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One Step Forward for Caitlyn Jenner, One Step Back for Womankind

Vanity Fair's cover shoot proves magazines can objectify trans women, too


Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world on Monday, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Vanity Fair, which will hit newsstands next Tuesday. The photo by Annie Leibovitz is definitely eye-grabbing: Jenner in a white bustier, her hair lustrous, her arms and legs defying you to believe she is 65 years old.

As expected, the media went berserk; Us Weekly called the picture “stunningly beautiful.” And celebrities tweeted their praise. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of "Modern Family," tweeted that it was Jenner who “has truly broken the internet,” reminding us of the phrase applied to stepdaughter Kim's photoshoot last year.

Rarely do magazine cover shoots get this kind of attention. In many ways the shoot is deserving of the accolades, primarily because it forces us to rethink our ideas of what is sexy. Vanity Fair is a prestigious, mainstream magazine, and having a transgender woman appear in a confident, provocative pose on the cover will hopefully inspire other transgender people to feel beautiful and comfortable with themselves. What's more, in an industry that almost exclusively features women under forty, to see Jenner at 65 looking so ravishing reminds us that sexiness is not defined by, or limited to, youth.

And Jenner has a right to own her moment on her terms. Her interview with Diane Sawyer was deservedly praised for all the things Sawyer and ABC did right, especially the way Sawyer didn't focus on the usual matters that have tripped up so many other interviewers: Jenner's sexual orientation, her body parts, whether or not she will have confirmation surgery. By steering away from any discussion about sex, Sawyer allowed us to see Jenner's struggle in a more human, universal way.

Which is why this cover shoot is disappointing so many people. Dana Beyer, the executive director of Gender Rights Maryland—a trans political organization which worked the state’s gender identity bill to passage in 2014—expressed her ambivalence to me in an email: “Jenner did a superb job in her interview with Diane Sawyer, as did Sawyer in presenting trans women in a very positive light. Jenner's humility and basic human decency and self-respect was evident throughout. And while many of us would love to be shot by Ms. Leibovitz, to have one's first public photo be a cover girl bustier shot, rather than a portrait of a professional and accomplished woman, may distort the reality of trans lives.”

As a media sensation, Jenner had many choices for how to reveal herself to us, so the fact that she chose a way that only reinforces how much our society objectifies women is a bit distressing. But for too long transgender folk have been discussed and defined solely in terms of sexuality. There's a sad irony if transgender women get to achieve “equality” only by subjecting themselves to the same all-reducing stereotypes that cisgendered women have been subjected to forever. 

Once again, leave it to the media to place the virtue of beauty above all other virtues. Of course Jenner is beautiful, but is it her physical beauty that we need to be emphasizing, rather than her courage to live her truth, or her strength to face the world and reveal her struggles to all of us? Vanity Fair will likely remind us that there's a lengthy article inside the magazine where they do just that. But it is the photo, and not the article, that is grabbing people's attention right now. Of course, Jenner is also promoting her new show on E!, chronicling her transition. But I think we expect more from her after the Sawyer interview. 

It is understandable why, after so many years of not living authentically, Jenner wants to feel beautiful and even share her sense of empowerment with the world. As trans actress Laverne Cox, who recently did a nude photo shoot for Allure, wrote Tuesday on her Tumblr, "Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities." But even Cox realizes that despite the “progress” in trans women appearing on major magazine covers, there is the danger of people not seeing beyond that: “I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues..."