealt with the speculation and for the ignorant way they’ve been dealing with trans issues. Whether or not he addresses the rumors, though, is really beside the point. He’s already made one thing patently clear: the American media and public have a long way to go when it comes to their attitudes toward transition and the trans community.

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