I must admit that when I first heard that a 65 year old man had decided to become a 65 year old woman I was kinda expecting this: As a recent pop song goes :I wasn’t expecting that:
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many 35 year old born-of-and-as-woman in my neck of the woods that quite match those lofty standards. It’s an incredible transformation – and obviously was the primary trending topic on social media the past days.
Now I want to be careful not to use Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as a totem for how everything has changed for good or ill. That’s how the culture wars work. We place icons up to show everyone how good/bad things are becoming – and throw rocks across no-man’s-land (whatever it’s called these days) at the other side. What Jenner does display, at least, is the cultural desire end-game of full self-identification in the face of any social/institutional/religious structures that would say “no”, so it’s a brave move for someone who has struggled with their gender identity for much of their life. But don’t take my word for it, read this exceptional piece by Dan Patterson, who unpacks the theory behind this with an alacrity I could only dream of. I simply want to apply one aspect of what Dan argues.
I must admit that until recently I had never heard of Bruce Jenner. Foreign Olympians – even gold medallists – fade from the memory quickly unless they are Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens (just who did win the synchronised swimming gold at the 2000 Sydney Games? – Sports Tragic Ed). So I went onto his/her Wiki page as both “Bruce Jenner” and “Caitlyn Jenner” take you to the same page. I was impressed. A 1976 gold medal at Decathlon. Ten sports! Ten different disciplines. All telling us what a hugely disciplined person this is. Astonishing and admirable. And with a post-athletics business career on steroids!
And here’s another thing I was impressed by. Wikipedia – in accord with its democratic principle – demonstrates that not only is history being written by the winners, it can be rewritten numbers of time also to smooth out the wrinkles from any 65 year old. What a thing Wiki is. Moveable and malleable; a veritable post-structuralist’s dream. Here’s how Wikipedia describes Jenner’s exploits today (4th June 2015):
“At the Olympic games themselves, Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon, scoring 8,616 points, thereby beating her own world record set at the Olympic Trials”
Yet two days ago (June 2nd 2015) the same Wiki page described Jenner as “identifying as a man Jenner won the gold medal at the decathlon” – to which my original response was, So what? Eight East German men identifying as women probably won gold medals in those games too!”
Notice the smoothing out of the bumps? If we’d ever followed the Wiki trail, Jenner won the 1976 Olympics gold medal first as a man, then identifying as a man, then finally, in her world record effort, as a woman. A huge transformation is it not?
No, not really. Perhaps on the surface. But that’s a botoxed mask of how much the baseline cultural narrative sadly remains the same. Look at that picture of Caitlyn Jenner again. It’s Olympian in its beauty. And as a culture we idolise the cult of youth, beauty and performance. We are Greek to our back, re-enameled, re-straightened teeth. The Olympic ideal is not called that for nothing. It is the world of the Adonis. And if not Adonis, then Aphrodite. And if you so choose, then why not first Adonis then Aphrodite. Everything is malleable, everything is moveable. Everything that is expect our gritty refusal to admit that looks, power, fame and wealth are not what it is all about.
When it comes to true transformation we are fiddling at the edges, kidding ourselves that somehow we are the masters/mistresses of our own change. In reality we are slaves to unchangeable desires beyond our control that sweep us along on deep ocean tides.
That was a brave move by Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, but not as brave as turning out like Mrs Doubtfire for the world to see – that would be truly transformative. The Vanity Fair cover is simply another slap in the face to every bedraggled, plain-faced, slightly lumpy Caitlyn-no-name as she walks past the newsstand pushing a stroller. And it’s certainly not as brave as seeing past the physical presence and our desire to shape it, primp it, tuck it. We can do re-creation, but God alone can do new creation.
Caitlyn Jenner said that when she appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair that she would finally be free. I sincerely hope so, but I doubt it. In a world of Adonis and Aphrodite, Abercrombie stalks us like a hungry predator, refusing ever to release us from a grip that only the new creation can.