Media Reactions to Caitlyn Jenner Reveal How Far We’ve Come — and How Far We Still Have to Go

Caitlyn Jenner’s arrival on the cover of Vanity Fair this week was a triumph for her personally, a culmination of a journey that the nation has watched, rapt. But to observers of the media climate, it was also a barometer that happily showed some measurable progress.

At the very least, there were very few rude celebrity outbursts. And for the most part, mainstream media outlets respected her wishes and used the right name and pronouns in articles and on social media. The outpouring of coverage wasn’t perfect, but looking back at Piers Morgan’s awful interview with Janet Mock and Katie Couric’s embarrassing questions to Laverne Cox, as well as transphobic tweets about Jenner when her transition was still just a rumor, it’s clear that the backlash against those incidents has had an impact. Activism online has forced media figures to look at their GLAAD handbooks and bigots to keep their mouths shut (for the most part). The exception, of course, is the Fox News and right-wing media crowd, a parade of biased buffoons who may never get the message.

Perhaps as a result of not having to spend the entire day swatting down troglodytes, or perhaps because of the overwhelming awe at Annie Leibovitz’s stunning shots of Jenner, yesterday was a chance for activists to do some real soul-searching in addition to back-patting. S.E. Smith reminded us that “trans people appear in the media for two reasons: because they’re celebrities, like Jenner, or because they’ve been murdered. The media doesn’t show us the often mundane, day-to-day lives of many transgender people. Their gender is part of a multifaceted identity, and it contributes to their experiences in significant ways, but it’s not the only thing that does.” Smith argued for more coverage of the daily lives of trans people. Transgender advocates echoed this by reminding people of the real structural hurdles most trans people face, far away from Caitlyn Jenner’s glamorous life:

A related and interesting thread of dialogue arose because of the aesthetic presentation of the Vanity Fair reveal. Laverne Cox’s Tumblr post on Caitlyn Jenner highlighted one of the major issues that trans activists have been discussing recently, which is beauty standards and “passing” as cis. Cox writes that “at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.” She goes on to talk about how prominent public trans people like herself and Jenner have many advantages that the average transgender individual doesn’t:

It is important to note that these standards are also informed by race, class and ability among other intersections. I have always been aware that I can never represent all trans people. No one or two or three trans people can. This is why we need diverse media representations of trans folks to multiply trans narratives in the media and depict our beautiful diversities. … Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people.”

While Cox’s point was thoughtful and nuanced, envisioning an acceptance of transgender individuals that encompassed everyone, conventional in their gender presentation or not, some pundits were quicker to complain about Vanity Fair‘s “objectification” of Jenner for the “male gaze.” Less obnoxiously, Jon Stewart used her transition to make a few pointed remarks about media sexism: “You see, Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen, but now you’re a woman, and your looks are really the only thing we care about.” It hit home — in the first trailer for her reality show “I Am Cait,” Jenner herself speaks about her new understanding of “the pressure women are under” surrounding their appearances. Yet in the age of Beyoncé and Jenner’s own stepdaughter Kim Kardashian, ultra feminine-presentation and incredible strength are hardly mutually exclusive.

It seems that activists (like Parker Molloy, a writer who has contributed to Flavorwire) are rightly fighting for a dignified, holistic vision that says Jenner has the right to be as glam and feminine as she wants, while also continuing to promote the acceptance of trans or genderqueer people who don’t look as conventionally femme as she does, while also arguing for the substantive worth of those who do look ultra-feminine.

Yet finding an easily understandable critique that can push back against reducing people to their looks without excluding any group based on how they present externally is one of the most tricky aspects of many gender-based struggles — whether feminist, queer, or trans. That’s because Americans may be growing more tolerant, but we’re still a very superficial lot. And it’s fascinating to see that superficiality being examined in light of this historical media moment. Of course, it makes sense in 2015: a Kardashian family member shall lead us into new conversational arenas.