How to talk about Bruce Jenner when we don't know the full story
You’ve probably heard the rumors and the reports circulating in the past year about Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and patriarch of the reality television-famous Kardashians. For the last few months, there have been splashy tabloid reports about Jenner’s possible transition from male to female, tracking his clothes and hair length and cosmetic surgery.
In the last couple weeks, the story has gone from gossip fodder to actual news, with the Associated Press interviewing Jenner’s mother about her child’s alleged transition (for the record, she is completely supportive: “It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing”) and a recent op-ed on his rumored transition in the New York Times. Jenner has made no public comments regarding his changing appearance, which is why this is tricky.
What’s interesting about Jenner’s case is that it lands at the intersection of the gossip industrial complex’s obsession with all things Kardashian and a growing awareness and sensitivity towards the transgender community. People are going to talk about Jenner no matter what he does. But the way that we talk about Jenner, and the way that we address an issue like gender identity when it comes to celebrities, is important. It’s important because it sets the tone for the way that the press, the entertainment industry, and ultimately, our culture more widely accepts and treats individuals.
Consider the offensive cover of In Touch which Photoshopped Jenner into women’s clothing and makeup. It was roundly criticized as transphobic, and rightly so. It fosters outdated, cruel stereotypes of trans individuals, and treats the transition process as something to gawk at, rather than respect. It’s particularly striking when contrasted to the Us Weekly cover, as Slate pointed out, which was a more respectful portrait of Jenner’s transition (“Bruce’s Brave Announcement”), though, of course, it still trafficked in outside sources and fed the well of speculation.
It’s not just an issue that gossip magazines are navigating. Jill Soloway, the director of the Amazon prime show Transparent, and someone who perhaps has had more experience dealing with the representation of trans people in the media than most, posted a photo on her Facebook feed Photoshopping Jenner and his family into the teaser shot for her show, labeling it Transdashian. After a clamor of people condemned the post, she apologized. “I made a mistake; it was horrible judgment. My complacency is checked and it won’t happen again.”
What we’re running up against here is that we have no idea what’s really happening with Jenner, and we won’t unless Jenner decides to issue an actual statement. Speculating about the personal lives of celebrities is practically a national pastime, and Jenner and his step-daughters are so much a part of the gossip and entertainment culture that it’s almost natural to engage in the game of what-are-they-really-up-to.
We can’t know the real story, just like we can’t know the real story of many celebrity’s lives. So we theorize and piece together information. The problem in this case, of course, is that it’s not really anyone’s place to label Jenner as anything he hasn’t explicitly communicated.
“The media knows it’s unethical to speculate about someone’s sexual orientation,” Nick Adams of GLAAD told the New York Times. “It’s also unethical to speculate about a person’s gender identity. Five years from now, I hope people will look back and be embarrassed by the circus-like atmosphere being created around the simple idea that someone might be transgender.”
Adams makes a strong point. The “circus-like” nature, the giddiness of the speculation reflects a lack of understanding and progress with respect to gender identity in general.
The only real solution here is through basic human empathy, compassion, and a distinct absence of assumptions. It is to treat Jenner with respect and allow him his own voice—rather than puppeteering on his behalf. It is not to make cheap jokes, and not accept other people making cheap jokes at the expense of trans individuals, as an offshoot of the gossip. It is to keep close to mind the community of transgender people who are being continually insulted by any attention-grabbing, transphobic headlines. The only way to talk about Jenner is to remember all the things that we don’t know, and to err on the side of kindness. It is always the right side to err on.
(Image via Marc Piasecki/GC Images/New York Times)